“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”
Monday morning, 31 January 1916
Adán St. Cyprien was born on Eden Isle in St. Tammany Parish, along the northeastern cypress-swamps of Lake Pontchartrain, in 1916. His indigent French-Creole family dwelt in a humble pine-hewn cabin. His father, Tomás, had been taken by his own father to the region to “escape New Orleans and its evil ways that rivaled Sodom and Gomorrah.” Tomás himself was a strict but fair father, who taught his children how to survive by trapping turtles, fishing for sturgeon and paddlefish, and diving for clams. They traded what little excess they had for those few items they could not obtain or make from the land and lake. One of those items was medicine. When Adán and his eldest brother, Timothée, became sick with the ‘yellow jack’, Tomás swallowed his pride to beg for aid from the nuns of the local isle’s church, Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and School. They graciously gave the family a package of paracetamol and their prayers. Tomás gladly accepted the former, and in time, both of his sons recovered.
In repayment, or tithe of gratitude, Adán volunteered every tenth day of his time at the church. There, the boy served the Ursuline nuns, performing menial chores such as weeding the church grounds and scrubbing its tomb markers. During these tasks, the young boy often lingered nearby rooms and windows, eavesdropping on ecclesiastical and secular lessons. Noting this, one of the nuns, Sister Jolicoeur, kindly taught him his letters and catechisms, and was surprised at how readily he learned both. After a few more private lessons, with equally surprising results–such as Adán memorizing the entire Epistle of James after only a few readings–Sister Jolicoeur convinced the local priest, Father Maggard, who in turn convinced Adán’s parents to allow him to attend the Catholic school, courtesy of a scholarship.
Despite Adán’s thirst for knowledge and intellectual aptitude, the young boy initially had trouble integrating with his new life, as he was not used to the highly structured setting and rules, much less sitting in a chair. The astute youth was also keenly aware that his clothes, dialect, and prior education (or relative lack thereof) marked him as a poor bayou-born Creole. In contrast, his ‘peers’ were relatively wealthy, white, and well-educated students whose parents paid for their children’s parochial tuition and boarding fees. Those tensions only intensified as Adán quickly caught up to, and then surpassed his peers in both scriptural and secular knowledge. Moreover, Adán’s curiosity and rough politesse meant he occasionally drew the ire of his teachers when he asked piercing, but highly unorthodox questions.
However, Adán’s studies almost came to a premature end when his elder brother, Timothée, once again caught yellow fever, and then seemed to pass it to Adán’s sisters and mother. Desperate for a cure, the family sold their only item of significant value: an heirloom liturgical relic that was a 14th-century Medici porcelain figure reportedly commissioned by Cardinal Ferdinando de’Medici, and later possessed by his 15th-century descendant, Pope Leo XI, and his close friend, St. Philip Neri. Despite this esteemed historicity, the porcelain figure sold for a meager 30 dollars.
Yet, the money still allowed Tomás to transport his family–all save Adán–to Abita Springs. There, he hoped the famed artesian waters would cure his sick son, daughters, and wife. Upon hearing of the desperate journey, Adán had wanted to accompany his family, but his father demurred, nominally citing the importance of his religious study, but in truth fearing that Adán would at best be another mouth to feed and shelter, or worst, also become ill.
Left behind and overcome with worry for his family members, Adán struggled to reengage with his studies. At the same time, his scriptural learning and questions were no longer driven by idle curiosity, but had became painfully personal. Namely, he wondered why there must there be sickness and death, and why did the priests no longer seem to possess the miraculous healing powers of biblical prophets and apostles? Once again, the Epistle of James–and specifically the fifth verse of its first Part–guided his path. Namely, from the Vulgar Clementina, he read and readily recalled its translation:
Si quis autem vestrum indiget sapientia, postulet a Deo, qui dat omnibus affluenter, et non improperat: et dabitur ei.
(“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.”)
So inspired, Adán left the church grounds to privately pray for understanding and wisdom. He traveled deep into the swamps, far from any other human soul.
There, he shed his clothes as if in reverse imitation of the antediluvian Adam. The young boy then knelt and prayed with all his fervor. Night fell, and he heard predatory, hungry things stalking the woods, but he did not relent. Instead, he further poured out his soul, his pleading words like a never-ceasing stream of incense up to heaven.
