“Love for another is never a sin, so long as it does not diminish our love for God.”
Adán St. Cypren
Monday afternoon, 24 April 1944
During the second week of Paschaltide, the newly ordained priest was serving in Immaculate’s confessional when he heard a familiar voice. Ava’s words pierced his heart like Longinus’ lance:
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been one day since my last confession.”
There was a long pause in the confessional, as both man and woman, priest and petitioner were holding their breaths. Eventually, Adán broke the silence, reciting the Gospel of John:
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
As if compelled by that promise, Ava spoke:
“Father, forgive me, for I know not which sin to confess first.”
“Completeness of confession is paramount, but you may begin with the most grievous mortal sins, proceeding to the least venial ones.”
“But that is the problem, Father, for I do not know which is more grievous in God’s eyes: my love or my hate.”
Adán once more hesitated, as his words seemed to stick in his throat:
“Love of God and one’s fellow man constitute the two great commandments. Hate is antithetical to God’s love.”
“Well then, Father, which is worse: hate for one’s own brother or a priest of the Church?”
There was another pause.
“It depends on how and why we harbor the hatred and how we may have acted upon it,” the priest answered, his analytical mind nearly dissociating from the awakened sea of emotions inside his chest.
As if reconciling her own mind and heart, Ava was silent for some time before she spoke again. When she did, her ‘confession’ was painfully personal for both priest and petitioner.
Ava related how she had, shortly after their Twelfth Night discussion, pressured Saul to fulfill his vow to help ‘Marie.’ Their discussion had become quite heated, with each of them saying things that she regretted–and thought Saul would too. Instead, he became harsh and cruel. He had accused her of “untoward desires” towards Adán. Although he claimed he was only concerned for her “safety and health”, he had all but posted guards to make sure she didn’t “sneak off into the night like a crippled bitch in heat.”
Ava’s hurt, confusion, and growing anger had only compounded when she had written to Adán, seeking comfort and guidance, but had received uncharacteristic silence. At first, she had accused her brother and the family servants of circumventing her mail, but Saul had just laughed at another of her “imaginative delusions.” Worried that her brother or his Mafia ‘friends’ might have hurt Adán or worse, she had tried to ‘escape’ her home to check on him, but had been repeatedly thwarted by the Freneau servants loyal to Saul. Eventually, she had convinced one of her sympathetic maids to look in on the then-deacon. When the maid returned, she had reported that Adán was not at home, nor had any of his Iberville neighbors seen him in days. Ava’s fears and accusations against her brother reached a fever pitch.
In one act of desperation, she had gotten hold of their father’s revolver and threatened to shoot her brother if he didn’t tell her what he’d done to Adán. She had been bluffing, as the gun was unloaded, but she was unprepared for Saul’s frank confession of how he hadn’t done anything to Adán, save for their ‘deal.’ That her brother extorted Adán into such a bargain galled her bitterly–but her sorrow and confusion were greater at Adán’s betrayal for agreeing to the ‘deal.’ Throwing the gun into a fireplace, she had broken down into tears and once again accused her brother of lying.
Later, Saul had taken great pleasure in making sure she had watched as Adán left the mansion with the dossier. In that moment, she knew that for all her brother’s cruelty and pettiness, that he had told the truth–precisely because it was more painful. In the weeks that followed, she had fallen into a dark depression.
Even when Saul had entered her room to gloat that, per Thaddeus’ report, Adán had become “quite the bosom companion of the long-sought whore”, Ava had made no visible response. Inside, the news felt like a dagger slipped between her ribs, but externally she had become all but catatonic. She had refused to eat, not out of any active spite but due an emotional numbness more paralytic than polio.
Eventually, even Saul had become gravely concerned for her well-being, and had called a doctor. The physician had confirmed her good physical health, apart from her pre-existing palsy and recent malnourishment, but diagnosed her as having “clinical ennui” due to a lack of “reinforcing occupation or stimulating avocations.” When the physician had asked Saul if his sister had any pre-morbid hobbies, the Freneau patriarch had snorted derisively but said, “Church.” In reply, the doctor had remarked that, regardless of the man’s concern for Ava’s afterlife, he should allow her to resume her “Church hobbies” if he cared to save her mortal life.
