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A few days after the strange and
providential night spent with the repentant thieves, I received the following
letter signed by Chambers and his unfortunate criminal friends:
"Dear Father Chiniquy:We are condemned to death. Please come and help us to meet our sentence as Christians."
I will not attempt to say what I felt when I entered the damp and dark cells where the culprits were enchained. No human words can express those things. Their tears and their sobs were going through my heart as a two-edged sword. Only one of them had, at first, his eyes dried, and kept silent: Chambers, the most guilty of all.
After the others had requested me to hear the confession of their sins, and prepare them for death, Chambers said: "You know that I am a Protestant. But I am married to a Roman Catholic, who is your penitent. You have persuaded my two so dear sisters to give up their Protestantism and become Catholics. I have many times desired to follow them. My criminal life alone has prevented me from doing so. But now I am determined to do what I consider to be the will of God in this important matter. Please, tell me what I must do to become a Catholic."
I was a sincere Roman Catholic priest, believing that out of the Church of Rome there was no salvation. The conversion of that great sinner seemed to me a miracle of the grace of God; it was for me a happy distraction in the desolation I felt in that dungeon.
I spent the next eight days in hearing their confessions, reading the lives of some saints, with several chapters of the Bible, as the Seven Penitential Psalms, the sufferings and death of Christ, the history of the Prodigal Son, ect. And I instructed Chambers, as well as the shortness of the time allowed me, in the faith of the Church of Rome. I usually entered the cells at about 9 a.m., and left them only at 9 p.m.
After I had spent much time in exhorting them, reading and praying, several times, I asked them to tell me some of the details of the murders and thefts they had committed, which might be to me as a lesson of human depravity, which would help me when preaching on the natural corruption and malice of the human heart, when once the fear and the love, or even the faith in God, were completely set aside.
The facts I then heard very soon convinced me of the need we have of a religion, and what would become of the world if the atheists could succeed in sweeping away the notions of a future punishment after death, or the fear and the love of God from among men.
When absolutely left to his own depravity, without any religion to stop him on the rapid declivity of his uncontrollable passions, man is more cruel than the wild beasts. The existence of society would be impossible without a religion and a God to protect it.
Though I am in favour of liberty of conscience in its highest sense, I think that the atheist ought to be punished like the murderer and the thief for his doctrines tend to make a murderer and a thief of every man. No law, no society is possible if there is no God to sanction and protect them.
But the more we were approaching the fatal day, when I had to go on the scaffold with those unfortunate men, and to see them launched into eternity, the more I felt horrified. The tears, the sobs, and the cries of those unfortunate men had so melted my heart, my soul, and my strong nerves, they had so subdued my unconquerable will, and that stern determination to do my duty at any cost, which had been my character till then, that I was shaking from head to feet, when thinking of that awful hour.
Besides that, my constant intercourse with those criminals these last few days, their unbounded confidence in me, their gratitude for my devotedness to them, their desolation, and their cries when speaking of their fathers or mothers, wives or children, had filled my heart with a measure of sympathy which I would vainly try to express. They were no more thieves and murderers to me, whose bloody deeds had at first chilled the blood in my veins; they were the friends of my bosom the beloved children whom cruel beasts had wounded. They were dearer to me than my own life not only I felt happy to mix my tears with theirs, and unite my ardent prayers to God for mercy with them, but I would have felt happy to shed my blood in order to save their lives. As several of them belonged to the most reputable families of Quebec and vicinity, I thought I could easily interest the clergy and the most respectable citizens to sign a petition to the governor, Lord Gosford, asking him to change their sentence of death into one of perpetual exile to the distant penal colony of Botany Bay in Australia. The governor was my friend. Colonel Vassal, who was my uncle, and the adjutant-general of the militia of the whole country, had introduced me to his Excellency, who many times had overloaded me with the marks of his interest and kindness, and my hope was that he would not refuse me the favour I was to ask him, when the petition would be signed by the Bishop, the Catholic priests, the ministers of the different Protestant denominations of the city, and hundreds of the principal citizens of Quebec. I presented the petition myself, accompanied by the secretary of the Archbishop. But to my great distress the Governor answered me that those men had committed so many murders, and kept the country in terror for so many years, that it was absolutely necessary they should be punished according to the sentence of the court. Who can tell the desolation of those unfortunate men, when, with a voice choked by my sobs and my tears, I told them that the governor had refused to grant the favour I had asked him for them. They fell on the ground and filled their cells with cries which would have broken the hardest heart. From those very cells we were hearing the noise of the men who were preparing the scaffold where they were to be hanged the next day. I tried to pray and read, but I was unable to do so. My desolation was too great to utter a single word. I felt as if I were to be hanged with them and to say the whole truth, I think I would have been glad to hear that I was to be hanged the next day to save their lives. For there was a fear in me, which was haunting me as a phantom from hell, the last three days. It seemed that, in spite of all my efforts, prayers, confessions, absolutions, and sacraments, these men were not converted, and that they were to be launched into eternity with all their sins.