Then, just as he felt a claw-like hand on his neck, the cypress tree in front of him became engulfed in flames. The claw and any other predators instantly retreated. Adán opened his eyes and beheld the burning cypress. In its bowers, twelve seraphic pelicans nested, their pure-white plumage gleaming like lightning. In the roaring flames, Adán heard the voice of God–or what he presumed to be God. The voice called him by name, then told him that his brother, sisters, and mother were all dead. Adán could not help but weep. But the voice comforted him, explaining that their souls were in heaven, where they were free from sickness and all other mortal pains.
As if sensing Adán’s questions, the voice continued, expounding on the purpose of sickness, disease, and death, explaining that death ultimately is a divine gift, a doorway through which all save the most damned souls can cross freely. Many other things did the voice share with the young boy, but it ended by foretelling that Adán’s father would return from his sojourn on the morrow and attempt to take Adán away from his studies. The voice warned Adán that he must not let this happen, for he was being called to serve God’s will in other ways.
Elated, yet humbled, Adán asked what he should do to prevent his father and the nuns from ending his studies. In reply, one of the angelic pelicans flew down from the burning tree. Sensing some unvoiced command, Adán offered a palm to the seraphic bird. In response, the pelican opened its mouth, regurgitating a burning fish hook that punctured Adán’s hand. The boy felt it immediately–not just the pain of the partial stigmata, but also power.
The next morning, true to the voice’s prophecy, Adán’s father returned from Abita Springs, informing Father Maggard that Adán’s brother, sisters, and mother had all perished from the yellow fever. Tomás also announced that he had come to reclaim his sole living child, as he would need his help to maintain their cabin homestead. Although Sister Jolicoeur tried to explain the boy’s scholarly aptitude and promise, Tomás was adamant–and also seemed in no mood for further discussion, as he seemed not only heartbroken and exhausted, but also ill and jaundiced. Reluctantly, Sister Jolicoeur retrieved Adán. The boy both comforted and disquieted her with assurances that he already knew what had happened–and must happen. Seeing his father, Adán calmly related that he must remain behind and complete his studies “as God wills it.” Irate at the boy’s seemingly sanctimonious defiance, Tomás harshly recited the fifth commandment:
“Honor thy father and thy mother!”
Adán countered calmly by reciting Luke 14:26:
“If any man come to me, and forsake not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
Nigh-apoplexic with fury, Tomás attempted to drag his son forcibly back to their cabin homestead. Yet, just as he grabbed the boy, Tomás’ fever overcame him. He violently collapsed, blood leaking from his nose. Spasms overtook his body, and he began to violently wretch black vomit. Recognizing the fatal, if surprisingly sudden, symptoms of yellow fever, Father Maggard and the gathered nuns hesitated, unsure what they should or could do. Adán, however, calmly approached his father and unwrapped his bandaged hand to reveal his pierced palm. Anointing his father with the stigmatic blood, Adán called upon God to restore not only the dying man’s body, but also his faith. At the benediction’s conclusion, Tomás was miraculously hale.
As Tomás regained his health and speech, he slowly rose, then turned to Father Maggard. He proclaimed that Adán should stay and complete his training, glancing to his son, as he added, “As God wills it.” Tomás then left without another word, leaving the shocked priest and nuns with their strange ward.
Adán never saw his father again–at least not in life–as Tomás and their homestead were reportedly washed away by hurricane storm-surges on June 16th, 1934. In the same year, Adán completed his minor seminary at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and School. True to his teacher’s predictions, he had become an exemplary scriptorian and religious scholar. His other ‘gifts’ had been rarely displayed, and never again in such a dramatic manner. Notwithstanding, his tutors had great aspirations for him, and none ever questioned whether Adán would continue his path to becoming an ordained presbyteratus.
At the same time, neither Adán nor the others at Our Lady of Lourdes ever really answered how the poor, orphaned teen could afford college, much less a graduate-level seminary. For all his ecclesiastical and scholarly education, he had no significantly marketable skills and even less money. Moreover, the state and country were in the nadir of the Great Depression. Jobs were few and far between, even for those with employable skills and vocational experience. Yet, true to the motto of the seminary whose admission he sought, Adán believed that Deus providebit: ‘God will provide.’
And He did.