Begrudgingly, Saul had allowed his sister to attend local parish services at St. Patrick’s. As Lent transitioned to Holy Week, so too had Ava’s spirits seemed to lift. Yet, as the catatonic depression dissipated, her shame and guilt at her actions, thoughts, and feelings had reawakened. Further introspection and counsel with St. Patrick’s clergy had provided her a measure of comfort, but also self-condemnation. Eager for forgiveness and greater clarity, she had convinced her house staff to help her attend another Sacrament of Penance at Immaculate. There, she hoped to confess her ‘sins’ to a man she felt she had wronged–and from whom she felt wronged.
Monday afternoon, 24 April 1944
“So you see, Father, " Ava finished, "I have sinned by hating two men I had loved.”
“Had?” the priest dared to ask, conflicted as to his question’s motive–and hoped-for answer.
As if sensing that conflict, she reached a hand towards the confessional screen, only to withdraw it:
“I suppose I still do love my brother, even after all he has done to me. I am trying to, at least. After all, how can I expect to accept God’s love, despite how I have slighted him, if I do not in turn strive to love those who have slighted me.”
Adán’s voice was genuinely happy as he replied:
“As Paul taught to the Ephesians, we are to be ‘kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ, God forgave you.’ The Lord does not teach us that this injunction applies only to those who ask for forgiveness.”
“And what of the priest?” Adán asked, his heart skipping a beat.
“What do you mean, Father?”
“Do you still love him?”
“That depends, Father.”
“On whether it was a sin to love him in the first place.”
Adán wrestled with the question with the same fervor of Jacob against the angel, before reciting the Gospel of John:
“’God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.’ Thus, love for another is never a sin, so long as it does not diminish our love for God, for that is the first and great commandment.”
“Well then, Father, I suppose I do not need to confess whether or not I still love him, for either answer would not be a confession of sin.”
At her ‘answer,’ Adán felt a certain tightness in his chest, even as he had to smile at her logic. He then pronounced her necessary Acts of Contrition for her venial sins of animosity, before completing the Sacrament of Penance:
“God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. And I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Performing the Sign of the Cross, he dismissed with a final benediction of, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
“Thanks be to God,” she replied as the rite dictated.
He contemplated leaving the confessional to see her depart, but he ultimately chose to remain inside his booth, listening as one of Ava’s servants lifted her from her booth and returned her to her wheelchair. Long after she left and he performed the day’s last Sacrament of Penance, Adán pondered their conversation. He contemplated whether he should speak with his parish superior or dean about his confessional “conflict of interest”; however, he did not know how to do so without effectively breaking the sacred Confessional Seal. Ultimately, he rationalized that the exceptional circumstance was a one-time event.
Over the next year, Ava periodically visited Immaculate while Adán was officiating its confessional. Each time, her ‘confessions’ seemed sincere, though venial. They included minor disagreements with house staff and struggles to forgive her brother for some new slight or unrepentant sin. Yet, threaded through these mild, if penitent confessions were questions about how she might better serve God’s will.
Over time, these questions became focused on whether she could, or should become a nun–and inquiries as to whether her physical disability prevented her from joining certain orders, such as the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula. Although common social mores and Ava’s physical condition had prevented her from attending public schooling, much less college, her family had paid handsomely for Ava’s private tutors. Thus, when her infirmities prevented her from joining the local monastic order operating Ursuline Academy, Adán helped her consider joining the Ursulines’ associated secular institute, as the Angelines or Company of Saint Ursula also were focused on educating women and girls.
Moreover, such a vow could allow her to remain incardinated inside New Orleans’ archdiocese and work within its diocesan framework. Consequently, she could serve directly alongside Adan, as his Jesuit duties aligned well with the Angelines.’ Although neither spoke aloud this possibility during Ava’s ‘confessions,’ this prospect was not lost on either of them–or, much to their chagrin, Saul.
