Malden--in Retrospect and Prospect


AN extraordinary succession of events occurred in a cemetery a few miles from Boston in the month of November, 1929. Scenes which have been witnessed in every age and in many lands were repeated about the grave of a simple and obscure Catholic priest who had been buried sixty years before. In some manner the word had gone abroad that miracles of healing were wrought at the tomb of Father Power. The occasional visitors who had tarried for prayer at that grave almost overnight were multiplied a thousandfold. Like a great crusading host, assembling for some sacred enterprise, there came from every direction the strong and the well bringing their sick of divers diseases, the lame, the halt, and the blind, those with withered limbs, the palsied, and the crippled. Healings were affirmed to have taken place almost every day of the great outpouring. Many accepted these cures as obvious manifestations of the power of God. Others ascribed them to a revival of the will invigorating the discouraged. Some refused to believe that any genuine cures had been effected.

Was the world looking upon a new manifestation of divine grace? Could all that happened be regarded merely as a fresh ebullition of hysteria? Would mob psychology account for the cures and newspaper headlines for the presence of the mobs? What action would the Catholic Church take in the face of this phenomenal episode, or would it take no action at all? These questions occupied the public mind for weeks during and following the inundation of the cemetery in Malden by a half-million pilgrims.

The monument above the grave of Father Power was a simple table tomb, a marble slab supported two feet above the ground by six carved pedestals, said to have been erected by the children of the Holy Redeemer Church in East Boston, and bearing this inscription : —


Born Oct. 20, 1844 Died Dec. 8, 1869


The Latin lines have been rendered into English by a Catholic scholar thus: ‘O good Jesus, priest and victim, to be a priest on earth Thou didst call Patrick, and through his hands Thou gavest Thyself to others; as a victim in Heaven may he have eternal joy.’

Of Father Power but little is known. Born at Bantry in County Cork and left an orphan while yet a child, an older brother brought him to the United States; and in East Boston, across an arm of the inner harbor from the business centre of the city, he lived as a boy and served at the altar of the Holy Redeemer Church, whose pastor, Father James Fitton, manifested much interest in the children of his parish and singled out this Irish lad for special attention. Having spent some years in study in the local schools, he was sent to a seminary in Quebec. The old record in the Laval University Library describes him as ‘an American come here because of the War of Secession.’ The students made extended notes of their lectures, and the two ‘books’ on chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, and other subjects, which constitute almost the only documentary survivals of Father Power, are probably based on these classroom memoranda. He came back over the border for the study of theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary at Troy, New York, and, as a young man of unusual ability, he subsequently was sent for about a year to the University of Louvain in Belgium.

An ordination card, happily found, corrects the date commonly assigned for his entrance into the priesthood. The record of the card is: ‘In Memory / of / Sept. 7th, 1867, / (Eve of the Feast of the Nativity) / of the B.V.M. / whereon / Rev. Patrick J. Power / Received the Holy Orders of Priesthood / in the Cathedral Chapel of the Holy Cross / Boston, Mass,’ with a prayer following. The young priest was assigned to a parish at Chicopee near Springfield, where he fell ill, presumably of pneumonia. He is described variously as living thereafter in East Boston, with a brother in Brookline, and with relatives in Cambridge. He is said to have been the first priest to be buried in the then new Holy Cross Cemetery. One small old-fashioned photograph is locked away in the safe of the pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Malden. The cemetery is within the bounds of his parish, and the Reverend Patrick H. Walsh serves the chapel therein as well as the church.

A few books inscribed by Father Power have been found, and a search of the files of the Boston Pilot, long famous as a Catholic weekly newspaper, has revealed an obituary poem to his memory, initialed ‘M.E.B.,’ and probably written by the Reverend Michael E. Barry, of Springfield. The verses describe the young priest as ‘ manly and true, of sympathetic nature, pure, refined, childlike and gentle in every act,’ and as one who passed away ‘with golden honors clustering around.’ Tradition agrees with this interpretation, characterizing him as mild in manner, devout in conduct, fond of learning, and in love with his creed and his Church. And of Father Patrick J. Power hardly anything as yet has been discovered besides what here is set down.