When I was comparing the calm and true repentance of the two thieves, with whom I spent the night a few weeks before in the carriage, with the noisy expressions of sorrow of those newly converted sinners, I could not help finding an immeasurable distance between the first and second of those penitents. No doubt had remained in my mind about the first, but I had serious apprehensions about the last. Several circumstances, which it would be too long and useless to mention here, were distressing me by the fear that all my chaplets, indulgences, medals, scapulars, holy waters, signs of the cross, prayers to the Virgin, auricular confession, absolutions, used in the conversion of these sinners, had not the divine and perfect power of a simple book to the dying Saviour on the cross. I was saying to myself with anxiety: "Would it be possible that those Protestants, who were with me in the carriage, had the true ways of repentance, pardon, peace, and life eternal in that simple look to the great victim, and that we Roman Catholics with our signs of the cross and holy waters, our crucifixes and prayers to the saints, our scapulars and medals, our so humiliating auricular confession, were only distracting the mind, the soul, and the heart of the sinner from the true and only source of salvation, Christ!" In the midst of those distressing thoughts I almost regretting having helped Chambers in giving up his Protestantism for my Romanism.
At about 4 p.m. I made a supreme effort to shake off my desolation, and nerve myself for the solemn duties God had entrusted to me. I put a few questions to those desolated men, to see if they were really repentant and converted. Their answers added to my fear that I had spoken too much of the virgins and the saints, the indulgences, medals and scapulars, integrity of confession, and not enough of Christ dying on the cross for them. It is true I had spoken of Christ and His death to them, but this had been so much mixed up with exhortation to trust in Mary, put their confidence in their medals, scapulars, confessions, ect., that it became almost evident to me that in our religion Christ was like a precious pearl lost in a mountain of sand and dust. This fear soon caused my distress to be unbearable.
I then went to the private, neat little room, which the gaoler had kindly allotted to me, and I fell on my knees to pray God for myself and for my poor convicts. Though this prayer brought some calm to my mind, my distress was still very great. It was then that the thought came again to my mind to go the governor and make a new and supreme effort to have the sentence of death changed into that of perpetual exile to Botany Bay, and without a moment of delay I went to his palace.
It was about 7 p.m. when he reluctantly admitted me to his presence, telling me, when shaking hands, "I hope, Mr. Chiniquy, you are not coming to renew your request of the morning, for I cannot grant it."
Without a word to answer I fell on my knees, and for more than ten minutes I spoke as I had never spoken before. I spoke as we speak when we are the ambassadors of God in a message of mercy. I spoke with my lips. I spoke with my tears. I spoke with my sobs and my cries. I spoke with my supplicating hands lifted to heaven. For some time the governor was mute and as if stunned. He was not only a noble-minded man, but he had a most tender, affectionate, and kind heart. His tears soon began to flow with mine, and his sobs mixed with my sobs; with a voice halfsuffocated by his emotion, he extended his friendly hand and said:
"Father Chiniquy, you ask me a favour which I ought not to give, but I cannot resist your arguments, when your tears, your sobs, and your cries are like arrows which pierce and break my heart. I will give you the favour you ask."
It was nearly 10 p.m. when I knocked at the door of the gaoler, asking his permission to see my dear friends in their cells, to tell them that I had obtained their pardon, that they would not die. That gentleman could hardly believe me. It was only after reading twice the document I had in my hands that he saw that I told him the truth.
Looking at that parchment again, he said: "Have you noticed that it is covered and almost spoiled by the spots evidently made with the tears of the governor. You must be a kind of sorcerer to have melted the heart of such a man, and have wrenched from his hands the pardon of such convicts; for I know he was absolutely unwilling to grant the pardon."
