The Devoted, the Devil, and the Damned

Front entrance of Roman Catholic Minor Basilica
Front entrance of Roman Catholic Minor Basilica

Put on the whole armor of GOD, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

“Wherefore, take unto you the whole armor of GOD, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand

EPH. 6: 11-13

The thick ganja smoke swirled around the dread-locked heads of the two men before drifting lazily upward. In the cramped, unkempt, windowless, one-room shack that served as their sanctum, they sat on the bare floorboards facing each other with knees drawn up against their chests.

There was no conversation between them as they passed the long, thick joint back and forth. There was no need for talk. The voice of judgment had already revealed to their hallucinating minds their mission of faith. Unquestioningly, they had accepted their charge, and given thanks and praise for the honor bestowed upon them. They were the chosen ones—the messianic messengers.

It was simple. All they had to do was deliver a message in clear, unmistakable terms to the disciples of the beast that would reverberate in the corridors of history. They knew they would be caught and punished. Probably put to death. But death was a fleeting thing; something transient on a journey to greater consciousness. And they would be martyrs in the cause of righteousness.

‘Babylon’ had infiltrated everything: school, club, church, government, justice, and family. Everyone had succumbed to its soft, corrupting embrace. Everything was tainted. Nothing was sacred anymore, not even the church with its life-sized idols in the presence of which, worshippers made devout obeisance. People had become enslaved by the ‘Babylon’ system–the gaudy, fleshly materialism that perpetuated an all-consuming culture of divisiveness, cold cynicism, mental effeteness, and unnatural affection.

The chains of enslavement had to be broken. A blow had to be struck at the heart of this system that devoured generations even before they were born. The fundamental questions had remained “what?” and “how?” They had pondered these questions for several days in the ever-present blue haze of ganja smoke until Kenneth, the younger and brighter of the two, had offered the answers.

Kenneth had reasoned that church and government, with their history scarlet with the blood of innocents, had done more than all other institutions combined to keep this system that resonated with evil intent alive. Eyes blazing with drug-inspired fervor, he argued that it was all about power and greed, and the corrupting influences of the two. His rhetoric was pure poetry, filling Frank—the other man—with a sense of divine destiny.

The decision had been made. They would target the church–that false bastion of morality and pillar of hypocrisy. Ironing out the details of the first strike in their jihad against the beast kept them up many nights. They had both left their jobs with no formal ceremony or fanfare; they just decided that this crusade was more important than their continued exploitation and stopped going to work. So they planned feverishly at night and slept during the day.

Dawn was still a couple of hours away when they roused themselves. Although they had not been sleeping, stillness had settled upon them as they waited. The sound of cocks crowing in the distance alerted them that the time was near. Frank rolled one of his trademark joints and, as they smoked quietly, they examined their surroundings. They were on Derek Walcott Square, between a clump of fairly short trees and the wall facing the library where it was impossible to see them in the dark. They had spent the night there, close to their target, close to their instruments of deliverance.

Roman Catholic Minor Basilica-side entrance facing Derek Walcott Square.jpg
Roman Catholic Minor Basilica – side entrance facing Derek Walcott Square

An hour later, the huge bell of the Roman Catholic Basilica began to toll, and a grim smile touched Kenneth’s face briefly. The bell was summoning the church laity to service on the last day of the year. It was Sunday, December 31, 2000—a day of judgment, a day of cleansing, and a day of death.

*

Claire awoke at approximately 4:30 in the morning. She pulled aside one of the bedroom curtains close to her bed and peered outside through the glass of her wrought-iron-barricaded window. It was pitch dark outside. “A soul could get lost in that,” she mused and released the curtain. She snuggled back beneath her bed covers, thinking that she would rest for another half hour then prepare for the 6 a.m. mass. Before drifting off to sleep, she thought that today—the eve of the new millennium—would be a good day to attend mass. Mercifully, she slept up to 7:15, blissfully unaware of the madness and mayhem being perpetrated in the house of GOD and in HIS name.

Rosalind awoke at the stroke of 4:00 in the morning and began the task of completing some of the previous day’s chores. There were clothes to be sorted and folded; furniture to be rearranged; kitchen utensils to be washed and stacked, and a host of other odds and ends that must be done before she attended the 6:00 o’clock mass. When the clock on her living room wall read 4:45, she went into her grandchildren’s room to wake them. The two boys shared one bed and the girl had a smaller one to herself. As she gazed upon the sleeping children, a rush of maternal affection engulfed her. On an impulse, she bent and kissed the little girl lightly on her exposed cheek. The child stirred and murmured dreamily but did not awake. They looked so angelic lying there, it would be a shame to wake them, she thought, and decided that they would attend the 9:00 o’clock mass instead. They, too, would be spared the dread-locked horror lying in wait like a coiled serpent in the chilly, dew-covered morning.

