Dr. Sym Goes to Heaven (A Short Story)

The following short story by Shannon Selin was originally published on CommuterLit on November 12, 2013. This work of historical fiction is based on a true episode in Canadian history. For details, see “The Story Behind Dr. Sym Goes to Heaven.”

An operation at the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, 1905

An operation at the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, by Joseph-Charles Franchère, 1905

Mother Céloron watched the eyelids slide back, the jaw fall slack, the tongue slump in the cracked mouth. She closed the lids but they slipped open half-way, over eyes that stared at nothing. She tried again, letting her fingers linger on the cheek she had shaved only yesterday.

“He has breathed his last.” She turned her damp eyes to heaven.

The sisters, on their knees around the bed, sniffled and sobbed.

Subvenite, Sancti Dei, occurrite Angeli Domini,” began Mother Céloron, leading the community in the prayer for the departed.

Sister Le Pailleur nudged a nun planted in a chair by the window. Sister d’Ailleboust started. She had done her best to keep vigil, but Montreal at three in the morning was quiet; no bells rang, no horses clattered, only the late summer breeze ruffled the trees, and at her age sleep came more easily than wakefulness. She adjusted her eyes to the candlelight and anchored them to the picture of Saint Joseph above the bed.

“Dr. Sym has expired,” whispered Sister Le Pailleur.

Sister d’Ailleboust nodded. “May God receive his soul.”

“Of that blessing we can be certain.”

James McGill arrived at the Hôtel-Dieu seven hours later. It had been his custom, ever since his friend took sick, to stop by the hospital on his way from his estate of Burnside, on the lower slopes of the mountain, to his office on busy Saint Paul Street, where the warehouses of the James and Andrew McGill Company were located. As today was Thursday, he carried Monday’s papers from Quebec, which he was keen to read to Sym. Although French accounts spoke as if the whole Russian army had been defeated at Friedland, the war was far from decided. There was still hope that Europe was not wholly at Napoleon’s mercy. This thought preoccupied McGill as he stepped from his carriage to the stone foyer. He did not catch the anxiety of the sisters until the superior herself swished down the hall in her black gown to meet him.

Mother Céloron hoped to steady him with her tone. “During the night, we had the distressing fortune to lose Dr. Sym.”

McGill did not expect this blow. Sym was ill, but surely not near death. Was it not yesterday they had been reminiscing about their childhood in Glasgow: the smell of the Stockwell Street tenements, the clay of the River Clyde, the bells of the Tolbooth, not jangled all at once, as at the French churches in Montreal, but played melodiously, like a harpsichord? McGill had fewer and fewer connections with Scotland. His brothers, John and Andrew, were gone. His friend Porteous as well. Now Sym.

The superior described Dr. Sym’s abrupt decline. Dr. Selby attended him; there was nothing to be done. She could see the sadness washing through McGill, feel him sinking with the weight. They were the same age, she and McGill, in their sixty-third year. Sym had been a friend to both of them.

“Would you like to see him?”

She led McGill past the apothecary’s apartment, through the men’s ward not, as he expected, to the priest’s room, where Sym had lain in sickbed, but to the chapel, gilded with saints, crucifixes and flickering tapers. Sym lay feet towards the altar, in perfect serenity, as the hands of female sympathy had arranged him. Nuns knelt in prayer. Mother Céloron joined them. McGill took a seat in a pew and made his own brief supplication, learned by rote in the High Kirk all those years ago. Then he just sat, remembering.

When they left the chapel, he said, “Thus must something happen to detach us from the world. What tie then has this world on us?”

Mother Céloron said, “It is natural to look back in reflection and call to mind those happy days of friendship now broken by the untimely fall of one. Nothing continues long with us the same. We must pray that God grants our dear doctor eternal rest and perpetual light.”

“He was a good man.”

The superior gestured to the patients in their well-appointed beds. “He attended every variety of disease here, every ache and evil to which flesh is heir, without asking any question as to sect or  station, and without any expectation of fee or other earthly reward.”