Yet sixty years after his death many hundreds of pilgrims were spending whole nights in prayer about his tomb, and tens of thousands were coming to the cemetery between dawn and dark to kneel above his grave. Father Walsh, on October 27, 1929, the Sunday preceding All Saints’ Day, referred, casually as it seemed, to stories he had heard at various times about wonders wrought by prayer at the grave of Father Power, and to the probability that many saints must be buried in such a cemetery as Holy Cross; he included also a request for authentic information about any cures that might have been obtained there. The allusions in this sermon were repeated throughout the parish, stories of the far past were recalled, the special veneration with which for many years the grave of Father Power had been regarded was intensified. Presently new cures were reported. The newspapers ‘printed the news.’ Constantly increasing numbers of sick persons and their friends visited the table tomb, there to perform their devotions.


Just what might lie behind the references in the sermon is almost as hard to ascertain as are the details of the life of the young priest. The most reasonable explanation that comes to hand is that the basin or chalice carved in the flat slab above the grave resembles a holy-water font, and that persons passing dipped their fingers in the rain water therein collected and ‘ blessed themselves,’as they might have done upon entering a church. On the authority of a priest, in conversation with the writer, it may be said that the first reported cure was accomplished at the grave about a third of a century ago. A spike had been driven into a man’s leg, a friend in wrenching it away tore the flesh, gangrene set in, and the wound appeared incurable. A sister anointed the limb with water from the chalice above the grave. There were several applications. Slowly, not instantaneously, the leg healed. Said the priest: ‘He told me it was like magic. That was his word — “magic.”’

In the course of thirty years or more a few other cures were associated with the tomb. A deaf boy was made to hear. Reverent Catholics passing the cemetery would cross themselves with the name of Father Power upon their lips. The superintendent of the cemetery, who happens to be a brother of Cardinal O’Connell, has said: ‘I know that for years there has been a certain amount of talk, in restricted quarters, about this grave.’ But there was no established practice of pilgrimage thereto for prayer. This is the perspective to be kept in mind when considering the excitement of the last two months of 1929.

The request of the parish priest for information made the grave and the cures a subject of general comment throughout the neighborhood. One or more new cures were reported. One by one the Boston newspapers printed display stories about the wonder-working grave. Then the tidal sweep began. By scores one day, by hundreds the next, and by thousands on the third day, in swiftly mounting numbers the multitudes came. As the crowds multiplied, the newspapers increased the size of their headlines. Nor storm nor cold could daunt the earnest and eager pilgrims. Watchers who spent hours at the graveside, and officers who kept order where easily there might have been a mêlée, expressed wonder that the stream of sick and suffering seemed never to slacken. From one point of view it was all ballyhoo, whooped up by a sensational press. From another it was an awe-inspiring manifestation of man’s invincible faith in the supernatural. To all discriminating observers it was a curious commingling of much that is fine and of some things that are mean in human nature. Profiteers hurried to the cemetery gates with their wares quite as they had done centuries before in Jerusalem. But within the big iron gates there was little to see that did not command respect and sympathy.

Spellbound one watched. Hour by hour one stood, trying to count, striving to ascertain the nature of the ailments of those kneeling in the mud and stretching themselves flat upon the stone, always acutely conscious of the misery he witnessed and of the intensity of hope that brought these thousands here. The first day of large crowds was November 3; the last, November 24. The total number of visitors, accepting the lowest day-by-day figures in the newspapers, was 847,000. These numbers were estimates. Nobody knows what a correct count would reveal. But these estimates in the main were derived from police officers and reporters accustomed to crowds. There were many duplications, for some persons came to the grave day after day. Reduce the grand total to a half million and yet what a mighty marvel remains. Cures were announced on every day but two, possibly on all but one. The names as publicly published may be reckoned variously from 109 to 119. Most of the cures were said to be complete, some admittedly were partial. A tabulation shows that nineteen persons were reported to have abandoned crutches, canes, braces for legs or arms, and body casts; that twenty-four other ‘cripples’ were ‘cured’ or ‘helped’; that nine received their sight of whom half had been ‘blind’ entirely, five the ability to speak and one to hear, and that the paralytics numbered thirteen. Half the cures were wrought upon children or relatively young persons.