"I am not a sorcerer," I answered. "But you remember that our Saviour Jesus Christ had said, somewhere, that He had brought a fire from heaven well, it is evident that He has thrown some sparks of that fire into my poor heart, for it was so fiercely burning when I was at the feet of the governor, that I think I would have died at his feet, had he not granted me that favour. No doubt that some sparks of that fire have also fallen on his soul and in his heart when I was speaking, for his cries, his tears, and his sobs were filling his room, and showing that he was suffering as much as myself. It was that he might not be consumed by that fire that he granted my request. I am now the most happy man under heaven. Please, make haste. Come with me and open the cells of those unfortunate men that I may tell what our merciful God has done for them." When entering their desolated cells I was unable to contain myself; I cried out: "Rejoice and bless the Lord, my dear friends! You will not die to-morrow!I bring you your pardon with me!"
Two of them fainted, and came very near dying from excess of surprise and joy. The others, unable to contain their emotions, were crying and weeping for joy. They threw their arms around me to press me to their bosom, kiss my hands and cover them with their tears of joy. I knelt with them and thanked God, after which I told them how they must promise to God to serve Him faithfully after such a manifestation of His mercies. I read to them the 100th, 101st, 102nd, and 103rd Psalms, and I left them after twelve o'clock at night to go and take some rest. I was in need of it after a whole day of such work and emotions.
The next day I wanted to see my dear prisoners early, and I was with them before 7 a. m. As the whole country had been glad to hear that they were to be hanged that very day, the crowds were beginning to gather at that early hour to witness the death of those great culprits. The feelings of indignation were almost unmanageable when they heard that they were not to be hanged, but only to be exiled for their life to Botany Bay. For a time it was feared that the mob would break the doors of the gaol and lynch the culprits. Though very few priests were more respected and loved by the people, they would have probably torn me to pieces when they heard that it was I who had deprived the gibbet of its victims that day. The chief of police had to take extraordinary measures to prevent the wrath of the mob from doing mischief. He advised me not to show myself for a few days in the streets.
More than a month passed before all the thieves and murderers in Canada, to the number of about seventy, who had been sentenced to be exiled to Botany Bay, could be gathered into the ship which was to take them into that distant land. I thought it was my duty during that interval to visit my penitents in gaol every day, and instruct them on the duties of the new life they were called upon to live. When the day of their departure arrived I gave a Roman Catholic New Testament, translated by De Sacy, to each of them to read and meditate on their long and tedious journey, and I bade them adieu, recommending them to the mercy of God, and the protection of the Virgin Mary and all the Saints. Some months later I heard, that on the sea Chambers had broken his chains and those of some of his companions, with the intention of taking possession of the ship, and escaping on some distant shore. But he had been betrayed, and was hanged on his arrival at Liverpool.
I had almost lost sight of those emotional days of my young years of priesthood. Those facts were silently lying among the big piles of the daily records which I had faithfully kept since the very days of my collegiate life at Nicolet, when, in 1878, I was called by the grand English colony of Australia, formerly known by me only as the penal colony of Botany Bay.
Some time after my arrival, when I was lecturing in one of the young and thriving cities of that country, whose future destinies promise to be so great, a rich carross, drawn by two splendid English horses, with two men in livery, stopped before the house where I had put up for a few days. A venerable gentleman alighted from the carriage and knocked at the door as I was looking at him from the window. I went to the door, to save trouble to my host, and I opened it. In saluting me, the stranger said: "Is Father Chiniquy here?"
"Yes, sir," I answered. "Father Chiniquy is the guest of this family."
"Could I have the honour of a few minutes' conversation with him?" replied the old gentleman.
"As I am Father Chiniquy, I can at once answer you that I will feel much pleasure in granting your request."
"Oh, dear Father Chiniquy," quickly replied the stranger, "is it possible that it is you? Can I be absolutely alone with you for half an hour, without any one to see and hear us?"
"Certainly," I said; "my comfortable rooms are upstairs, and I am absolutely alone there.Please, sir, come and follow me."
When alone with me the stranger said:
"Do you not know me?"
"How can I know you, sir?" I answered. "I do not even remember ever having seen you?"
"You have not only seen me, but you have heard the confession of my sins many times; and you have spent many hours in the same room with me," replied the old gentleman.
"Please tell me where and when I have seen you, and also be kind enough to give me your name; for all those things have escaped from my memory."
"Do you remember the murderer and thief, Chambers, who was condemned to death in Quebec, in 1837, with eight of his accomplices?" asked the stranger.
"Yes, sir; I remember well Chambers and the unfortunate men he was leading in the ways of iniquity," I replied.