This time, however, Saul was more devious and subtle in his opposition. Rather than directly confront Ava, lambast her desire to become a nun, or try to outright forbid it, he tried to ‘tempt’ her with the one thing she had most wanted but always thought would be denied her: marriage and children.
For over a year, the Black Hand’s consigliere, Corrado Giacona had been pressuring Saul to give his blessing for Corrado’s son, Cesare, to court and marry Ava. Corrado’s mother, Crocifissa Pitta, had convinced him that he and his family were going to Purgatory (at best) for their Prohibition-era bootlegging, related murders, and other sins.
As such, Corrado and Cesare were looking for a “good Catholic gal who knew her way ‘round the Rosary and nothing much else, if you know what I mean.” They hoped that such a woman, if married into their family, would perform the necessary indulgences and prayers to ease their sufferings in Purgatory. As Corrado saw it, Ava Freneau perfectly fit the bill. Consequently, he promised to square the Freneau’s debt with the mafia if Saul agreed to the ‘arranged’ marriage.
Cesare Plotius Giacona himself was ‘only’ a giovane d’onore, a “man of honor” or associate of the Black Hand versus a soldato or capo with direct ties to the mob. Rather, much like his grandfather Pietro Giacona, Cesare ran his family’s wine importation business, and still used the same sign from their former Beauregard residence: C. Giacona & Co., Wholesale Liquor Dealers, 1113 Chartres St.
Since that business’ Vieux Carre origins and mafia-protected Prohibition dealings, Cesare’s company and profits had grown significantly. Indeed, as part of the Giacona’s largesse and attempt to gain Catholic indulgences (i.e., “God’s protection racket”), Cesare freely supplied all of the sacramental wine for New Orleans’ parishes, including St. Patrick’s and Immaculate. As such, the Giaconas were well-known and publicly lauded by the local archdiocesan and deaneries’ leadership. Moreover, Cesare was known for attending St. Patrick’s services with fervent zeal, including copious use of its confessional.
After all, Cesare had many sins. Yet, unlike his immediate kin and extended ‘family,’ Cesare’s sins did not involve murder, extortion, drunkenness, whoring, robberies, or the like. To most, Cesare seemed to live an exceptionally chaste, nonviolent, sober, and honest life. Few outside the Confessional Seal, however, knew his dark secret: Cesare was a serial necrophiliac.
It had begun with his cousin, Ornella Mannino. Ornella had been his slightly older cousin, born of Giovanina Giacona and Antonino Mannino. Ornella, or Ella as most Americans called her, had always been a precocious flirt. She stole and broke the hearts of countless boys in Little Italy, collecting them like some children collected coins. She took particularly delight in teasing her younger cousin, Cesare, constantly asking for a kiss on her lips. When the shy boy demurred, Ornella and the other neighborhood kids and family would laugh, only to laugh harder as Cesare turned beet red and ran away.
As the cousins became adolescents, Ornella’s ‘teasing’ became more forceful and sexual. During a trip to the Gulf, the pair had floated on inflated tire tubes, far away from adult eyes. She took off her swimsuit, grabbed Cesare’s “little cazzo”, and dared him to touch her farfallina or “little butterfly.” Cesare was mortified, fell out of his tube, and nearly drowned trying to swim back to the shore. When his mother asked him what was wrong, he lied and said he saw a shark. The lie only caused his family to heckle him for being a coward or codardo for leaving behind his cousin. That heckling only grew worse when the redressed Ornella returned and claimed she scared away the shark with a sharp kick to its head.
One week later, the family mockery had barely died down when Ornella was gunned down while sitting on the Beauregard porch. Her murder was the latest casualty in the old blood feud between the Giaconas and the Vattalis, Cusimanos, and Barrecas. While Ornella’s corpse was temporarily laid on a wine cellar table in preparation for her viewing and funeral, the Mannino and Giacona left to repay blood with blood. Cesare “the Codardo” was left behind to guard Ornella’s body.
As the hours passed, Cesare sipped more and more from the nearby wine, till light-headed and drunk, his thoughts turned dark.
“Oh, Ornella, what did you say? You’re asking for a kiss, now? Well, fine, I am no codardo, here is how a maschio kisses.”
