The Priest and the Unmarked Graves
During 2007 and 2008 he would come into my Native Craft Shop on Park Street in Windsor, Ontario. He was tall, slender, white-haired and looked to be in his 70’s or 80’s. The stale smell of cigarettes on his clothing told me he lived alone.
His clothing seemed as aged as he, yet his garb was that of a man of with good taste. A tailor-made suit hangs a certain way on a man, and I could tell he’d probably always been on the thin side as the suit still fit him reasonably well. His black shoes spoke of vintage imported Italian leather, and though the shoes had worn with age in places, I could see he was the type of man who knew well the need to preserve leather. His treatments and polishing of those shoes had undoubtedly earned him many extra years of shodden feet.
It was apparent he was a man who knew how to dress in style yet he carried himself with an air of humility. He was gentlemanly and spoke softly, but there was a sense of sadness about him. He pointed at an old cromolithograph that hung high on my wall. A framed, water-damaged Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments.
GIES & Co, Buffalo N. Y. Published by A. E. Pratt & Co. 27 Park Place E, New York, copyright 1880.
Noticing the water damage, he’d said the print wouldn’t have much value if I were selling it. I told him he could have it free as a neighbour in my apartment building had given it to me for that price. Her story was it had been a treasured family heirloom which had hung on her grandmother’s wall, to then be gifted to her mom and finally to her. Sadly, the apartment above hers had sprung a leak, and the picture had suffered for it. Her children didn’t want it, so she’d given it to me as I’d admired it.
He thanked me for the offer but refused to say, “People don’t adorn their walls with those these days, it’s no longer a popular trend. I’ve seen many of them, and it is nice to see it again. It brings back memories.” He asked if I was Roman Catholic and I told him the Sisters of Saint Joseph raised me. He smiled at that and told me he was a retired priest.
Each time he came to my shop he would tell me stories. One story was of how he’d spent a lot of time living with the Indians, and that was what drew him to my shop. He was looking for a white ceramic pipe, the type, sold on the Reserves. I didn’t have one but said I would keep an eye out for one. He told me a story of a friend who had shared life with him. His dog, someone he’d loved and always would.
The last time I’d seen him was the day he brought a large, worn padded mailer envelope. Gingerly he placed it on my sales counter and withdrew five laminated photos. The contents had barely fit into the container. He took out one average size photo of what looked like a chalet, snowed in.
The first photo was of an Alaskan Malamute. He told me, through all the years after his pet had died, he would take the picture out to relax by surrounding himself with memories of happier times. One day he’d noticed how the photo had started to fade and he was afraid that time would erase his dog forever so he’d had it laminated to ensure it would last until he was ready to for his own grave.
He then showed me a black and white photocopy of St Genevieve of Paris and St Apollonia of Alexandria, by Lucas Cranach. He said he’d taken photographs of his pictures and had them developed at a print shop so he could keep the memories. He told me the histories of these saints. I told him as a child I had attended a school named Saint Genevieve’s!
He showed me his colour photocopy of The Jesuit Martyrs of North America. His heroes, he said. Looking at me then with a stern expression he said, “In the interaction with the native people of North America what politicians and historians believe and profess and what the church believes are often two different things.”
He said, “This is Kateri Tekakwitha.” He told me her story in vivid detail, and I have to admit it pained my heart. As I looked at the image of a very young and beautiful girl he’d added, “Kateri was an Indian, and I hope to live long enough to witness this canonization of an important Canadian Saint.” On October 21, 2012, POPE BENEDICT XVI canonized Kateri Tekakwitha. I don’t know if he lived long enough to see her finally so blessed by his faith.
I had to close my shop near the end of 2008. My charity received the sad news that our government funding was to end by mid-2009. Saving my charity consumed all my time and energy, and I never did see him again. Before I closed my shop, it had already been many months that I had not seen him and he did not return to reclaim the photos he had given me.
Storing the inventory of my shop I carefully wrapped his padded mailer and the Lords Prayer and Ten Commandments chromolithograph. I thought many times of them, and his request to me.
Sadly, so many times over the years, I was sure I had accidentally left the envelope behind at another place where I had temporarily paid rent to house my charity. I had unpacked the chromolithograph, but somehow it had gotten separated from the priest’s mailer envelope. Just today, February 6, 2016, I had gone up to my attic to look for a photograph my son Carlos. The photo would fit in with another story I wanted to tell, and as I sifted through the many boxes, I chanced to find the ragged mailer envelope. It was still as intact as when the priest had given it to me.
I did also find the photo of the round chair Carlos had reminded me of, and I will post that photo in a future blog. Coming down from the attic I called to my husband Barry, “After all these years I found them!” The part of the story I haven’t told you until now is about the fifth laminated photo and what he had written.
When the old priest had shown me the last two items he’d preserved in the mailer envelope, he said, “A long time ago I buried three people. The details are on the back here. They need you to tell the story.” Saying that he showed me a note he had handwritten and taped to the back of the photo.
CHAPEL AT STONYWOLD, A T.B. HOSPiTAL FOR 1920S
BESiDE LAKE CUSH A QUA iN THE ADiRONDiCK
STATE PARK N.Y. – 50 Mi. ? S S W of MTL. P.Q.
CLOCK AND CHiMES – THREE GRAVES iN BACK
ONE MiSSiONARY PRiEST AND MR. AND MRS.
MOONSNELLER – – R. i P.
He then said, “What I hope will happen is for someone to find the graves someday. It is important they have a proper burial.” He didn’t explain any further, and as he walked out the door of my shop, I felt his message was urgent. In what way? I didn’t know. He never returned to my shop, and I wondered why he’d left behind the picture of his precious memory of his beloved dog. He’d spoken of how the original photo had faded and his need to have the photo last until he, himself, was ready to leave.
I didn’t notice an oddity until I started to type the text of his handwritten note. Looking through a magnifying glass at the tiny words something unique jumped out at me. He printed his directions to the graves in capital letters, with the one exception – the word “of,” however on every occasion he has written one letter in lowercase, the letter i. He never told me his name, and he never said the name of the missionary priest. Perhaps the lower case letter i is a clue to his identity or the identity of the nameless and buried missionary priest?
A reader led me to the link below. I’ve learned the priest made spelling errors as corrected below. I’ve found the surname Sneller but not Moonsneller. Perhaps this was meant to be Mr. and Mrs. Moon Sneller. STONEYWOLD, LAKE CUSH A QUA AND ADiRONDiCK are Stoney Wold, Lake Kushaqua and Adirondack.
Here then is the final photo the old priest gave to me. You’ve read this story, so now this is your personal Cold Case. Can you solve it?
© 2016 Zora Zebic
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