Beyond the Legend
of the Mission Nun
by O. D. Hegre
Crown leaned up against the adobe wall at the back of the mission church. Thirty yards off to his right, an out-building now stood on the site of the conflagration. According to historical records, eyewitnesses said flames had engulfed the schoolhouse by the time nearby residents arrived. That was around five-thirty on a June afternoon in 1949.
Crown looked down at his watch: just after five. The Jesuits had founded the Mission and, when the Franciscans took charge, they erected the current church and established an Indian school.
Crown wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Today, on this June afternoon, more than one hundred and fifty years later, the San Xavier del Bac Mission remained a historical landmark in the Aura Valley west of Tucson. On reservation land, the parish and school continued to serve the people of the Tohono O’odham nation.
It had been over twenty years since Dr. Michael Crown’s first visit to the Mission. That visit still challenged his sense of reality. He’d never told anyone about it. He was a scientist. He understood the danger of assigning cause and effect to coincidences, especially if they involved the fantasies of a young child.
Still, over those years, he struggled with facts that could not be denied. Today was a special time in his daughter’s life, and the urge to return here had possessed him. He and his wife had been in town for five days. The last three afternoons, Crown had stood right where he was now — waiting. Common sense told him not to expect anything. That was okay; it just felt good to be back, back where a life had begun again.
“Is everything okay, sir?”
Crown looked down into the face of a young nun. A nun! For a moment he was sure his heart had stopped. He looked closer. But... but not....
“Did you get lost from your tour group?”
She smiled at him, and he gathered himself. “No, Sister.” Crown swallowed hard. “I just wandered off on my own. Guess it runs in the family.”
The look of wonderment on the nun’s face made Crown smile, as well. “Sorry. My name is Michael Crown,” and he stuck out his hand.
The nun’s hand was soft in his. “I’m Sister Magdalene Clare. Nice to meet you Mister Crown. I’m just in from Wisconsin... Manitowoc?” Her eyes squinted as if she had just named some lunar crater. “The order of the Franciscan Sisters of Charity. We’re a Roman Catholic congregation.” A demure smile edged across her face. “Apostolic women dedicated to the service of others.”
Crown nodded. “I’m from Minnesota... originally. We’re neighbors.” He cleared his throat.
The nun’s smile broadened. “I’m on a new assignment... the convent, here.”
Crown could hear the excitement in her voice.
“My order has been serving this mission and its school since the 1940’s. Like me, many of the sisters are teachers. K through eighth grade. Children of the Tohono O’odham nation.”
For a moment he was stunned into silence. Crown managed to nod his head. A nun... and a teacher! But weren’t all nuns teachers? He wasn’t sure. Still... the coincidence. No, the synchronicity. “I am a teacher too... at Brown.” He waited for a moment. “In Rhode Island.”
Now she was nodding. “Yes... well, it’s near closing time. I’ll accompany you back.”
“Sure. Thanks. I was just waiting...” Crown again cleared his throat. “I was just—”
“Waiting for what, Mr... or is it Dr. Crown?”
“Please. Just call me Michael, Sister.” Crown searched the woman’s eyes. Azure blue like Jessica’s. “I was waiting...” Crown again hesitated. These coincidences... on this day. Was there a reason? He took a deep breath and waited.
The young nun just stared up at him. Crown could hear a sound like a clock ticking. Yes, it’s time, he thought. It felt right. “Are you familiar with the legend of the San Xavier Mission nun, Sister?”
The woman shook her head. “But I am a teacher, Michael and the children always love a good story. We’ll take the long way back.” Sister Magdalene Clare motioned with her hand. A narrow path lay straight ahead of them. “A legend. Oh yes,” the sister smiled. “Please.”
The rosary beads continued clicking in the young nun’s hand as the pair began their return journey. Crown looked down. How effortlessly the beads moved. This all might be a bit much for primary school kids, he thought. Then he looked again into the young nun’s face. There was no turning back. She could decide.
He cleared his throat and began. “I first heard of the legend when we were on a family vacation. My wife and I, the two older children... and Jessica. I was — well, I still am — at Brown. I teach cell biology and neuroanatomy. That morning I had presented a research paper at a conference in Tucson, and the family decided to use the afternoon to tour the Mission del Bac.”
“Mission del Bac,” Sister Clare smiled. “The place where the water rises.”
Crown nodded. “There are natural springs nearby, from the Santa Cruz River, no doubt.” A place where not only water rises, he thought. “Well, my wife and I were talking with the parish Vicar, something about the Mission’s history, I’m sure. Can’t remember the details.
“The older kids had Jessica in hand — we thought — wandering through the main church. Suddenly they were back. Jessica was not with them. ‘Where is your sister?’ my wife asked. We got that ‘duh’ look from the teenagers.”
“Oh my.” The young nun stopped with the rosary beads.
Crown smiled. “Yes, we all felt the same way. Everyone spread out to look for the little five-year-old. I went outside. Jess was always one for the fresh air. It was a Tuesday, and the visitors were sparse. I was calling out to her and then, as I turned a corner back behind the main church, right where you found me this afternoon, I heard her calling to me: ‘Daddy. Daddy!’
“There she was, standing in front of the out-building we just left.” Crown pointed back over his shoulder. “She came running over to me.
