Twenty two year old Jesuit student Benedict Desmond closes his letter back to Chicago from the Saint Joseph’s Sanitarium in Albuquerque. It must have been a lonely outpost for him, and a difficult recuperation, though he mentions finally gaining the strength to actually write any letters at all. In 1907, there were no other means of long-distance communication than what we now view as the tedious “snail mail.” Gathering the pens and paper needed, going through the actual act of writing his thoughts on paper, then securing proper address, stamps, and delivery to whatever postal service was available in the New Mexico Territory at that time may well have been an exhausting process for a victim of tuberculosis.
He was, though, getting better, as he mentions in his letter to Catherine Tully that December 16, 1907. And yet, he still humbly requests the Tully family’s prayers on his behalf. He asks also for the widow Mrs. Tully to remember the widow Mrs. Anna Catherine Desmond in the town of his birth—Galena, Jo Daviess County, on the other side of the state from Chicago. “If it is not too much trouble, call at our house now and then.”
Did he know? Was he just attempting a feeble hopefulness despite what his symptoms were shouting at him?
Young Ben starts a litany of “remember me to….” These are all Catherine Tully’s daughters he mentions: Mae, the one married and living in Ohio with three daughters of her own; Lily, her next-younger sister, by now nearing thirty yet still single; and Agnes, grown-up enough to be almost twenty, herself. His mention of his role as god-father of William and Mary Balfe Tully’s baby, Agnes, prompts me to someday access the microfilmed records of the Catholic parish they attended in Chicago in hopes of confirming that detail in church records.
Was it just formality, or was there a twinge of wistfulness in the holiday wishes included in closing? Benedict Desmond, Jesuit student, carefully inserts the “S. J.” following his name, remembering who he is—who he will always be—despite any sickness which seeks to prevail. He is part of the Societas Iesu. There is a calling on his life.
And yet, before any letter could make the return trip to bring him a reply from the Tully family, Benedict Desmond succumbs to his illness. He dies on the day after Christmas, ten days after writing this letter. Whether for time, finances, or restrictions of distance from home, Ben still remains in that outpost so far from everyone he knew—classmates, church friends and family—buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Albuquerque.
I am a very poor god-father, I must confess, but I hope to make up for it by my prayers, sooner or later.
If it is not too much trouble, call at our house now and then.
I hope Mae is doing well, also that Lily and Agnes are prospering. I don’t doubt that Agnes is become quite a grown-up lady since I saw her last.
Wishing all of you a very Merry Christmas! and “Happy New Year,” I remain as ever
Very truly yours,
Benedict Desmond, S. J.
P. S. –A “Hail Mary” would make a very nice Xmas present for me. I shall pray for all of you, too.
L. D. S.