Confessing the Dead

confessional Californian Trails intimate guide to the old missions 1920

In order that Cinco de Mayo may not just be about tequila, tacos, mariachi bands, and news anchors looking ridiculous in sombreros, I present another ghost story from Legends of the City of Mexico. We have previously looked at a ghostly bishop and his ghastly raven and a nun who obeyed her superior after death. Today’s topic is confessing a corpse. Like all the stories from this collection, the story is narrated by the author’s guide.

The Padre about whom I now am telling you, who had this strange thing happen to him in this street, was named Lanza; but he was called by everybody Lanchitas according to our custom of giving such endearing diminutives to the names of those whom we love.

He deserved to be loved, this excellent Padre Lanchitas: because he himself loved everybody, and freely gave to all in sickness or in trouble his loving aid. Confessing to him was a pleasure; and his absolution was worth having, because it was given always with the approval of the good God. My own grand-father knew him well, Senor, having known a man who had seen him when he was a boy. Therefore this strange story about him is true.

On a night and it was a desponding night, because rain was falling and there was a chill wind Padre Lanchitas was hurrying to the house of a friend of his, where every week he and three other gentlemen of a Friday evening played malilla together. It is a very serious game, Senor, and to play it well requires a large mind. He was late, and that was why he was hurrying.

When he was nearly come to the house of his friend and glad to get there because of the rain and the cold he was stopped by an old woman plucking at his wet cloak and speaking to him. And the old woman begged him for God’s mercy to come quickly and confess a dying man. Now that is a call, Senor, that a priest may not refuse; but because his not joining them would inconvenience his friends, who could not play at their game of malilla without him, he asked the woman why she did not go to the parish priest of the parish in which the dying man was. And the woman answered him that only to him would the dying man confess; and she begged him again forGod’s mercy to hurry with her, or the confession would not be made in time and then the sin of his refusal would be heavy on his own soul when he himself came to die.

So, then, the Padre went with her, walking behind her along the cold dark streets in the mud with the rain falling; and at last she brought him to the eastern end of this street that is called the Callejon del Padre Lecuona, and to the long old house there that faces toward the church of El Carmen and has a hump in the middle on the top of its front wall. It is a very old house, Senor. It was built in the time when we had Viceroys, instead of the President Porfirio; and it has no windows—only a great door for the entering of carriages at one end of it, and a small door in the middle of it, and another small door at the other end. A person who sells charcoal, Senor, lives there now.

It was to the middle door that the woman brought Padre Lanchitas. The door was not fastened, and at a touch she pushed it open and in they went together and the first thing that the Padre noticed when he was come through the doorway was a very bad smell. It was the sort of smell, Senor, that is found in very old houses of which all the doors and  windows have been shut fast for a very long time. But the Padre had matters more important than bad smells to attend to, and all that he did about it was to hold his handkerchief close to his nose. One little poor candle, stuck on a nail in a board, was set in a far corner; and in another corner was a man lying on a mat spread upon the earth floor; and there was nothing else whatever excepting cobwebs everywhere, and the bad smell, and the old woman, and the Padre himself in that room.

That he might see him whom he was to confess, Padre Lanchitas took the candle in his hand and went to the man on the mat and pulled aside the ragged and dirty old blanket that covered him; and then he started back with a very cold qualm in his stomach, saying to the woman: “This man already is dead! He cannot confess! And he has the look of having been dead for a very long while!” And that was true, Sefior for what he saw was a dry and bony head, with yellow skin drawn tight over it, having shut eyes deep sunken. Also, the two hands which rested crossed upon the man’s breast were no more than the same dry yellow skin shrunk close over shrunken bones! And, seeing such a bad strange sight, the Padre was uneasy and alarmed.

But the woman said back to him with assurance, yet also coaxingly: “This man is going to confess, Padrecito” and, so speaking, she fetched from its far corner the board with the nail in it, and took the candle from him and set it fast again upon the nail. And then the man himself, in the light and in the shadow, sat up on the mat and began to recite in a voice that had a rusty note in it the Confiteor Deo and after that, of course, there was nothing for the Padre to do but to listen to him till the end.