“‘I’m sorry, Daddy. I heard the children... I got lost. I’m sorry, Daddy. The lady found me.’ Jessica’s little blue eyes stared up at me.
“‘It’s okay, darling. It’s okay,’ I said. I looked around. We were alone. ‘What lady?’ I asked.
“‘The limping lady with the hurt face. She brought me here.’ Jessica was smiling.”
“A limp? Hurt face?” Sister Clare’s voice rose in pitch.
“Yes. A limp. I asked Jess where she had come from.
“She pointed to the back building. ‘It was dark and so hot,’ Jessica said. ‘The lady brought me out into the light.’
“Again, I looked around. ‘Where is she, Pumpkin?’ I asked.
“‘I don’t know. She just said, “Go find your daddy. All the fires are out and all the shadows gone.” I saw a little frown cross Jessica’s face. ‘What did the lady in black mean, Daddy?’ Jessica’s blue eyes stared up at me.”
“Fires? Shadows?” Sister Clare had stopped. “What ever did she mean, Michael?”
“At the time, those words only confused me, as well. With the family, once again together, I was saying goodbye to the Vicar. I was pretty sure it was one of the Sisters that helped Jess out. I told him I would like to make a contribution to the church, to thank the Sister for her help. ‘I know she cannot accept personal gifts,’ I said. The Vicar looked confused.
“‘Jess didn’t remember her name, but it was the nun with the...’ I had to search for the words. ‘The nun with the facial disfigurement... with the limp.’
“The Vicar staggered for a moment, his face was sheet-white. He was a man, I reckoned, in his eighties — obviously shaken. A young priest, one of his assistants, helped him to a chair. I had no idea what was going on.”
Crown and the Sister began their walk again.
“The young priest took me aside and told me the legend of the Mission Nun. In 1947 an Indian school had been established on the grounds of the Mission. In 1949, on a June afternoon like today, tragedy struck. A fire erupted in the schoolhouse, burning it to the ground. Most of the children inside died. The first responding villagers reported seeing a nun trying to help some of the children escape the fire.” Crown stopped and raised his sunglasses to look directly into Sister Clare’s eyes. “A nun with a limp.”
Crown could hear the gasp. The sister had turned to look back at the out-building. The rosary beads were again moving rapidly among her fingers. Crown stood beside her. “Over the years since the fire, people have reported seeing her — the young priest told me — a limping nun, leading children from the out-building - where the old schoolhouse once stood. The legend says she is still trying to save the children.”
Crown watched the young woman. Her eyes held steady on the out-building. Then he continued. “The young priest said that he’d never seen the apparition. ‘But I think,’ and he glanced over at the shaken Vicar, ‘I think the Father has’.”
Sister Magdalene Clare stared at Crown. Her eyes glistened with the afternoon sunlight.
Crown could feel tears welling. “That was twenty-three years ago, Sister. Jessica was five.” His voice faltered a bit. “A year earlier, my little girl had been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.” Crown fought back the lump in his throat. “The disease had progressed to the point where the docs had given up all hope.” Tears now trailed down his cheeks. “Our family was on its last trip together.”
The young nun reached out and grasped his hands.
Crown felt the rosary beads. “Do you know where I am going this evening, Sister?”
Tears now ran down the nun’s cheeks as well.
“Of course you don’t.” Crown was back in control. “I’m attending Jess’s graduation from the University of Arizona. She’s receiving her MD degree.”
There was another audible gasp from the young nun. Crown held tight to her hands.
“When we returned to Providence, on the next visit to the pediatric oncology unit at Brown, all Jessica’s tests were clear. They could find no evidence of the cancer.”
Crown could feel the woman sway slightly.
“‘All the fires are out.’ Those were the nun’s words. Are you familiar with PET scans, Sister? Radioactive tracers light up the metastatic tumor cells like fireflies invading Jessica’s body. And on CT scans, the tumors appear as dark images. ‘All the shadows gone,’ the limping nun had said.”
They had reached the Church entrance.
“That’s why you were out there... where I found you.” Sister Clare’s voice was strong. “You were hoping for another meeting. To tell the limping nun...” The young woman smiled at Crown. “To thank her.”
“It sounds crazy. Maybe I am crazy. I don’t know. Did Jess see and hear what she described that day? I’ve asked her. She was five; she doesn’t remember now.” Crown again took the Sister’s hands.
“But, Michael, you said others have seen her. Even the Vicar.” Sister Magdalene Clare’s smile broadened. “A Vicar, Michael.” The sister’s grasp tightened. “Why not a child in need?”
“But I’m not really a man of faith, Sister. Well... I wasn’t back then anyway.” Crown looked down.
“And now, Michael?”
Crown again found searching eyes. “Touch and go, Sister. Touch and go” was all he could manage.
“Well, I’m here for some time. I’ll keep a lookout. If I see Jessica’s friend, I’ll relay your thanks.” Sister Clare’s eyes glistened. “Come back and visit, Michael. Meanwhile, this was a good start... I mean, you did get to talk to a nun, right!”
Crown smiled. “I think you have chosen a magical place, Sister.”
“Where more than just water springs eternal, my friend.” Among the tears a broad smile again graced the young nun’s face. “And now I have not one but two stories to tell the children.”
Copyright © 2015 by O. D. Hegre