"Well, dear Father Chiniquy, I am one of the criminals who filled Canada with terror for several years, and who were caught and rightly condemned to death. When condemned, we selected you for our father confessor, with the hope that through your influence we might escape the gallows; and we were not disappointed. You obtained our pardon; the sentence of death was commuted into a life of exile to Botany Bay. My name in Canada was A , but here they call me B .God has blessed me since in many ways; but it is to you I owe my life, and all the privileges of my present existence. After God, you are my saviour. I come to thank and bless you for what you have done for me."
In saying that, he threw himself into my arms, pressed me to his heart, and bathed my face and my hands with his tears of joy and gratitude.
But his joy did not exceed mine, and my surprise was equal to my joy to find him apparently in such good circumstances. After I had knelt with him to thank and bless God for what I had heard, I asked him to relate to me the details of his strange and marvelous story. Here is a short resume of his answer:
"After you had given us your last benediction when on board the ship which was to take us from Quebec to Botany Bay, the first thing I did was to open the New Testament you had given me and the other culprits, with the advice to read it with a praying heart. It was the first time in my life I had that book in my hand. You were the only priest in Canada who would put such a book in the hands of common people. But I must confess that its first reading did not do me much good, for I read it more to amuse myself and satisfy my curiosity than through any good and Christian motive. The only good I received from that first reading was that I clearly understood, for the first time, why the priests of Rome fear and hate that book, and why they take it out of the hands of their parishioners when they hear that they have it. It was in vain that I looked for mass, indulgences, chaplets, purgatory, auricular confession, Lent, holy water, the worship of Mary, or prayers in an unknown tongue. I concluded from my first reading of the Gospel that our priests were very wise to prevent us from reading a book which was really demolishing our Roman Catholic Church, and felt surprised that you had put in our hands a book which seemed to me so opposed to the belief and practice of our religion as you taught it to us when in gaol, and my confidence in your good judgment was much shaken. To tell you the truth, the first reading of the Gospel went far to demolish my Roman Catholic faith, and to make a wreck of the religion taught me by my parents and at the college, and even by you. For a few weeks I became more of a skeptic than anything else. The only good that first reading of the Holy Book did me was to give me more serious thoughts, and prevent me from uniting myself to Chambers and his conspirators in their foolish plot for taking possession of the ship and escaping to some unknown and distant shore. He had been shrewd enough to conceal a very small but exceedingly sharp saw between his toes before coming to the ship, with which he had already cut the chains of eighteen of the prisoners, when he was betrayed, and hanged on his arrival at Liverpool.
"But if my first reading of the Gospel did not do me much good, I cannot say the same thing of the second. I remember that, when handing to us that holy book, you had told us never to read it except after a fervent prayer to God for help and light to understand it. I was really tired of my former life. In giving up the fear and the love of God I had fallen into the deepest abyss of human depravity and misery, till I had come very near ending my life on the scaffold. I felt the need of a change. You had often repeated to us the words of our Saviour, 'Come unto Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest;' but, with all the other priests, you had always mixed those admirable and saving words with the invocation to Mary, the confidence in our medals, scapulars, signs of the cross, holy waters, indulgences, auricular confessions, that the sublime appeal of Christ had always been, as it always will be, drowned in the Church of Rome by those absurd and impious superstitions and practices.
"One morning, after I had spent a sleepless night, and feeling as pressed down under the weight of my sins, I opened my Gospel book, after an ardent prayer for light and guidance, and my eyes fell on these words of John, 'Behold, the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!' (John i. 29). These words fell upon my poor guilty soul with a divine, irresistible power. With tears and cries of an unspeakable desolation I spent the day in crying, 'O Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, have mercy on me! Take away my sins!' The day was not over when I felt and knew that my cries had been heard at the mercyseat. The Lamb of God had taken away my sins! He had changed my heart and made quite a new man of me. From that day the reading of the Gospel was to my soul what bread is to the poor hungry man, and what pure and refreshing waters are to the thirsty traveler. My joy, my unspeakable joy, was to read the holy book and speak with my companions in chains of the dear Saviour's love for the poor sinners; and, thanks be to God, a good number of them have found Him altogether precious, having been sincerely converted in the dark holes of that ship. When working hard at Sydney with the other culprits, I felt my chains to be as light as feathers when I was sure that the heavy chains of my sins were gone; and though working hard under a burning sun from morning till night, I felt happy, and my heart was full of joy when I was sure that my Saviour had prepared a throne for me in His kingdom, and that He had bought a crown of eternal glory for me by dying on the cross to redeem my guilty soul.