As the first set of worshippers started trickling in, the church bell began to toll again. It was a happy, celebratory sound that filled the morning, urging the catholic faithful to observe their duty. Within minutes, the trickle had turned into a steady press of humanity. By 5:45 almost all the available seats had been taken, and before the officiating priest had even begun the mass, part of the congregation had overflowed onto the pavement just outside the church doors.

They came from all walks of life: the established merchant and roadside vendor, lawmaker and law-breaker, prostitute and priest, landlord and tenant, scandalmonger and researcher, and intellectual and illiterate. Bound by the common thread of their faith, they acknowledged each other in different ways–a quiet nod, a firm handshake, a clap on the shoulder, or a familiar smile. Steeped in age-old tradition, there was an unspoken need in every breast to end the year on a note of religious renewal and reconciliation. Then they would return to their respective homes to continue the cycle of courting heaven and hell.

A hush fell on the congregation when the celebrant and other church ministers entered. Proceeding to the altar, the officiating priest greeted the congregation and proclaimed the presence of the LORD: “In the name of the FATHER, and of the SON, and of the HOLY SPIRIT,” he intoned. The gathering responded with a hearty “Amen.”

“The grace of our LORD, JESUS CHRIST and the love of GOD and the fellowship of the HOLY SPIRIT be with you all,” the priest continued.

“And also with you,” came the familiar response.

The mass settled into its fixed, unexciting routine. The priest would lead the congregation in various rites and invocations and the appropriate response would follow. Even before the liturgy of the word had begun, people were already looking at their watches, thinking ahead to the rest of the day’s activities.

“My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, let us call to mind our sins.” The priest invoked the penitential rite and the huge chorus of voices thundered its response: “I confess to almighty GOD, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault. In my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; and I ask BLESSED MARY, EVER VIRGIN, all the angels and saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the LORD OUR GOD.”

*

It was time. The two men retrieved a plastic bag from the nearby hedge from which they drew two long, sleeveless, white robes. Still in a sitting position, they donned the loose-fitting garments. Then, Frank produced a homemade pipe and a small, crumpled aluminum foil package from which he extracted four pieces of crack cocaine. With steady hands, he placed the mind-altering substance into the pipe and lit it. The two drew long and hard on the pipe and within seconds, the hellish drug was consumed. The result was almost immediate. Their eyes became glazed over and whatever doubt or misgiving that may have remained evaporated. A curtain had been lifted from their minds to reveal them as they really were—GOD’S warriors, pure and invincible, filled with power and immortality! They stood up and began a steady, purposeful march toward the Roman Catholic Basilica approximately two hundred feet away.

Derek Walcott Square with the Castries Central Library  in the background
Derek Walcott Square with the Castries Central Library in the background

*

The regularly repeated miracle had already been performed. Ordinary bread and wine had been transformed by Eucharistic sacrament into the sacrificial body and blood of the LAMB OF GOD. “This is my body, this is my blood…” the priest had reverently chanted. Two long queues of worshippers had formed at the steps leading to the altar to accept the paper-thin wafers on their tongues or in their hands. With the symbolic body of the LAMB OF GOD now part of their own bodies, they returned to their seats.

Roman Catholic Minor Basilica-internal view.jpg
Roman Catholic Minor Basilica – inside view

There were less than forty persons still on the queues when the holy warriors entered the church from the entrance facing the Derek Walcott Square. For a brief moment, they stood framed in the doorway, surveying the scene through hallucinatory eyes before each positioned himself at the back of one of the two queues. Slowly, deliberately, they reached into the cloth bag that each had slung around his neck and shoulder to retrieve a thick, eighteen-inch club with a kerosene treated cloth wound around one end and a capped, plastic bottle filled with kerosene. The top of each cap had been punctured to allow the forcible ejection of the highly inflammable liquid without removing the cap. One of them produced a cheap lighter, lit the kerosene soaked cloth, and in almost perfect unison moved towards the nearest persons on the queues.

The members of the congregation who saw or paid any interest to the latecomers were not alarmed in the least; in fact, one or two thought that a cultural presentation was underway. Muted conversations were scattered throughout the church while some parents attempted to tame the exuberance of hyperactive children. It was a picture of near-normalcy in the closing moments of the mass. A picture of deceptive quality that hid the lurking intent; a picture that was smashed into a million jagged pieces of reflected horror as twin screams of shocked pain froze the living image that suddenly metamorphosed into something surreal.