The kiss was drunken, awkward, incestuous, and necrophiliac, but it was his first. After several more and another bottle of wine, he whispered to Ornella’s corpse, “Oh, now you want me to touch your farfallina? Well, fine, I am no codardo…”
To his surprise and disgust, the act titillated him, arousing his long-dormant libido. Initially, he fought off the temptation to do more, even turning to a nearby Bible for strength. As he opened it to a random page, his eyes fell upon the 21st verse of the 22nd Part of Mathew, and to his surprise, he saw his own name:
Reading onward, he saw:
…Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…
Sadly, the drunken teen did not finish the verse and see Christ’s second injunction. Instead, he became fixated upon the first. He spoke aloud his drunken, carnal mind, as if seeing if Ornella would ‘object’:
“Well, everyone knows they were talking about a gold coin. Gold… goes to Caesar. Cesare… that’s me… and your name… means ‘gold…’ you told me so yourself… so… if God’s okay with it…”
It was drunken, awkward, incestuous, and necrophiliac ‘sex,’ but it was his first.
When the wine eventually wore off, Cesare was overcome with guilt. His family just thought he was grieving for his cousin, but his confessional priest learned otherwise. When the priest told him to perform 10 Hail Marys and volunteer in a local church morgue to learn “proper respect for the dead”, Cesare tried to perform his penance, but the access to new ‘temptations’ was just too much for the young man. As before, he returned to confess his sin and sincerely promised never to repeat it.
That pattern would continue for years. As an adult, Cesare’s “lapses” only increased as he could use his money and influence to illicitly procure ‘gold’ from Tulane’s medical school and related cadaver labs. Notwithstanding, his guilt and self-disgust only grew, as did his belief that, despite the priests’ absolution, he would burn in Purgatory for a very, very long time.
Thus, the otherwise celibate man was all too eager to follow his grandmother’s and father’s “insurance” plan to marry Ava-Michèl Freneau. After all, he had seen her many times at St. Patrick’s, where he had been impressed by her Catholic piety. It also didn’t hurt that she was half-Italian on her mother’s side.
The courtship was subtle and slow, if not all but imperceptible. Saul relayed to Cesare whenever Ava left to attend St. Patrick’s, and Cesare made sure he was there. He offered to help her to and from the confessional–saying such was part of his own Acts of Contrition–and made sure to have St. Patrick’s priests vouch for him. They shared pews, and between and after services they would engage in doctrinal discussions, most of which centered around familial sins, forgiveness, and the afterlife. Eventually, he offered to show her how his business did the pre-ecclesiastical preparations for the sacramental wine. That ‘date’ led to a related discussion of oenology, Cesare’s prime intellectual passion.
That knowledge, as well as the way he seemed to enjoy wine’s historicity more than its consumption, further earned him Ava’s esteem. She also grew to pity him for the way many “godly folk” shunned him for his family’s ill reputation–something the Freneau descendant knew all too well. Indeed, he claimed that it was this ill repute that had foiled his hopes of marriage, as the only women who had wanted to marry him were “Catholics in name only, or not even that.”
As the months passed, her pity and sympathy for Cesare bloomed, not into true love, but at least into a protective, empathic affection. His own feelings also developed during this time, as he found her presence as “soothing as the Balm of Gilead”, and his lust for “gold” diminished.
Thus, in mid-May of 1945, in the fresh wake of Nazi Germany’s surrender and on the last week of Eastertide, Cesare proposed. At the conclusion of the Feast of Our Lady, he knelt down on the steps of St. Patrick’s and presented her a bouquet of Paschal roses and a Boudreaux’s engagement ring shaped like her rosary, with a main 3-carat cross-chiseled diamond surrounded by 10 smaller round-cut diamonds. Ava was shocked by the marital offer, as neither of them had ever discussed it. Nor had she considered them a couple–or thought Cesare had, as he had never so much as made any romantic gesture or attempt at physical intimacy.