In his private practice, Sym had attended McGill’s family. “To his charity he united unremitting industry and strict probity of character.”

“Even in the most trying of circumstances, his hospitable disposition was unbounded.”

“You will think me melancholy. It is not the case, but I feel it poignantly.”

The superior’s heart got the better of decorum. She laid her hand on McGill’s arm. “You loved him, as I did, as one loves a brother or a cousin. I loved him as one loves as a young woman, because the heart does not grow old.”

She was tall, though not as tall as McGill, and he thought her handsome, as he always had. Since they had aged together, they had not noticed time crawling on each other. He saw still her younger face, wreathed in the white linen collar and headband, the former reaching from her chest to her chin, the latter descending to her eyebrows and completely covering her hair.

“It is a relief to unbosom oneself to one who possesses a heart of sympathy.” McGill gestured towards the chapel. “I will arrange for someone to come and collect our friend.”

“That is most gracious of you, but it will not be necessary. Dr. Sym had the happiness to embrace the Catholic faith before his demise. We will give him the same ceremony that we have the custom to offer God for each one of our own community upon her decease.”

“I find this difficult to credit.” Sym was not a religious man; at least he did not appear to be. They had never discussed it. “When did this happen? He said nothing about it.”

“Last night. Father Roque heard his confession and administered the final sacraments.”

McGill narrowed his forehead. “A conversion in extremis is hardly genuine.”

“I have seen it many times,” said Mother Céloron. “A man facing the final ascent wanting to make a pious acknowledgement for the manifold blessings dispensed to him by divine Providence. Be consoled that the soul of our dear friend, which is the gift of God and will endure forever, rests with his maker.”

“He never said a word about it,” said McGill to his wife Charlotte at supper. “I saw Sym every day this past week. Not once did he confide any question regarding faith, or express any inclination for the Catholic religion.”

“Is it really so odd?” Charlotte was French and Catholic. “He served among the sisters of Saint Joseph for twenty-five years. He must have seen many men ask for a priest on their deathbed.”

“But he was a Scotsman.”

“As are you. You have graced the doors of more than one church. And you married me.”

She had been a widow with two young boys when he married her. They could not be wed in her church, so they went to his. After the wedding she continued as a Catholic and he continued as a Protestant, holding pews in both the Anglican and Presbyterian churches. There was a practicality in his and Charlotte’s approach to religion.

Charlotte said, “Such displays of toleration show that men are better than their creeds. It belies Rousseau’s maxim that it is impossible to live at peace with people whom one believes to be eternally lost.”

“Toleration is one thing. A deliberate profession of faith is quite another.”

“Dear Robert is on his way to heaven. The route he has taken does not matter.”

Perhaps she was right. But John Richardson disagreed. He arrived at Burnside while the pudding was still on the table. “Have you heard? The nuns have arrayed Sym’s body in their chapel.”

“I have seen it,” said McGill.

“It’s not right. He is a Presbyterian.”

“Though Sym displayed more godly conduct than many who have laid down their guineas, he did not subscribe a shilling to the building of the Scotch church, nor did he buy a pew.”

“But he was not averse to it. He had the Bible, a Protestant Bible, sitting at his bedside. And Blair’s Sermons in his library, I am sure. He may not have enjoyed the preached word, but he was a Presbyterian, all the same. He must have been.” Richardson took a swig of the proffered claret. “He was not of the Romish religion, of that I have no doubt, and I’ll be damned if I see him buried as one.” Richardson was a Scotsman from Banffshire. “If the Catholics are not satisfied with converting the Indians and start to proselytize the rest of us, where it will end?” There were twelve thousand people in Montreal, ninety percent of them Catholic.

McGill pulled out his pipe. “The French priests seem anxious to discharge only their own functions, without interfering with those of the English ministers.”

