A few among us like to theorize that she that she left the woods alive and reached town to stow away on a train back to New York City. But most of us can’t get behind this theory and we trust that Lil did die in October, 1918.
The three-story brick mansion that once housed the dead school is now a Bed & Breakfast. We begin at the mourning door but only because it’s fitting, not because we have any particular reason to think Lil escaped through it. We walk across the grounds and traipse through the woods, trying different paths, arguing some, eyes always, always scanning. Sometimes, we forget and as we go along, we hope to spy a whole and healthy girl of fourteen or so, perhaps perched on a rock with her chin cupped in one pale hand, her unbraided hair falling dark and wild down her back.
Our quest ends at the older of the town’s two cemeteries, where yes, we do concede, Lil may be buried. It’s a matter of whom you chose to believe—the gravedigger or Cait and Eleanor, the two who lived. On the fifth anniversary, they returned to town for the memorial mass at Holy Rosary Church. After the service, they lit thirteen candles, one for each victim. Thirteen, because they counted Lil.
We suspect that Cait and Eleanor didn’t intend to stay here, yet stay they did. Within months they’d married a sturdy pair of first cousins and they lived long lives in Neary, as famous and remarkable as saints. Eleanor never talked about 1918, and Cait said nothing until she was seventy-two and Eleanor had been gone a year.
She spoke briefly to the Neary Beacon and though that interview has been a valuable source of information, we have also researched records held by the orphanage and lists of Irish immigrants who came through Ellis Island. We’ve hunted through diaries, letters, and journals that mention the epidemic, as well as newspaper accounts from the day and obituaries of Lilies and Irelands for decades after.
This is what we know:
The Sisters of St. Jarlath founded Mary-of-the-Gael Academy for Young Ladies in 1910. Every year, Sister John and Sister Joseph spent the summer traveling through New York’s five boroughs interviewing prospective students. Within just a few years, the school had earned an excellent reputation and had become very competitive, particularly for scholarships, which the nuns only awarded if they found a deserving candidate. Otherwise, they saved the funds. Because of this, some years there were no scholarship students while other years there were two or even three.
The Admitting nuns accepted ten students for each incoming class, none younger than twelve, none past fourteen. Each class roomed together, ate together, and learned together. For the first year, classes were held entirely in the Ballard, as the house was called after the family who had once owned the estate. The students slept on the second and third floors. Six nuns lived in the house as well. Three stayed in what had once been the servants’ quarters and the other three slept in small rooms throughout the house that had been converted to cells. A sewing room, a nursery, a ladies’ reading room.
From their second year on, the students were taught in what had once been the public school, given to the nuns when the town’s population outgrew it. It was near the convent where the majority of the Sisters of St. Jarlath lived.
The second-, third-, and fourth-year students from Mary-of-the Gael walked to class every morning in quiet pairs, white blouses buttoned to the collar, gray plaid skirts touching the knees, hair braided.
Sister James and Sister Jerome, the Walking Sisters, escorted the thirty girls to class. One fronted the line and the other brought up the rear, their hands folded over their midsections, their habits swishing. They are said to have shushed the larks.
The class who would have graduated in 1922, however, would have misaligned the march because altogether, they were eleven. The Sisters made an exception for Lil. Lil, who had been living in a Catholic orphanage in New York City for nine years. In Mary-of-the-Gael’s records, kept carefully by Sister Just, both Lil’s birthplace and surname are listed as “Ireland.” Her birth date is given as December 25, 1903, which made her almost fifteen when she arrived here. But since Christmas was often given to Catholic children whose birthdays were unknown, we can assume that Lil’s age was a best guess.
Not only was Lil an extra student and a scholarship recipient but she also came a week after the start of the Fall term. This is astonishing. There’s a story told about a student who returned for her third year a day after classes began because of a summer vacation with her parents. She was sent home with them. Did the Admitting Sisters find Lil late and decide that she was too promising to refuse? Did she write beautifully? Sing? Paint? Could she have been a Sister’s illegitimate niece? It’s possible that one of the nuns at the home where Lil lived wrote a plea on her behalf, though no such letter has ever been uncovered. We like to imagine Lil writing this letter for herself. We want Lil brave just the way we want her lovely. But there are no pictures of her. Every year, a class photo was taken but not until the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th because there were no classes on a Holy Day of Obligation.