It would be impossible to exaggerate the extraordinary character of the scenes at that grave. We visit the cemetery on one of the ‘big days.’ Every trolley car is packed to suffocation. Every street is crowded with slowmoving automobiles. The cars carry the number plates of all the New England states,, and of a score of states beyond the Hudson, with many from Canada and a few even from distant California and Florida. One day eleven busloads come from Springfield, with seventy cripples among them. Any car containing an invalid seeking help is allowed to pass the gates and to drive to a point near the grave.

There are said now to be 150,000 owners of lots in this city of the dead, and 140,000 burials have taken place there. Situated in the angle made by two of the boundary lines of Malden, a city of 60,000, and adjacent to the populous cities of Revere and Everett, the cemetery witnesses many funerals every week. It is seen at its worst in November. The trees are bare, the grass is brown, the earth is sodden. No snow hides the ugliness of the scene. Most of the monuments are plain, of little artistic effect. A path to the chapel ascends to the right from the main entrance.

The police organize the queue on the highway to the left. Step by step they slowly shuffle along. A few pause for prayer before the Celtic cross which commemorates the priests of the Boston diocese. The line bends to the right and presently enters a roped lane. After a half hour, an hour, of patient progress, one enters the area within the barrier of timber and ropes which surrounds the grave.

Now the line divides, half passing the stone slab on each side. Policemen direct their movements. Over and over again, with the effect of a ritualistic chant, they repeat their admonitions: ‘Please keep moving. Please don’t kneel. Others are waiting. Touch the stone and go to the chapel for prayer. Please move on.’ The stone is smeared with earth. Three baskets fill rapidly with offerings of money, flowers, beads, devotional pictures. (The baskets were put in place after visitors had begun to cast these tokens of faith and gratitude upon the grave.) The officers assist the infirm to kneel and give them time for their devotions. The grave passed, t he line forms anew for a jerky movement toward the chapel. Hundreds wait long in the open plot before the door and then make their way slowly up one side aisle, across before the altar, and down the opposite aisle. They pause for genuflexion or for brief prayer, and to light the candles in the metal stands. Occasionally a cripple is carried forward. The seats are filled all day by those at their devotions. A little heap of crutches lies before the altar.

We return to the grave and watch from outside the barrier. In silent wonder we look upon that unending pageant of sorrow. It is pathetic, harrowing. It is solemn, it is pitiful, and it is inspiring. Have all the hospitals of Greater Boston sent their patients here? The handful of spectators smile in sympathy with the hope written on the faces of some of these pilgrims. Thirty, forty men and women shamble through the enclosure every minute, and every few minutes some person drops moaning upon the grave. Nobody passes without making the sign of the cross. Every man removes his hat. Some in whispers, others in voices half audible, mumble their prayers.

The deaf, the dumb, and the blind, the crippled and the paralyzed, mental defectives and the victims of accidents, appear hour after hour from dawn until far after sunset. Children with wondering gaze lie on the stone while their friends rub their limbs with sand and anoint their faces with water from bottles which have been rolled across the slab. A sobbing old woman is carried from her car by two stalwart officers to a seat at the foot of the grave. A young woman whose eyes look vacantly upon the scene sits at the foot of the tomb while her companions rub her body with loam scooped from the path. A woman in a wheel chair tightly clasps her rosary while her friends remove her shoes and stockings. A man on his knees lifts a radiant face to the heavens and clearly utters a simple appeal. A lad, his face writhing in pain, casts himself flat across the stone. A woman stretches herself full length beside the grave and thus remains for minutes.

These things we saw. One incident, witnessed by scores, was described thus by a Catholic writer: ‘A boy whose leg was perfectly stiff was lowered to the earth by the side of the grave. He uttered a sharp cry and soon was moving his leg freely at the knee joints, which his relatives said had been immovable for years. In the centre of a small group of excited people he was taken away, walking, though slowly and painfully, to the chapel.’