Still, she did not tell him ‘no’–but nor did she tell him ‘yes.’ When she informed Saul of the proposal, he concealed his mirth, and instead sulked. Part of him truly loathed to see his sister married off–especially to secretly pay-off a debt to the mob. But he hid his true feelings and machinations, and instead loudly proclaimed that he did not approve of her marrying a “new money wino” and would not pay for her dowry “just so the mob could swallow more of the Freneau wealth.” True to his calculation, Saul’s bluster and threats only made her more inclined to accept Cesare’s offer.
Nevertheless, she remained uncertain. She desperately wanted to speak with Adán, but she hesitated, concerned that her new ‘confession’ would break his heart–or perhaps break hers if it did not. Ultimately, she told Cesare that she needed further time to pray and fast. When he pressed her again, she told him she would have an answer after the Feast of Pentecost.
Sunday afternoon, 20 May 1945
Yet, when the day of Pentecost arrived, she still struggled to divine God’s will. Thus, in her desperation–or perhaps motivated by her heart’s true longing–she sought guidance from the priest she “had loved.”
She found him dressed in Pentecost’s liturgical red, kneeling before Immaculate’s golden altar and its fresh arrangements of similarly red hydrangeas, lilies, irises, and geraniums. Eventually rising from his prayer, he saw her and beamed like a Louisiana sunrise. After all, the last time they had seen each other was from afar, when they had locked gazes as he left her home in search of Madeleine–and the time before that was in his apartment on Epiphany’s Eve more than a year past.
The experience of seeing Adán made her temporally forget her visit’s purpose. She barely could speak when he approached and greeted her, and she all but shooed away the house servant pushing her wheelchair when the priest offered to give her a tour of the church’s liturgical bouquets.
“If a priest is allowed to have favorites amongst his parish blossoms, the copper irises are mine.”
“Copper?” she asked, still struggling to regain her voice–though the effulgent priest seemed oblivious to her nerves.
“Iris fulva,” the priest replied. “Their scientific names hails from the Latin for ‘tawny orange.’”
“But red is the color of Pentecost?” she asked distractedly, her heart still half-stuck in her throat.
“Precisely,” he beamed again, “and that is why the copper lilies are my favorite. True red irises do not exist in nature, no more than natural blue roses do. Many botanists have tried, but all have failed. The Louisiana irises come the closest, though, but even then, they are more russet, maroon, or copper than truly red. It reminds me of how, no matter how hard we try, we are inherently flawed. No matter how many good deeds we render, prayers we offer, sermons we hear, or scriptural passages we study, we remain an imperfect ‘red.’ Only in the pure red blood of Christ are we truly perfected. Transfigured. Seeing the copper irises reminds me to be both humble and awed at the miracles that God offers all of us.”
“Like its first name?” Ava posited, her own mind settled, or at least fully distracted, by the private homily.
“How so?” Adán asked, not following her remark, but curious, like any Jesuit would be.
“Iris, as in rainbow. God’s token of his covenant after the Flood.”
“Ah, yes, of course!” Adán exclaimed, beaming like a child who was just offered candy after he thought it had all been eaten. Chuckling, he added, “My poor Greek instructors would doubtlessly shake their heads and remind me that the Roman Rite does not mean that Latin is always right.”
When his mirth subsided, a look of tender joy overcame him, causing him to pause and place an affectionate palm upon her shoulder:
“Sister Freneau, you will make a most miraculous of Angelines.”
His touch and praise were simply too much for her. She burst into tears like a microcosm of the Great Flood itself, and it took her what seemed like forty days and nights to recompose herself. Unsure what was wrong, Adán came around her wheelchair and kneeled to face her. The gesture, however, only reminded Ava of Cesare’s genuflection, and her tears redoubled. She tried to answer his gentle inquires as to the nature of her distress, as well as wave off his meek apologies for any offense given by his remark. Eventually, he took her hands–both the hale and the palsied–and offered a simple prayer of peace. In that embrace of hands, she felt a wave of calm flood over her–even as she felt a tremble in her long-paralyzed hand.
The moment, however, passed when a quadroon woman approached, holding a 6-month-old infant in her arms. The latter was dressed in a white gown.
“St. Cyprien,” Madeleine spoke, her voice tremulous yet hard.
