A telegram for you, Father”, said the Sister, laying the envelope on the table. Father Doyle looked up from his writing with a smile. “Thank you, Sister,” he said. “I was expecting one.”
Having finished the letter he was writing, Fr Doyle opened the telegram placed by his side. As he read it, a slightly puzzled look passed across his face. He thought for a moment, and picking up a railway guide, studied it. Then he crossed to the electric bell and pressed the button.
“Sister,” he said when the she appeared, “I wonder could I see reverend Mother for a moment.”
“Certainly, Father,” I’ll get her at once.”
In a few moments, Reverend Mother entered the room.
“Mother,” said Fr Doyle, “I have just got a telegram from my Provincial telling me to return to Dublin by the first available train, as I am to cross England this evening. I find I shall have time to give the Community the last lecture of the retreat, if I may give it now. I’m sure the parish priest will say Mass for you tomorrow in my place and give you Benediction.”
“Of course, Father,” we can have the lecture at once,” said Reverend Mother, “but I am sorry you have to rush off like this. Were you expecting this news?”
“No, indeed,” replied Fr Doyle. “I was expecting a telegram, but not from the Provincial, nor with an invitation to take a trip to England. Perhaps the Provincial thinks I want a little rest and is sending me to Blackpool for a week,” he added with a laugh.
A couple of hours later, the Limited Mail was carrying Fr Doyle swiftly to Dublin. “Here I am, Father,” he said as he entered the Provincial’s room, “ready for marching orders.”
“Well,” replied the Provincial, with a smile, “your marching orders are to go to prison! Here is a telegram I got this morning from England from the governor of the prison. ‘Please send Fr William Doyle, SJ to my prison. Woman to be executed tomorrow asks to see him’. Can you throw any light on the summons?”
Father Doyle shook his head. “No,” he said, “I don’t know any of my friends who are going to be hanged!”
“Well,” said the Provincial, “in any case, you had better go. You will have just time to catch the night boat for Holyhead. You will get to the prison at 5.00am, and you will have time to see this poor woman before she is executed.”
Day was dawning when Fr Doyle reached the prison. He was shown at once to the office of the Governor, who welcomed him courteously. “It was good of you, sir”, he said, “to come all this way at such short notice. This poor woman has been asking for you earnestly, and it will comfort her to see you.”
“But,” said Fr Doyle, “the whole thing is a mystery to me. Who is this woman and why does she want to see me?”
“Her name is Fanny Cranbush,” was the answer. “She is a girl of the unfortunate class who was convicted for her part in that poison case you may have seen in the newspapers. When brought here after her trial, she was asked in the usual way if she would like to see some minister of religion. She replied that she had no religion and had no need of priest or parson. A few days ago, however, she sent for me and said she had changed her mind and would like to see a certain priest. ‘What is his name?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ was the reply. ‘Well, where does he live?’ ‘I don’t know.’ But how can I get you a priest whose name and address you don’t know? Can you give me any information at all about him?’ ‘All I can tell you,’ she replied, ‘is that this priest was in Y… about two years ago. I was told he was from Ireland and was giving what was called a Mission in a church there. I want to see him so much before I die.’ ‘I’ll do my best, of course,’ I said. I at once got into communication with the police of Y… and inquiries were made at different churches if a clergyman from Ireland had given a retreat or a Mission there some two years beforehand. At the Jesuit Church, the police were informed that a Fr William Doyle from Dublin had given a Mission there a couple of years previously. The address of your Superior was obtained and the telegram sent him has brought you here.”
“I’m still in the dark,” replied Fr Doyle.
“I’ll take you to her and she will be able to clear matters up. There are some hours yet before the execution takes place and you may, if you wish, stay with her to the end.”
The Governor led the way up two flights of stairs and down a long corridor, at the end of which he stopped before a cell.
“This is her cell, sir. I shall leave you alone with her.”
Beckoning to the warden inside to leave, he let the priest enter. Fr Doyle saw a girl still in her twenties sitting with bowed head on the edge of a narrow bed. As he came towards her, she looked up with a drawn and weary face. The next instant, her look was transformed as she sprang to her feet, exclaiming: “Oh, Father, thank God you came!”
“I’m glad I did, my child, “said Fr Doyle, as he took her by the hand and led her to the chair. “And now you must tell me why you have sent for me. Have we ever met before?”
“Yes, Father, but of course, you don’t remember. Two years ago, you stopped me in the street. I’m bad, have been all my life, and was out on my work of sin. You said to me, ‘Child, aren’t you out very late? Won’t you go home? Don’t hurt Jesus. He loves you.’ You said this so gently, so appealingly, and then you gave me a look that seemed to go right through me. “
Father Doyle nodded. “I remember,” he said half to himself. “I had been hearing confessions late that night and was on my way home.”
“You look and words stunned me,” the girl went on. “I actually turned back and went home in a dazed state. All that night, I lay awake. The words ‘Don’t hurt Jesus. He loves you’ kept ringing in my ear. Had I hurt Jesus? Did He love me? Who was He? I knew very little about Him. I had had little schooling and less religion. I had never prayed. I had never been baptised. My mother told me that before she died. Yet, ‘Don’t hurt Jesus. He loves you …’ seemed to find an echo in my heart. It felt as if He was in some way within me. I saw you once again, Father, after that night. I was with another girl and you passed on the other side of the street.
“Who is that clergyman?” I asked my companion. “I hear he is from Ireland,” she replied, “and is giving a Mission or something here.”
For weeks after that, I kept off the streets, but then want and hunger drove me out again. I sank lower and lower, until now I am to be hanged. I came here hard, defiant and unrepentant, and wanted to have nothing to do with priest or parson. Then one day your words came back to me. ‘Don’t hurt Jesus. He loves you.’ Something seemed to snap within me and I wept – the first time for many years. I felt changed, softened and there came a great longing to see you and to learn more about Jesus. Now that you have come, won’t you tell me more about Him? Won’t you set my feet on the road that goes to Him?”
“Do you mean, my child, that you wish to know about the one True Faith; that you want to become a Catholic?”
“Yes, Father, I do - with all my heart.”
The essential articles of faith were quickly explained and drunk with eagerness by a soul that thirsted for the truth. Then the waters of baptism were poured for the first time upon her head and all the wicked past was washed away.
“I shall leave you now for a while, my child,” said Fr Doyle. “I am going to try and get permission and the requisites for Mass here, when I shall give you Jesus in Holy Communion.”
Fr Doyle hurried off to the nearest Catholic Church and without much difficulty obtained the necessary leave and outfit for saying Mass. A tiny altar was erected in the cell, and Fanny heard her first and last Mass and received her God for the first and last time. She refused the breakfast offered her. “I have just eaten the Bread of Life,” she said with her smiling thanks. As she walked to the scaffold with Fr Doyle beside her, she whispered to him, “I am so happy, Father! Jesus knows that I am sorry for having hurt Him, and I know that Jesus loves me.” A moment later and Fanny Cranbush, with her baptismal robe unspotted, was in the arms of Jesus.