However it happened, Lil arrived in Neary, New York, by train from Manhattan on September 20th, the second-to-last Saturday of the month. Had it been even one week later, she very likely would have been wearing a face mask.
It was at 8 a.m. Mass on Monday, September 23rd, that Father Corrigan first requested prayers for the victims of the epidemic sweeping through America’s cities. On Wednesday, September 25th, Agata Juszkowski laid her head down during Penmanship, a brief session given at the end of the school day in which the girls copied a poem from the blackboard ten times, an exercise meant to bring each hand in line with the other so that on paper every name might be neat and alike. It was the only class taught by Sister Julian, the school’s headmistress. That day’s verse, to the best of Cait’s recollection, was something by Tennyson.
Through a sigh, Sister Julian asked Agata what was wrong and then again more loudly when she didn’t answer. Agata whispered that her head hurt. Lil slept in the bed beside hers. They had become friends quickly, Lil and Agata, a clumsy girl who was trying hard to follow orders and lose the remnants of her parents’ accent. It was Lil who reached across the aisle to touch Agata’s forehead.
“She’s got a fever.”
“Oh? Are you a nurse, Miss?” Sister Julian asked.
Lil simply repeated herself—fever—and she was beside the bed hours later when Sister Julian stood over Agata, crossed herself and whispered, Influenza, Mother of God. Dr. Whalen paid a helpless visit. Father Corrigan performed Extreme Unction. Two days later when Agata, her face the color of a fresh bruise, choked on the tide of fluid filling her lungs, Lil helped Sister Julian wrap her in a clean sheet. Then Sister Jeremy carried the child down the stairs and lay her on the floor of the Rosary Parlor, which got the morning sun but grew quite cold at dusk.
Quarantine. At least, for the Class of ’22. Reluctantly, Neary’s mayor let the older students be sent away on the 7 a.m. train. He had refused at first but Sister Julian insisted. This conversation took place one hour after Agata’s death and has not been preserved. It’s a shame.
In lieu of masks—there was no time to send for any—the nuns had each girl cut away the bodice of her white nightgown and use the sleeves to tie it over her face. Like so, they passed through Neary for the final time.
Andrew Sheehan was one of many who watched the evacuation. At forty-seven, he looked a decade older. He began to drink after his new wife disappeared, presumed drowned, and he never did stop. He lived alone and never went to Mass. To avoid him, streets were crossed. Corners were turned. Paths were altogether reversed. No one would have asked anything of Andrew Sheehan.
Instead of backing away, Andrew moved closer to the parade of girls who had been pulled from their beds before sunrise. He thought they looked somehow like brides with their shrouded faces and their hair free down their shoulders, soft shawls of brown, black, gold, red. He thought this even though he could hear them crying.
When they’d gone, Andrew arrived at the back door of the Ballard and asked for Agata, who no one else in town wanted to touch. She could not be sent home. Andrew carried her to the cemetery and dug her a grave beneath the red maple tree because he wanted the parents to find their daughter easily.
That afternoon, three more girls got sick. The doctor later claimed that he would have gone back if asked, but as he was not asked, he stayed away.
The sick were confined to their second-floor bedroom, nursed by Sisters Joseph and Julian. The second-floor landing was the stopping point. The downstairs nuns left supplies on the landing and the upstairs nuns came down to collect them.
In the first hours of illness, each time a nun touched her, the girl must have hoped the sick would be taken away. We hope none were aware enough to notice when the nuns’ hands grew indistinguishable from their own skin.