What he told, Senor, being told under the seal of confession, of course remained always a secret. But it was known, later, that he spoke of matters which had happened a good two hundred years back as the Padre knew because he was a great reader of books of history; and that he put himself into the very middle of those matters and made the terrible crime that he had committed a part of them; and that he ended by telling that in that ancient time he had been killed in a brawl suddenly, and so had died unconfessed and unshriven, and that ever since his soul had blistered in hell.

Hearing such wild talk from him, the Padre was well satisfied that the poor man’s wits were wandering in his fever as happens with many, Senor, in their dying time and so bade him lie quietly and rest himself; and promised that he would come to him and hear his confession later on. But the man cried out very urgently that that must not be: declaring that by God’s mercy he had been given one single chance to come back again out of Eternity to confess his sins and to be shriven of them; and that unless the Padre did hearken then and there to the confession of his sins, and did shrive him of them, this one chance that God’s mercy had given him would be lost and wasted and back he would go forever to the hot torments of hell.

Therefore the Padre being sure, by that time, that the man was quite crazy in his fever, let him talk on till he had told the whole story of his frightful sinnings; and then did shrive him, to quiet him just as you promise the moon to a sick, fretful child. And the devil must have been very uneasy that night, Senor, because the good nature of that kind-hearted priest lost to him what by rights was his own!

As Padre Lanchitas spoke the last words of the absolution, the man fell back again on his mat with a sharp crackling sound like that of dry bones rattling; and the woman had left the room ; and the candle was sputtering out its very last sparks. Therefore the Padre went out in a hurry through the still open door into the street; and no sooner had he come there than the door closed behind him sharply, as though some one on the inside had pushed against it strongly to shut it fast.

Out in the street he had expected to find the old woman waiting for him; and he looked about for her everywhere, desiring to tell her that she must send for him when the man’s fever left him that he might return and hear from the man a real confession, and really shrive him of his sins. But the old woman was quite gone. Thinking that she must have slipped past him in the darkness into the house, he knocked at the door lightly, and then loudly; but no answer came to his knocking and when he tried to push the door open, using all his strength, it held fast against his pushing as firmly as though it had been a part of the stone wall.

So the Padre, having no liking for standing there in the cold and rain uselessly, hurried onward to his friend’s house and was glad to get into the room where his friends were waiting for him, and where plenty of candles were burning, and where it was dry and warm.

He had walked so fast that his forehead was wet with sweat when he took his hat off, and to dry it he put his hand into his pocket for his handkerchief; but his handkerchief was not in his pocket and then he knew that he must have dropped it in the house where the dying man lay. It was not just a common handkerchief, Senor, but one very finely embroidered having the letters standing for his name worked upon it, with a wreath around them that had been made for him by a nun of his acquaintance in a convent of which he was the almoner; and so, as he did not at all like to lose it, he sent his friend’s servant to that old house to get it back again. After a good long while, the servant returned: telling that the house was shut fast, and that one of the watch seeing him knocking at the door of it had told him that to knock there was only to wear out his knuckles, because no one had lived in that house for years and years!

All of this, as well as all that had gone before it, was so strange and so full of mystery, that Padre Lanchitas then told to his three friends some part of what that evening had happened to him; and it chanced that one of the three was the notary who had in charge the estate of which that very house was a part.

And the notary gave Padre Lanchitas his true word for it that the house because of some entangling law matters had stood locked fast and empty for as much as a lifetime; and he declared that Padre Lanchitas must be mixing that house with some other house which would be easy, since all that had happened had been in the rainy dark. But the Padre, on his side, was sure that he had made no mistake in the matter; and they both got a little warm in their talk over it; and they ended by agreeing so that they might come to a sure settlement to meet at that old house, and the notary to bring with him the key of it, on the morning of the following day.