Sunday afternoon, 20 May 1945
Madeleine had disappeared for roughly eight months after Easter Eve of 1944. Adán had thought about searching for her, concerned that she had fallen back into prostitution and drug use–or worse, fallen prey to repossession. He had been comforted, though, when Father Fontenot shared that he had been in sporadic contact with Madeleine, informing him that she had joined the Society of Leopold, largely in gratitude of her rescue as well as emulation of her rescuer. Adán was concerned she had joined the Brotherhood of St. Athanasius, but Father Fontenot informed him that she was primarily doing volunteer work in Charity Hospital, where she worked to identify injuries consistent with supernatural victimization.
And then, just as suddenly as she had disappeared, she had reappeared on Ash Wednesday of 1945, intent on having her and her infant child’s foreheads painted with ash by “her saint.” Adán had been pleased to see her, though shocked by the child’s presence, as he had come to believe that she had lied about her pregnancy, particularly since Father Fontenot had never mentioned her either being with or having a child.
Over the next three months, Madeleine and Adán–under Father Fontenot’s direction–had begun working together as mutual members of the Society of Leopold. Typically, this had entailed Madeleine ‘procuring’ certain rare tomes or archives for Adán to study, or her spying on certain suspects identified by Adán’s more esoteric investigations. When Madeleine was called away on these ‘field missions,’ Adán most commonly cared for her child, a boy she had named Absalom Josué Dorleans (although Adán preferred the boy’s middle name as the first had infamous connotations).
Their work for the Society of Leopold meant Adán and Madeleine spent increasing time together, which also came to include midnight boxing practice, advanced post-seminarian studies, and recording their investigation outcomes via Ampex acetate audio tapes–as Father Fontenot’s progressive cataracts had finally stolen his ability to read.
Given this increased contact, Madeleine had tried to once again convince Adán to let her and Absalom move in with him. Much to her sorrow, Adán had once again rejected that proposal. So spurned, she and the infant had moved in with Joseph ‘Jupp’ Zimmermann, a German-Italian member of the Brotherhood who had been denied US military service due to his bloodline. Adán had firmly disapproved of that ‘cover family’ on multiple levels.
In the subsequent months, Adán’s and Madeleine’s conjoint missions had diminished, but they had remained in some contact, particularly when Madeleine requested that Adán christen Absalom during the upcoming day of Pentecost.
Sunday afternoon, 20 May 1945
Thus, Madeleine had arrived to interrupt Adán speaking with a wheelchair-bound woman she did not know–though one who seemed rather intimate with “her saint.” Stepping forward, she extended the fussing infant to Adán:
“Your child’s christening, it’s time.”
“Your child?” Ava asked, her bewilderment temporarily holding her sorrow at bay.
“An affectation,” Adán replied, rising to approach and hold Absalom, “on Sister Dorleans’ part. She argues that since I am called the ‘Father’ of the parish, so too should all the parish children, particularly the fatherless, be referred to as mine.”
Ava nodded at the explanation, but she was concerned by the look she saw on Madeleine’s face as she regarded the priest holding ‘his’ child. It was one of pained, fervent longing and fierce pride. She understood it well, yet when Madeleine noticed Ava’s gaze, the former’s features took on a hard, possessive edge. She all but stepped between Adán and Ava, and then half-turned, placing a firm hand on the priest’s shoulder:
“Come, St. Cyprien, both father and child are needed at the font.”
Adán arched a brow in silent rebuke at her forward touch and continued failure to use his ecclesiastical title, but he still nodded in agreement, turning towards the font. Before the priest could dismiss himself, Ava all but blurted out:
“I–I need you for the Sacrament of Penance!”
“Find another priest,” Madeleine said with an edge that Adán missed, but Ava did not.
“No, I…” Ava said, unable to face the woman’s fierce stare, and unable to so publicly explain her plight. Fortunately, Adán intervened. He passed the child back to Madeleine, then spoke:
“All is well. Take the child to the font–I will be there in just a moment. Please, you know I keep my word,” he added with a gentle implore that made the hardened mother soften. Turning back to the palsied woman, he then said, “After the christenings, we can speak, so please stay, Ava.”