The nuns had refused to let Father Corrigan back in, though he stood on the lawn and shouted that they had to unlock the doors. The sick deserved to confess their sins, if they could speak. They deserved holy oils, his hands. From an upstairs window, Sister Julian reminded Father Corrigan that in situations where there can be no priest, any Catholic can hear a confession and administer the sacraments. No souls were being damned. Sister Joseph appeared one window over and told him that she had disobeyed her vow of poverty and kept her papa’s shotgun. You are a young priest still, she told him. The bishop would eventually forgive the sins of pride and ambition which had got him banished to upstate New York. Someday, he would be sent to learn in Roma. There he would finally find God. And so if he tried to enter the house, she would shoot him through his good heart.
(No gun was ever found.)
Andrew Sheehan went to the school every morning and looked for a folded piece of paper on the back step, weighted down by a statue of Mary. The names were on it. Then he walked over to the Vespers Garden where the bodies lay blessed and shrouded among the closed buds of moonflower vines and evening primrose. The internal quarantine was dropped when Sister Julian died.
The police took turns guarding the house and grounds. Sorry as they were, their job was to keep the disease from spreading. But after dark, they only watched the front entrance of the school. And so it was at night that two girls slipped out the back and disappeared into the woods, which, it was thought, they would be too frightened to try. Cait insisted that she and Eleanor left behind two dead nuns and two dead classmates, Lil being one of them.
Before delirium set in, Sister James had told Cait and Eleanor where to find the grocery money. She told them to run through the woods but once on the road, walk calmly to the next town. Smile if anybody asks who you are or where you came from. Think of a good lie. Wear your own clothes. Comb your hair. Bring food. Go when it gets dark. Be good girls.
Cait and Eleanor walked over ten miles to catch a train that took them into Manhattan. They returned to their families who had not come to Neary, as per the church’s instructions in those days when a priest’s word was absolute.
The story would end here but for Andrew Sheehan claiming that he had, at the last, buried two of the Sisters and one girl. It does seem that our Lil should have had brilliant red hair but she did not. According to descriptions given by those who saw her, Lil was black-haired. The final girl, Andrew said, was a small thing with blonde curls. Most decided that he was mistaken, that the days were lost to whiskey. Sister Just had asked Andrew write down where exactly he buried the dead. Because of her, gravestones could be added, though it wasn’t done until 1923.
According to Cait, Lil came down with influenza the day before she and Eleanor ran away. They had not left too soon. She was certain that the leading theory of Lil was true: Andrew, in drunken confusion, had doubled a grave and buried Lil and another together, beneath the latter’s name.
In 1918, Andrew Sheehan had four years to live. To the end of his life, he insisted that a lone girl and Sisters Just and James were the last of the school. Andrew, the first of us really, spent hours searching the woods for Lil’s bones. He broke paths that he would travel again and again, paths that we travel now. Sometimes, he called her.
He died in June of 1922, alone in the house where he’d lived for all of his life. Officially, the cause of death was acute alcoholism. A three-line obituary ran in the newspaper. The Sisters of St. Jarlath alone attended his funeral mass. The nuns, without asking permission from the diocese, took the funds they had been collecting for an Angelus bell and bought his coffin and a new pair of shoes for him as well.
At the cemetery, we visit Andrew first and place marigolds beside the stone that simply says his name. Then we walk to where the red maple sheds burgundy leaves on an uneven cluster of graves:
Professed 44 years
Annie Delaney, in Religion, Sister James, Aged 23. In the 1st year of her Novitiate.
Margaret Benedict, in Religion, Sister Jerome, Aged 33. Professed 11 years.
Theresa Marie Rosatti, in Religion, Sister Joseph, Aged 27. Professed 6 years.
Nora O’Beirne, in Religion, Sister Just, Aged 41. Professed 18 years.
Agata, Mary Jane, Eliza, Beatrice, Frances, Genevieve. Lil?
Despite what they snicker in town, we are not an official club or a society. There’s no name, no written charter. We are not obsessed. We only want to know if Lil got out of the sickness and into the blazing woods. We want to know where, exactly, she lay down and what she would have seen as she died.
This is why we look in autumn when the undergrowth is at its thickest. This, and an old rumor about a peculiar October flower, a bloom the color of frothy blood and cyanosis.