“Then they should leave poor Sym alone. The English ministers cannot be charged with even the most distant wish to convert the Catholics. Though if the Protestant clergy in this country were possessed of more respectable abilities, it is more than probable that many of the French Canadians would espouse the Protestant faith. As the habitants become more enlightened, they perceive the absurdities of their own religion.”

McGill was glad that Charlotte had retired to her card table in the parlour. “Much praise is due to the Catholic clergy, inasmuch as the steady adherence of the habitants to the British crown since the Conquest can be attributed to the priests’ firm attachment to the British government. Were the clergy inimical, they could stir up the whole people to rebellion.”

As the former chief of counter-intelligence in Lower Canada, Richardson needed little encouragement to imagine the majority of his countrymen as cases of treason waiting to happen. “It should be sufficient that the Catholics are allowed every privilege the Protestants enjoy; that they sit in the Executive and Legislative Councils, in the House of Assembly and upon the bench. It is true a Catholic has not yet been governor of Canada under the British, but that is of little consequence, because none of the Papists aspire to that post. But to aspire to spiritual dominion of a man not of their faith at his most vulnerable moment? It could happen to any of us, were our families not there to protect us. If only Sym had fallen ill at home instead of at the hospital. Then he would not have been at the nuns’ mercy.”

This had occurred to McGill and he had offered Sym—who had no family—a bed in his own house, but Sym had refused to be moved. “If what the sisters say is true, his isolation from brethren who might have fortified him in his last moments was most unfortunate.”

“What they say is not true. It cannot be. You know how the sisters proceed. The sweet face asks—and what face is not sweet in that garb—‘would you like a priest?’ Incapable of speech and too weak to move, the poor man blinks. The sweet creature, misled by the ardour of a religion that encouraged her to renounce forever a world of which she was destined to be a happy and useful member for an unprofitable life of seclusion, takes this action—as unavoidable as breathing—as affirmation. She might as easily have inquired ‘would you like to be a pagan?’ and received the same response.”

“The sisters of the Hôtel-Dieu do not live in idleness. They bestow their time, attention and property upon the sick and aged poor. Many beings would perish without their succour.”

“I grant that as long as the sisters devote their time to the care of the sick, they are not useless. But the point remains. If Sym did convert, he would not have done so of his own free will. Independent of the veneration which we feel for the religion of our ancestors, we are more likely to keep to that in which we have been bred, because no sin can attach to us on that account.”

McGill’s head itched under his powdered wig. “Surely a man who lived as honorably as Sym did, no matter whether Catholic or Protestant, Jew or Mohammedan, or even pagan for that matter, will gain admission to heaven regardless of the ground in which he is buried.”

Richardson set his glass down so forcefully that red drops bounced out to stain the tablecloth. “It is not a question of Sym gaining admission to heaven. It is a question of respecting a man’s will. When we built the Scotch church, we said we were here to stay. If we allow Sym, a good and faithful British subject, to be stolen by the artful Papist, we might as well escort Napoleon up the St. Lawrence and return this country to the blinkered state in which General Wolfe found it.” Richardson stood up. “If a man cannot count on his friends to look out for him, who can he count on? Sym was born a Presbyterian. He shall die a Presbyterian. If it comes to a word with the Governor, if I have to go to all the way to King George, I will make sure he is laid in the Protestant burying ground.”

At bedtime, McGill asked Charlotte whether she thought the Catholic sisters were keen for Protestant converts.

“I don’t believe so. Although I have been told that the Protestant ministers charge very high fees for christenings, and that poor people, such as go to the Hôtel-Dieu, have taken their children to the Catholic church to have them christened for a few pence.”

He watched her brush her long white hair, still thick and soft. “Did you ever consider taking the veil?”

“Oh no. I do not have the discipline of spirit. It is seldom that a woman like myself goes into a religious house, unless she despairs of getting a husband. Widows can take the veil, but only if they have no children. In any case, seclusion as permanent employment never appealed to me. Although there is one attractive feature. It is that, having entered the profession, a novice is at liberty to withdraw during the first year and a half of service.” She laughed. “How many married people are there who would gladly renounce matrimony after the experience of a year and six months?”