"I had hardly spent a year in Australia, in the midst of the convicts, when a minister of the Gospel, accompanied by another gentleman, came to me and said: 'Your perfectly good behavoiur and your Christian life have attracted the attention and admiration of the authorities, and the governor sends us to hand you this document, which says that you are no more a criminal before the law, but that you have your pardon, and you can live the life of an honourable citizen, by continuing to walk in the ways of God.' After speaking so, the gentleman put one hundred dollars in my hands, and added: 'Go and be a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus, and God Almighty will bless you and make you prosper in all your ways.' All this seemed to me as a dream or vision from heaven. I would hardly believe my ears or my eyes. But it was not a dream, it was a reality. My merciful Heavenly Father had again heard my humble supplications; after having taken away the heavy chains of my sins, He had mercifully taken away the chains which wounded my feet and my hands. I spent several days and nights in weeping and crying for joy, and in blessing the God of my salvation, Jesus the Redeemer of my soul and my body.
"Some years after that we heard of the discoveries of the rich gold mines in several parts of Australia. "After having prayed God to guide me, I bought a bag of hard crackers, a ham and cheese, and started for the mines in company with several who were going, like myself, in search of gold. But I soon preferred to be alone. For I wanted to pray and to be united to my God, even when walking. After a long march, I reached a beautiful spot, between three small hills, at the foot of which a little brook was running down towards the plain below. The sun was scorching, there was no shade, and I was much tired, I sat on a flat stone to take my dinner, and quenching my thirst with the water of the brook, I was eating and blessing my God at the same time for His mercies, when suddenly my eyes fell on a stone by the brook, which was about the size of a goose egg. But the rays of the sun was dancing on the stone, as if it had been a mirror. I went and picked it up. The stone was almost all gold of the purest kind! It was almost enough to make me rich. I knelt to thank and bless God for this new token of His mercy toward me, and I began to look around and see if I would not find some new piece of the precious metal, and you may imagine my joy when I found that the ground was not only literally covered with pieces of gold of every size from half an inch to the smallest dimensions, but that the very sand was in great part composed of gold. In a very short time it was the will of God that I could carry to the bank particles of gold to the value of several thousand pounds. I continued to cover myself with rags, and have old boots on in order not to excite the suspicion of any one of the fortune which I was accumulating so rapidly. When I had about $80,000 deposited in the banks, a gentleman offered me $80,000 more for my claim, and I sold it. The money was invested by me on a piece of land which soon became the site of an important city, and I soon became one of the wealthy men of Australia. I then begun to study hard and improve the little education I had received in Canada. I married, and my God has made me father of several children. The people where I settled with my fortune and wife, not knowing my antecedents, have raised me to the first dignities of the place. Please, dear Mr. Chiniquy, come and take dinner with me to-morrow, that I may show you my house and some of my other properties, and also that I may introduce you to my wife and children. Let me ask the favour not to make them suspect that you have known me in Canada, for they think that I am an European." When telling me his marvelous adventures, which I am obliged to condense and abridge, his voice was many times choked by his emotion, his tears and sobs, and more than once he had to stop. As for me, I was absolutely beside myself with admiration at the mysterious ways through which God leads His elect in all ages. "Now, I understood why my God had given me such a marvelous power over the Governor of Canada when I wrenched your pardon from his hands almost in spite of himself." I said: "That merciful God willed to save you, and you are saved! May His name be for ever blessed."
The next day, it was my privilege to be with his family, at dinner. And never in my life, have I seen a more happy mother, and a more interesting family. The long table was actually surrounded by them. After dinner he showed me his beautiful garden and his rich palace, after which, throwing himself into my arms, he said: "Dear Father Chiniquy, all those things belong to you. It is to you after God that I owe my wife, all the blessings of a large and Christian family, and the honour of the high position I have in this country. May the God of heaven for ever bless you for what you have done for me." I answered him: "Dear friend, you owe me nothing, I have been nothing but a feeble instrument of the mercies of God towards you. To that great merciful God alone be the praise and the glory. Please ask your family to come here and join with us in singing to the praise of God the 103rd Psalm." And we sang together: "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; not rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath Here moved our transgressions from us. Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him." After the singing of that Psalm, I bade him adieu for the second time, never to meet him again except in that Promised Land, where we shall sing the eternal Hallelujah around the throne of the Lamb, who was slain for us, and who redeemed us in His blood.