Throughout the day such incidents occur. Occasionally nervous tension finds relief in shrill shrieks. Most of the time we hear only the shuffling steps of the multitudes and the droning appeals of the officers. It is an overwhelming spectacle. The diseased of body and mind and their faithful friends, most of them bearing the marks of toil, of many bloods and blends, constitute enormously the majority of these pilgrims. A minority are frankly curious. If scoffers are present they hold their peace.

More poignant still are the scenes on the days of storm. Great throngs defy the pelting cold rain which softens the clay about the grave and drenches all who stop for prayer. In groups men and women huddle together above the stone. A mother rolls down the stockings of her lame child, packs moist clay about her legs, and hooks the stockings up again. A father plasters wet earth over his boy’s hair. Men fill their pockets and women their pocketbooks with earth. Workmen bring wheelbarrow loads of sand and sprinkle it in spadefuls where the soil has been swept away. Several young men kneel in the fellowship of prayer in behalf of the cripple in their midst. Babies wrapped in shawls and blankets are placed on the stone. All day long the rain beats down and the wind blows keen, but the line never stops and the slow slushing of feet upon the gravel walks never ceases.

At night under the mellow light of a full moon the effects are weird and solemn, but the ugly aspects of the daytime are softened and refined. Several thousands come to the grave and more than a thousand remain in prayer within and about the chapel. The gravestone is covered with flickering candles. All movements are restrained. All voices are hushed. Emotional tension is high. The noise of an automobile coming up the drive and the flashing of its lamps seem out of place, reminding the pilgrims of a world whose existence they had forgot. Presently a cripple on a stretcher is lifted from the car and carried to the grave. There he lies, his face turned to the sky, the candles producing curious shadow effects upon his features. In the early darkness a mother brings two crippled children and places them together upon the grave. At midnight hundreds of persons are quietly, almost stealthily, passing up the broad drive and into the roped path, stopping a moment at the grave and going on into the chapel. Halfway between midnight and morning four young men and four young women in evening dress kneel together about the tomb of Father Power.

Superintendent O’Connell receives hundreds of letters from distant places asking for a handful of earth, a vial of water, some object associated with the grave. He says: ‘I could not comply with such requests. We cannot accept responsibility or even appear to give anything resembling authoritative endorsement to what is going on. It is a situation for which we are not responsible.’

Cardinal O’Connell twice visited the cemetery. Each time for an hour or more he observed with minute attention what was happening before his eyes. He would make no comment. ‘I must remain silent,’ he said. Most of the persons in the mighty throngs of those twenty-two days were relatively uneducated, but there were thousands who carried the marks of easy living and mental training. The mayor-elect of Boston brought his wife there on a Sunday evening amid a slashing rain, and the widow of a former governor of Massachusetts was another visitor with whose name the public is familiar.


Have any actual cures been wrought at the grave of Father Power? What will be the position of the Catholic Church upon this remarkable demonstration?

The answer to the one question must be a matter of evidence, and much time must elapse before the evidence can be deemed complete. Several of the alleged cures were reported with circumstantial details in the press. Only one case has been investigated in a fairly complete but somewhat hurried manner. Respecting that case conclusions differ. A young woman of eighteen, who had been almost a year in hospital and had not walked for many months, described as suffering from a spinal deformity and pronounced incurable, on Armistice Day was carried to the tomb, wearing her accustomed plaster cast about her body. She prayed beside the tomb, then fainted upon the grass. She came back to consciousness with a ‘strange feeling’ in her back. She tried to walk. She did walk. In the sacristy at the chapel she abandoned her cast. Her doctor declared the change could not be called a hysteria cure. An X-ray examination revealed a normal spine.

Thus the public read her story in the papers. Several investigators with varying interests examined her record more extensively. Some of them report that the young woman when discharged from the hospital had acquired a habit of invalidism. Nothing was organically wrong with her, but she might never have walked. Hospital records contain the notation: ‘Patient does not coöperate well.’ The fusion of the spinal vertebræ which had been alleged to exist did not exist in fact. A report states that ‘one place on one X-ray plate was a little cloudy.’ Later plates showed a normal spine. She was discharged from the hospital with instructions to walk. She did not obey. Instead, she retired to a wheel chair. A staff physician at the hospital says: ‘She had a definite mental condition which prevented her from walking and other activities that undoubtedly were possible to her physical condition. It would seem that the mental stimulation occasioned by her visit to the tomb resulted in positive relief from the habit of invalidism. This relief I am entirely willing to ascribe to the strength of the girl’s faith that she would be cured. Without the strong mental prompting that her faith and the visit gave her, it is quite possible that she might have gone on indefinitely as an invalid.’