When the two jets of kerosene were squirted on the two jacketed, male worshippers at the back of the queues, they didn’t feel a thing. The thick cloth absorbed the force and wetness of the liquid before it reached tactile skin, depriving the two men of any advance warning of the hell that was about to consume them. Almost immediately, the flaming clubs were touched to the kerosene-corrupted material and the madness began. As the two men spun around to locate the source of the intense heat that was already raising huge blisters on their skin, they were doused again and the front part of their clothing set alight. Only then, did tortured screams erupt from the blazing figures whose minds couldn’t process the evidence established by their eyes.

Like a still picture on a flickering screen, motion and breath became suspended for a few heartbeats. In the primal uncertainty that followed the screams’ passage, another sign was sought; a signal that would bring nebulous tension within the realm of human comprehension. When two more screams exploded against the fretful, collective consciousness of the bewildered congregation, the frozen tableau became a kaleidoscope of frenzied motion.

There were now four persons on fire. The first two victims had fallen to the floor, rolling around in a desperate attempt to extinguish the fiery torment that was consuming them. The other two reeled drunkenly away from their grim-faced attackers, using their bare hands to beat at the raging flames. Someone shouted “Fire!” and mounting bewilderment and fear turned into blind panic. “Y’all goin’ to die today,” Kenneth said. His voice seemed to issue from the cold bowels of an ancient crypt.

Paul Hartfield and his wife—two North American vacationers—were seated in the fifth row of pews when the unholy desecration began. Devout Catholics, they had fallen in love with the hundred-year-old basilica the moment they first saw it and had made the fateful decision to attend the six o’clock mass. They had selected St. Lucia as a vacation destination above numerous other Caribbean islands because of several glowing word-of-mouth reports they had received from friends who had visited before.

Paul had noticed the two men when they entered the cathedral because of his proximity to the entrance doors that they used. Mildly curious, he indicated their presence to his wife and followed them with his eyes as they went to the back of the queues. Ghostly fingers brushed the back of his neck when the men retrieved their deadly paraphernalia from the bags and late premonition crystallized into full-blown horror as the attack began. In all his life, the retired middle-class engineer had never seen anything like this; it was a cold, expressionless, methodical thing that shocked him to his very marrow and produced wild palpitations from his badly disturbed heart. A sharp pain engulfed his chest. As he slid sideways against his wife on the church pew, clutching at his chest, he managed to gasp out her name.

Phyllis Hartfield tore her incredulous eyes away from the grisly spectacle when she felt her husband’s body slump against hers. At first, she didn’t understand what was happening. Then realization slammed into her brain with pile driver force, introducing a new element of terror that almost immobilized her; her husband was having a heart attack! “Oh GOD!” she screamed. “Help us—please help us!” But her frantic plea was lost in the confusion and dread of the moment. And it was GOD’S rest day.

The Roman Catholic basilica had survived the great Castries fire of 1948. Afterward, townspeople claimed they had witnessed a miracle that day. With walls of hungry flames raging all around the cathedral, not a single stone had even been singed. Some superstitious folk swore they had seen a white dove flying to and fro above the threatened church till the danger passed. Not so today! Today, the Devil had breached the consecrated defenses of the cathedral. Today, Armageddon had come to the hallowed hall of the century-old basilica.

Terror-inspired pandemonium was complete! People were clawing and pummeling each other to reach the sanctuary of the street. They were fleeing the minions of hell who had visited the house of GOD and temporarily obscured the promise of heaven. The smell of burning hair and flesh amplified the primeval terror that raced along sensuous pathways to wreak havoc in brains that were totally unprepared for this mental and physical onslaught. Parents became separated from children; husbands lost sight of wives; people lost their reason—stripped of civilized behavior by fiends who wielded the power of the gift of Prometheus.

Father Christian Gillaume, the officiating priest, and Vincent Roberts—the Eucharistic minister assisting the priest—had not budged. Their limbs had been turned to stone by the unbelievable horror set loose in the basilica; a horror that calmly stalked its victims and turned them into living pyres of screaming torment; a horror that now cast its baleful glance upon them and moved purposefully in their direction.

When Father Gillaume became a priest, he knew—or thought he knew—what to expect and what was expected of him. The entire world had become more critical of the priesthood. It seemed that daily a new scandal or exposé reared its ugly head, threatening to subvert or destabilize the established order. He was sure, however, that his calling was determined by an unearthly power beyond his human prowess or comprehension. He was also convinced that he was prepared for whatever temptations or challenges were waiting to confront him. He was wrong! He was not prepared to face the Devil in the house of GOD. He was not prepared for this trial of his faith.

As the younger of the two attackers advanced menacingly, mobility returned to Father Gillaume and his Eucharistic minister. Instinctively, Roberts moved to shield the priest’s body with his. The next moment, his vestment was squirted with the inflammable liquid. The fiery torch was then thrust hard against him and he burst into flame. The searing pain drove everything else but self-preservation from Roberts’s mind and he rushed away, leaving the terrified priest to fend for himself.