“Ava–as in Ava Freneau?!” Madeleine asked with a hiss akin to an unsheathed dagger. The private look she gave Ava was not fit for a church. With Adán’s back to her, he had been unable to see that look. Thus, he mistook Madeleine’s aghast, if not unpleasant tone to be due to discomfort at being reminded of Saul–the man who helped cause her six-year possession.
“Peace,” Adán breathed, “remember the blood that has redeemed you. You are here, and you are safe.”
Taking Ava’s wheelchair, Adán ushered both women and child to the font. The journey was short, but painfully awkward. Trying to defuse the tension, Adán turned to Madeleine:
“You know, Ava would make a wonderful godmother to the baby. She is a godly woman, full of wisdom and knowledge of the Lord and His church. She has always wanted to be a mother, but has never had the chance to marry. So in lieu of the sacrament of matrimony, she plans to take her vows in the Company of Saint Ursula, which, like the Jesuits, is dedicated to imparting the gift of education. She and I could serve as Josué’s godparents.”
Adán’s innocently intended words were like scissor blades running the lengths of Ava’s and Madeleine’s souls. Ava could only look down, biting back a new bout of tears. Madeleine, meanwhile, tensed, till her tightened lips became a knife slit.
“No, Father,” she said tersely, “That won’t be necessary, and after speaking with Father Fontenot, I learned that you cannot serve as Absalom’s godfather. Brother Zimmerman will serve in that role.”
Adán was shocked and disappointed by Madeleine’s double rejection. Yet, even as his heart felt bruised, his mind struggled to fathom why his Jesuit mentor would say he could not serve as the child’s godfather as he and Madeleine had long planned. Canon law did not forbid a priest from serving as a godparent; indeed, they were ideal candidates, as they amply met all of the church’s requirements: being at least 16 years of age, a confirmed Catholic who has received the Eucharist, and not being under any canonical penalty.
“Can’t? Why? Madeleine, I… I don’t understand…”
Then it was Ava’s turn to interrupt with her own unsettling epiphany, as she regarded the quadroon woman with an awakened scrutiny:
“Madeleine? As in the same Marie, or Marie Délicieux? The woman you have, or had, been searching for, for so many years? The woman who was a… with my brother… the one who was…”
Madeleine interrupted the clearly stumbling Ava with a venomous harshness that made her own infant cry, “I believe the words you are looking for are ‘whore’ and ‘possessed.’ ‘Demoniac,’ ‘prostitute,’ ‘energumen,’ and ‘harlot’ would also fit the bill. But yes, that’s me–or was me. But thank you for throwing that painful, shameful past into my face just before my son is going to be christened. Make sure to add ‘associating with my brother’s past whore’ to your list of sins to confess today.”
Ava was mortified, raising up her one un-palsied hand as if in surrender or to ward off the woman’s hate. “I… I am so, so sorry, I didn’t know you had… I shouldn’t have said…”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Madeleine said stonily, as she tried to soothe her child, but not before spitefully adding, “And maybe you didn’t know because it wasn’t your business to know, maybe St. Cyprien doesn’t tell you everything, maybe he and I have lives with secrets you couldn’t even begin to fathom–”
“Enough!” Adán all but shouted in his church. “This is the holy day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit descending upon the resurrected Christ’s apostles and followers, to empower the Church Militant with knowledge and power to do His will. I will not have that same Spirit driven from this house of the Lord by contentious malice and mean-spirited words. Here, we serve the Prince of Peace, not the Prince of Strife.”
Turning to firmly face Madeleine and the still crying Absalom, he added, “If you wish to have another priest perform Josué’s paedobaptism, I can make the arrangements. Otherwise, please go to the font and wait for me there. Now.”
Fearing the priest’s loss more than his rebuke, Madeleine murmured an apology, then left as she was bidden.
Once she left, Ava immediately tried to share her own apology. “I am sorry, Adán–”
“Please,” the priest interrupted with a strained tone while pinching his temples, “at very least here, please call me ‘Father Cyprien.’”