The truth about this case, and about many of the other reported cures, can only be known after the most careful scrutiny of every shred of evidence and not until the record shall have been continued through many years of the future. Every inch of the frontier between the phenomena susceptible to natural explanation and the marvels for which apparently only the supernatural can account must be explored in this and the other more important cases of healings attributed to the miracleworking grave in Holy Cross Cemetery.

As to the ‘mental stimulation’ to which the physician referred in the case of this young woman there may be cited two readily accessible authorities. Dr. James J. Walsh, a teacher of physiological psychology, a scientist eminent in the Catholic Church, has accumulated a large quantity of data about what he calls ‘the cures that fail.’ In the heyday of their early popularity these ‘cures’ accomplished results so wonderful as to tempt even the most conservative of thinkers to feel that at last here was a real panacea for the ills of humanity. No matter though the ‘cure’ was proved after all to possess no actual potency, most of the persons ‘cured’ refused to relapse to their former condition. Humanity is so constituted that half the ills of mankind are of such a nature that they will not be cured until some very impressive motive, either from religion or from science, real or supposed, is brought to bear to change the mental attitude. Many paralytics suffer only from hysterical paralysis. If once a victim of many such troubles makes up his mind to get better, he gets better, unless he has an incurable disease. Says Dr. Walsh: ‘Anything, absolutely anything, that presents a possible hook on which to hang a faith will “cure” people from ills of all sorts. . . . All that the “cure” needs to do in order to make them well is to change their attitude of mind toward their condition. . . . They may have had pains and aches, they may have walked lame for years, they may have been unable to hold their hands to their heads, they have been “paralyzed,” utterly unable to walk, or palsied, walking and moving with difficulty — the “cures” will cure them, though the “cure” may be utterly trivial in itself.’

Dr. Walsh narrates the story of his visit to Knock in the west of Ireland, where he found a town in decay and a convent unfinished, although the fame of the cures effected at the little church years before had gone round the world. The great pile of crutches was still there, but such apparatus is ‘the most fallacious evidence in the world of wonder-working healing.’ At Lourdes the histories of patients are taken quite as carefully as in any hospital. But Dr. Walsh recalls how Dr. Boisserie laughed about the ‘cures’ of neurotic affections of various kinds, as neurotic cripplings, which constantly appeared at the clinic. But, he adds, it was ‘quite different with the “cures” of lupus and other visible or easily demonstrable forms of tuberculosis which constitute considerably more than half the “cures” that take place at Lourdes.’ In spite of these ‘very objective evidences,’ the Church never has given ‘ formal approbation ’ to Lourdes and has left its members ‘free to believe in them, or to reject them, any and all of them, according to their estimate of the value of the testimony in support of them.’

It must be remembered, of course, that Dr. Walsh in no wise denies the possibility of miracle. He says: ‘It is perfectly possible that there may be favorable interference with disease from another world than this. One would be less than a Christian not to believe this.’

The other line of approach is that of the scientists who have devoted time and thought to the study of the physiology of the emotions. They produce evidence to show that the emotions are dynamic, generating energy in the body. Faith releases such energy in helpful ways, fear produces opposite results. For more than thirty years Dr. Walter B. Cannon, of the Harvard Medical School, has been investigating such subjects as the influence of emotional states on bodily functions. He has said that ‘any high degree of excitation in the central nervous system, whether felt as anger, terror, pain, anxiety, joy, grief, or deep disgust, may rouse the sympathetic system to activity, and affect in a stereotyped fashion the functions of organs which that system innervates.’ He bases his views on prolonged experimentation and relates them with careful restraint. But in the paper he read before the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1928 he included many most suggestive remarks. For instance: ‘An escape . . . from the vagueness and mysticism of the psychological healers can be found, I am convinced, in an understanding of the physiological processes which accompany profound emotional experience.’ He concludes a series of illustrations with this statement: ‘There are effects wrought on the organs innervated by the sympathetic nervous system — glands both of external and internal secretion and parts supplied with smooth muscle — that are just as real as are the effects produced when the biceps is used to lift a weight. A remarkable difference lies in the level of the nervous control of these two effects. . . . Whereas the biceps is under “ voluntary” control, the viscera are not under that control, but are influenced favorably or unfavorably by processes associated with feelings or emotions.’