So they did meet there, Senor, and they went to the middle door the one that had opened at a touch from the old woman’s hand. But all around that door, as the notary bade Padre Lanchitas observe before they opened it, were unbroken cobwebs; and the keyhole was choked with the dust that had blown into it, little by little, in the years that had passed since it had known a key. And the other two doors of the house were just the same. However, Padre Lanchitas would not admit, even with that proof against him, that he was mistaken; and the notary, smiling at him but willing to satisfy him, picked out the dust from the keyhole and got the key into it and forced back hardly the rusty bolt of the lock and together they went inside.

Coming from the bright sunshine into that dusky place lighted only from the doorway, and the door but part way open because it was loose on its old hinges and stuck fast they could see at first nothing more than that the room was empty and bare. What they did find, though and the Padre well remembered it was the bad smell. But the notary said that just such bad smells were in all old shut-up houses, and it proved nothing; while the cobwebs and the closed keyhole did prove most certainly that Padre Lanchitas had not entered that house the night before and that nobody had entered it for years and years. To what the notary said there was nothing to be answered; and the Padre not satisfied, but forced to give in to such strong proof that he was mistaken was about to come away out of the house, and so have done with it. But just then, Senor, he made a very wonderful and horrifying discovery. By that time his eyes had grown accustomed to the shadows; and so he saw over in one corner lying on the floor close beside where the man had lain whose confession he had taken a glint of something whitish. And, Senor, it was his very own handkerchief that he had lost!

That was enough to satisfy even the notary; and as nothing more was to be done there they came out, and gladly, from that bad dark place into the sunshine. As for Padre Lanchitas, Senor, he was all mazed and daunted knowing then the terrible truth that he had confessed a dead man; and, what was worse, that he had given absolution to a sinful soul come hot to him from hell! He held his hat in his hand as he came out from the house and never did he put it on again: bareheaded he went thenceforward until the end of his days! He was a very good man, and his life had been always a very holy life; but from that time on, till the death of him, he made it still holier by his prayings and his fastings and his endless helpings of the poorest of the poor. At last he died. And it is said, Senor, that in the walls of that old house they found dead men’s bones.

Legends of the City of Mexico, Thomas A. Janvier, 1910

The story above obviously has parallels with all those tales of couples lost in New England storms who seek shelter at a big, old-fashioned house where they are welcomed by a gracious, if pale, hostess for the night. They leave payment on the marble-topped table in the parlor, then, when they return, they invariably find the house deserted or in ruins–and the payment still on the marble-topped table. The End.

But the notion of resurrecting the dead in order to hear their confession and shrive (or baptize) them has been around since the days of the early Church fathers. One might even say it began with the Harrowing of Hell. Dozens of saints are alleged to have raised the dead. St Patrick rather made a specialty of it. However edifying these stories, tales of confessing the dead could, one fears, be used as fund-raising exempla…


Woman Who Had Been Regarded as Dead for Five Years Confesses to a Priest.

A curious story comes from a small town in the state of Puebla, reports a Mexico correspondent of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. A missionary priest named Padre Pimentel, staying there, stated in a sermon he preached that he was visited by a youth named Daniel Diaz, who begged him to go to his house and confess his sister, who had been dead five years, “and how had appeared to him, beseeching him to call on the missionaries to assist her out of purgatory.”

The padre says that, despite the fears which were aroused by this strange request, he determined to go, and took for his companions Mariano Mellado and two sacristans. On reaching the house, which was a gloomy place, he was conducted to a cheerless room, where he seated himself and immediately became aware of a floating vaporous figure, which at the same time he heard “creaking of bones.” The wretched young woman made her confession, and, on being absolved, disappeared suddenly.

The padre states that the awful experience brought on a severe illness, but since his recovery he has determined to make the fact known, that others may not be exposed to the same long durance in purgatory for want of absolution.

The news of this occurrence has spread like wildfire, and the missionaries have been the recipients of handsome contributions since it took place.

The Iola [KS] Register 30 August 1901: p. 1

Other stories of poor souls returning for absolution—perhaps outside the Hispanic tradition? Confess to Chriswoodyard8 AT

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