“Yes, of course, my apologies, Father Cyprien,” she answered meekly. “And I am sorry, I didn’t mean to cause offense. In hindsight… I see that my intemperate and indiscrete words could be taken no other way. I should have held my tongue, waited for a more opportune moment and used more delicate words.”
Adán sighed. “I too bear the blame, but now is not a time for either of us to confess our failings. If you still seek the Sacrament of Penance, I can serve you after the scheduled christenings. Now I must go and serve the children and their families.”
Sunday afternoon, 20 May 1945
With the aid of her recalled house servant, Ava watched Absalom’s baptism. True to the Roman Rite, the christening began with Adán pronouncing an exorcism over the child:
“Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue man from the kingdom of darkness and bring him into the splendor of your kingdom of light. We pray for this child: set him free from original sin, make him a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him. Through Christ our Lord.”
As the sacramental ritual continued, Ava could not help but feel a pang of longing. She watched with yearning, both maternal and matrimonial, as Madeleine held her infant over the font, with Jupp placing a supportive hand on her shoulder. She could not help but imagine herself holding a long-desired child of her own, with a supportive hand upon her own shoulder. A family. Her own family. And with Cesare’s proposal, she had an opportunity to obtain that righteous desire.
Then she beheld Adán pouring the baptismal waters over Absalom’s head, with the former proclaiming:
“The servant of God, Absalom Josué Dorleans is baptized, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
There was a joyful celebration among the baby’s kin and friends, but Ava did not watch them as they left the church. Rather, she continued her vigil over her devoutly beloved priest, who had to quickly move on to the next christening, this time for another “servant of God” named Miloud Delacroix.
Watching Adán, Ava knew she did not love Cesare–that choice place in her heart belonged to another. Notwithstanding, the baptismal sacraments reminded her that matrimony, ultimately for a Catholic, was not about romantic love, but rather religious service. After all, matrimony was one of the two Catholic sacraments of service, alongside joining the Holy Orders. This notion was reinforced as she turned to Immaculate’s altar and regarded the statue of Mary–both Virgin and Mother. With a prayer upon her lips, Ava’s heart pondered which would be a greater service to her God: the solemn rite of Consecratio Virginum or subsuming her private desires to become a mother, thereby delivering the fruit of her womb as new servants of God?
By the time Adán had finished with Absalom’s baptism, Ava had made her decision. When he approached her, saying he was now able to take her confession, the woman shook her head:
“I need to speak with you, Father Cyprien, but we may converse here among the pews. Of my sins, there is but one I feel the need now to confess, and it does not require a booth, least not the one here at Immaculate. Namely, I have come to believe I have taken advantage of you and the Sacrament of Penance, and from now on, I will turn to my parish confessor at St. Patrick’s.”
The ‘confession’ pained Adán. He could not, and did not, contend against its truth, for he had experienced similar concerns, but the loss of their ‘confessional’ discussions would grieve him. Still, he took heart in the belief that her becoming an Angeline would allow their relationship to continue, if not further blossom through mutual consecrated service. Those hopes, though, were dashed by the next turn in their conversation:
“Father Cyprien,” she began, steeling herself to look the priest in the eye, “I have a great favor to ask of you.”
“Ava-Michèl Freneau, if it is in my power and authority to perform, I will gladly do it.”
“Will you marry me?”
Adán’s heart almost exploded with confusion, delight, and growing dread.
“Ava, if I could… I–”
She shook her head, momentarily covering her tear-tortured face with her un-palsied hand. Saying a silent prayer to Mother Mary, she pressed forward, not quite able to look Adán in the eye:
“No… I know your vows. I meant… or mean, will you perform the sacrament of matrimony for me? A man of the Catholic faith has proposed to me, and I intend to accept.”
A legion of thoughts and emotions immediately warred inside Adán, but his lips, if not torn mind, could only recite from Proverbs:
“He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.”
“So… you… you will do it!?” Ava asked, delightedly grasping Adán’s stigmata-scarred hand in gratitude.
“As God wills it,” was all Adán could answer, though his words seemed to come from a dark, hollow pit at the bottom of his pierced soul.