It was the man’s eyes that affected the priest the most; they appeared cold and lifeless— dark orbs of malevolence that aroused the darkest dread. “Fire ‘pon Babylon,” came the hollow intonation from the depths of hell, and the damning liquid was sprayed on the chest and neck of Father Gillaume. “Don’t, please don’t,” he pleaded. But his fate had already been recorded in a mind bent on the destruction of a system that the priest embodied. Then the screams began exploding from his throat when the torch was applied to him. The flames were consuming his chest, neck and face as he spun round and round, screaming with all the power in his lungs.

Curtis Sargusingh was a man of reason. Although he stressed the inviolability of his faith, he was firmly rooted in what he could see, feel, taste, hear, and, within reason, predict. Logic held a special appeal for him. There was nothing like the cold, clinical thrust, parry, and counterthrust of reasoned and informed argument. He felt wonderfully energized when he was thus engaged and his intellect fairly hummed. On that fateful day in December, 2000, Curtis Sargusingh’s intellect failed him. In mortal fear for his own safety, he made his way on unsteady legs to the sacristy, en route to Peynier Street outside. At the arched opening connecting the altar and sacristy, Curtis paused briefly to look back on a scene that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Sister Tracy Engle was a seventy-seven year old Irish nun who had come to Saint Lucia at the tender age of twenty, and devoted herself to a life of service in the church. She had harbored absolutely no regrets about her calling—until today. As the premeditated horror seared into her brain like a huge, caustic wave, she looked desperately about. For a brief moment, her eyes locked with those of one of the attackers. In blind panic, she turned and fled towards the exit leading to Peynier Street. It was a futile attempt at escape. Her septuagenarian legs no longer had the strength to do what came so easily to younger persons.

The dread-locked crusader reached the gasping nun before she could step off the pavement and onto the street. His foam-flecked lips were twisted in a feral snarl of unreasoning rage as he advanced menacingly on the helpless woman. Sister Engle backed away from the living nightmare, whose intent blazed in eyes that seemed as opaque as black steel, until her back came up against the wall that separated the church from the street. “Jezebel!” The low-pitched word exploded from Kenneth’s mouth in a blast of foul breath that hit the trapped nun in the face like a physical blow. Deliberately, he raised the smoking club above his head.

In the interval between the club being raised and its descent, the nun’s mind teetered on the edge of a dark, gaping abyss until, miraculously, images of her childhood displaced the near-madness in her brain. Then, she smiled and the shock of it dropped the demonic mask from Kenneth’s face to reveal eyes that were stretched taut with helpless terror. Impulsively, she reached out to touch him and the mask slid smoothly into place again. The club came down on the front part of Sister Engle’s head with brutal force, splitting her skull and bathing her face with a deluge of blood. She was dead even before her body hit the pavement.

“Mama! Mama!” the distraught young woman screamed. She had dropped off her mother—who had not yet fully recovered from a stroke suffered earlier in the year—at the door of the basilica before the mass started. Ninety minutes later, a friend had phoned to alert her to the mayhem being perpetrated in the church. Even before the person had finished speaking, she had dropped the instrument of evil tidings and rushed out her front door on bare feet and adrenaline-sustained terror. With disheveled hair and tear-streaked face, she searched the sea of faces outside the church. A parishioner tried to hold and reassure her, but she broke away from him to continue her desperate search. “Mama! Mama!”

It was over, or so it seemed. The police had been called in and, with a little help from parishioners, had arrested the alleged perpetrators. Inside the church, evidence of hellish chaos was everywhere: burnt bibles and biblical tracts on the floor, some victims still lying where they had fallen, and scorched carpets. Outside, the incomprehensible nature of what had occurred had not yet fully set in. Parishioners were huddled together in small groups, and a heavy-set woman in her mid-forties was attempting to describe what she had witnessed. Then the frightening enormity of their ordeal struck her with irresistible force. Her face went blank, and she broke down in a fit of convulsive sobbing.

*

 A shocked, unnatural silence gripped the island in the wake of what was described as “the cathedral incident.” And while local pundits offered up diverse reasons for the actions of the two men, and people struggled to come to grips with their dark reality, the storm clouds of a new horror began to gather from the nightmares of the old.

Author’s note: On Sunday, December 31, 2000, two white-robed men entered the Roman Catholic Minor Basilica in Castries and attacked members of the congregation.  In the aftermath, an Irish nun lay dead on the pavement, and one of the officiating priests died from third-degree burns a couple of weeks later in a hospital in Martinique.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s