Yet, as is common with providence, divine aid came only after a trial of faith. The need for work drove Adán back to the ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ from which his grandfather had fled. News had trickled to Eden Isle that workers were needed to help excavate the swampland south of the Gentilly Ridge and north of Bayou Bienvenue for the rerouted Intracoastal Waterway. With naught a penny to his name, Adán departed his beloved tutors and long-time home at Our Lady of Lourdes. Reaching Lake Pontchartrain’s shores, he contemplated whether he should walk the NO&NE railway line or the equally hazardous I-10 Twin Span Bridge that connected St. Tammany Parish with New Orleans. As he contemplated his path and tried to ignore the growing hunger in his belly, the recently ordained lector paused to pray. A local fisherman happened upon the praying would be priest, and teasingly asked:
“I don’t reckon da Almighty has any recommendations on bait, eh?”
Still kneeling with eyes closed, Adán replied, “I can ask the Lord if you wish–though you may do the same, as God’s grace allows all men to petition His throne through Christ’s intercession.”
“Well,” the redbone, heavily bearded fisherman said with a feigned chuckle, “I haint sure I done understood all dem fancy four-dollar words, but me and da Lord aren’t exactly on speakin’ terms dese days.”
That confession gave Adán pause, leading him to shift the petition of his prayer, silently asking aid to rekindle the man’s faith–‘as God willed it.’ What next ensued was a lengthy talk between the lector and fisherman. The former introduced himself, sharing tales of his upbringing in the cypress swamps and church, as well as his present mission of seeking employ in New Orleans to pay for college, pursuant to serving as a Catholic priest. The latter in turn introduced himself as Pierre Jeansonne, who like his father and brother, Andre, worked a fishing trawler on Lake Pontchartrain. Pierre related how the fishing had been poor as of late, with money being particularly sore. His mother-in-law needed a surgical operation, but was on her deathbed as the family could not pay for the necessary but expensive anesthetics the city surgeons required. Sympathetic to the man’s plight, Adán inquired if Pierre’s mother-in-law had received a priestly anointing. Pierre scoffed, saying he and his kin had long ago lost faith in a “Church dat seemed only good at takin’ coin, or a God dat seemed fine wit watchin’ his world go to da shitter.” Those confessions in turn led to a longer series of theological conversations that stretched to sunset, with both men sharing their soul’s deepest questions about the divine, even as Adán tried to stoke the last embers of Pierre’s faith.
By the end, Pierre seemed almost ready to take up again his abandoned faith, but he faltered as he looked at his empty fishing pole. Rising, he bid the would-be priest good fortunes, and half-heartedly asked the lector to say another prayer that his wife would forgive him for spending the entire evening talking to a stranger versus catching dinner for his family. Adán, however, halted the man, saying there was no need to ask for his wife’s forgiveness, as “God had an answer to his first petition.” Perplexed by the lector’s remark, Pierre paused to watch as Adán plucked a blade of St. Augustine grass, tied it in the liturgical outline of a fish, and then dipped the object in what looked to be a deep puncture wound in the lector’s palm. Adán then passed the anointed ‘bait’ to the fisherman, bidding Pierre to cast his line into the lake for him to catch “as God wills it.” The experienced fisherman wanted to scoff at the bait, but there was something in the lector’s gaze that halted his tongue, if not doubts.
Thus, Pierre attached the ‘bait’ to his hook and cast his line. Immediately, he caught something–something large. It took all of both men’s strength, and the help of several passersby, to pull in the catch: a giant 12-foot gulf sturgeon.
Uncannily, the line never snapped. Yet, the greatest part of the miracle was revealed when Pierre went to retrieve his hook and “lucky” bait, as the man spotted something else inside the fish’s mouth. It was a rusted money box, and inside was a collection of 18th century Spanish doubloons.
The antique gold was more money than either man had ever seen, and would more than cover Pierre’s familial surgical fees. Pierre broke down in tears, thanking Adán and praising God.
Demanding the “holy man” accompany him to his house, Pierre introduced the lector to his family and related the miraculous events. They shared a joyous meal, during which Pierre promised to not only ferry Adán to New Orleans, but also to use whatever remained of the doubloons’ post-surgery proceeds to pay for Adán’s college education. Adán accepted the man’s offer with a humble bow, proclaiming,
“As God wills it.”