It may reasonably be assumed that the Catholic Church will proceed in the presence of the phenomena at Malden as always it has proceeded in the presence of such phenomena. A Catholic editor states the matter in one crisp sentence: ‘The official attitude of the Church is one of systematic agnosticism.’ Father Power himself in one of his manuscript volumes of notes wrote ‘A Thesis on the Possibility of Miracles.’ At the close of his discussion he said: ‘In order that a miracle be known with certainty, a threefold truth should be known. That is, the historical truth of the miracle — whether the event said to be miraculous really took place. Second, the philosophical truth of the miracle — that is, whether this work or fact was above the order of all created sensible nature. Was there no occult law or force of nature that could bring about this event? Third, the theological truth of the miracle — that is, whether this sensible work . . . was really done by God, or that some creature at the command of God is at least the moral cause of it.’

That statement probably intimates what will be the course of the Church with the wonders at Malden. There will be extensive investigation of what has occurred. If the results shall verify the desirability of a complete investigation, an inquiry will be formally conducted which will explore every detail of these ‘cures,’ the antecedent history of the patient, the medical record if any, the change that may have been wrought, the subsequent condition of the person. The investigators almost invariably appear reluctant to accept a supernatural interpretation of such events. They interrogate the physician as to the possibility of a natural explanation for what seems a marvelous transformation. The words of all witnesses are taken down with scrupulous care. The volume of testimony usually is enormous. In the Malden case ail the facts of the life of Father Power will be sought out and communicants will be asked to search for documents bearing his name. His character must be verified and the purity of his doctrinal teaching established. The preliminaries of this enormous undertaking are now under way. It may be years before the task is completed. The processes of beatification and canonization belong exclusively to Rome, and the results of the investigation now initiated will be sent to the higher tribunals if such action is believed to be justified.

Meantime the site of the grave of Father Power has been changed, and the body now rests in an enclosed space before the chapel. The removal might be attributed entirely to the fact that the original grave was so near other tombs as to expose them to damage from large bodies of pilgrims. The decision of Cardinal O’Connell to close the gates of the cemetery was in strict accord with the law of the Church. If the public demonstrations had been allowed to continue, the authorities at Rome could not have considered the case. The shutting of the gates really was the first step in the Processus Informativus now under way.

Catholic dignitaries many times have said that no better expression in general terms of their position in the presence of such outbursts of popular fervor can be found than that contained in a famous passage of the Apologia pro Vita Sua of Cardinal Newman: —

Now as to miracles. Catholics believe that they happen in any age of the Church, though not for the same purposes, in the same number, or with the same evidence as in apostolic times. . . . Since generally they are granted to faith and prayer, therefore in a country in which faith and prayer abound they will be more likely to occur than where and when faith and prayer are not; so that their occurrence is irregular. And further, as faith and prayer obtain miracles, so still more commonly do they gain from above the ordinary interventions of Providence; and, as it is often very difficult to distinguish between a providence and a miracle, and there will be more providences than miracles, hence it will happen that many occurrences will be called miraculous which, strictly speaking, are not such, and not more than providential ‘graces.’

Persons who believe all this in accordance with Catholic teaching, as I did and do, they, on the report of a miracle, will of necessity, the necessity of good logic, be led to say first, ‘It may be,’ and secondly, ‘But I must have good evidence in order to believe it.’ It may be. because miracles take place in all ages; it must be clearly proved, because after all it may be only a providential mercy, or an exaggeration, or a mistake, or an imposture. . . .