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The righteous prisoner


Devil's Island, French Guinea Photo: Trekking the Planet/Foter/CC BY-NC-SA1

Photo of Devil’s Island, French Guinea: Trekking the Planet/Foter/CC BY-NC-SA1

[by Earl Blacklock] Father Pierre was a defrocked priest who, convicted of murder, had been sentenced to life at hard labor at the infamous Devil’s Island penal colony.

The evidence against him seemed conclusive. The widow he was accused of killing, who had made him her beneficiary, was known to be fearful, keeping her door bolted after sundown. Tracks in the snow led from the widow’s house to the rear of the church. And his blood-stained cassock was buried in the rectory garden. He proclaimed his innocence, but would say nothing more, and he was convicted.

Hard labor at Devil’s Island meant hours of work in the jungle, felling trees or doing whatever else the authorities demanded. Malaria and other tropical diseases were constant companions. Father Pierre always did his share and more, helping those who were weaker to finish their assigned duties.

Later, when he was put in charge of the infirmary at Oraput Camp, he administered the medical supplies and quinine without favor or personal gain.

When Oraput was closed down, Father Pierre asked to be sent to Ile Saint Louis, the colony for convicts who had contracted leprosy. The lepers were isolated on a small island in the middle of a river. Their food was thrown on shore daily and a doctor visited weekly – otherwise, they fended for themselves. Although he did not have leprosy himself, Father Pierre insisted on sharing their condition.

Five years after he went to the leper colony, an inmate named Groscaillou arrived. Sent to Devil’s Island eight years earlier for burglary, he had contracted the disease in another colony, and was now near death. When Father Pierre bent over him to dress his sores, Groscaillous recognized him and, in great distress, called out to the others to hear his confession. It was he who had killed the widow.

Groscaillous was the priest’s gardener. He knew the old woman kept money in her house and, dressed in the priest’s cossack to fool her, he had gained entrance. When she began to scream, he murdered her. Fleeing to his room in the church, Father Pierre had seen him, and made him come to confession. There, he told all, promising to turn himself in. Instead, Groscaillou had said nothing as the priest was charged and convicted. Now dying, he wanted to sign a confession exonerating Father Pierre.

After his admission, Groscaillou disappeared from his hut; his body was found a few days later. Father Pierre refused to sign a declaration about the murder, saying God had sent him to sooth the miseries of his fellow prisoners. By the time the order for his release arrived, several months later, he too had died.

Father Pierre had refused to break the sanctity of the confessional. When faced with injustice, he accepted it as an opportunity to serve God. Could he have been thinking of I Corinthians 6:7, Paul’s admonition to believers who were taking each other to court? “Why not rather be wronged?” he asks. “Why not rather be cheated?”

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