“A great many, I am sure.” McGill kissed her cheek. “But I took the vow of matrimony thirty years ago and have never had occasion to repent my obligation.”

In the morning, Sister Le Pailleur saw McGill’s carriage trot through the Hôtel-Dieu gateway, followed by Richardson and the hearse. She ran to alert Mother Céloron.

The novices, distinguished by their white veils, offered to hide Dr. Sym’s body in the nuns’ apartments, where no visitors were allowed.

“We will not hide him,” said the superior. “But we will not relinquish him.” Thus a cordon of sisters shrouded the chapel door.

McGill persuaded Richardson to wait in the sun-flecked yard while he entered the coolness of the hospital. He saw the disquiet in Mother Céloron’s eyes. It pained him to say what he had to say.

“A funeral has been arranged for Dr. Sym at the Scotch church.”

“Dr. Sym was a member of our holy communion.”

“He was a Scotsman.”

“The one does not preclude the other.”

McGill stiffened. “We have come to remove him.”

Mother Céloron straightened her back. “We cannot disturb his repose in our chapel.”

“We must respect our friend’s wishes.”

“That is what I am doing.”

A crowd was gathering around the hearse. Merchants poked out of their windows, traders stumbled out of the taverns. Word had spread that the nuns had barred the entrance to the chapel.

McGill conferred with Richardson. “Who do they think they are?” fumed the latter. “The land they are on, the lard they use to make soap, the sheets that cover their wretched sick, all is thanks to British generosity.”

“They do what they feel they must.”

Richardson was all for returning with a constable.

“That is not the way.”

McGill paid a visit to Father Roux, Superior of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice and Vicar General of Montreal. Born in Marseilles, Roux had fled France after the Revolution. He, too, had a copy of Blair’s Sermons on his shelves.

“Dr. Sym’s friends cannot believe he would have entered the Catholic church of his own free will,” said McGill.

“In former times, Catholic and Christian meant the same thing. The good doctor was well acquainted with the consolations our communion affords to the faithful at their passage from time to eternity. God undoubtedly wanted to reward him for the zeal that he deployed in the exercise of his job, in making him find in that same house the grace of salvation.”

“He divulged no such leanings to his friends.”

“A man may look to the care of his soul, even at the loss of his best friends on earth.”

“But you were not present for this conversion?”

“Father Roque is the chaplain of the Hôtel-Dieu.”

“Then it is possible the sisters may have mistaken Sym’s intention. He was, after all, in his last moments.”

“It is unlikely. As you know, the sisters are of the highest character. Mother Céloron unites in her person all the gifts I admired in the most respectable and distinguished ladies in France.”

“But it is possible.” McGill looked out Roux’s window at the Sulpicians’ extensive gardens. Seminarians, in their long blue frocks, were digging up potatoes. “As you know, the question has been raised as to whether the Seminary is legally entitled to the immense property it holds. Reading Sir Marriot’s report, it seems clear that religious communities whose principals were not resident in Canada at the time of the Conquest do not fall under the privilege of the capitulation. Their estates may be understood, in point of law, to be fallen to the Crown in sovereignty.”

Roux was well aware of the delicate situation of the Sulpicians—whose seigneury of the island of Montreal fell under Parisian clergy at the time of Canada’s acquisition by Great Britain—in the matter of recognition of their property rights. The income alone was over ten thousand pounds a year. McGill was a member of both the Lower Canada House of Assembly and the King’s Executive Council. This meant he was a senior advisor to the Governor and his representatives, and, in practice, the head of the civil authority in Montreal.

“I myself do not think this way, but there are others,” continued McGill, “Bishop Mountain, for example, who would consider it an affront if Dr. Sym were not consecrated in the Protestant burying ground.” The Anglican bishop, member of both the Legislative Council and the Executive Council, was hostile to the privileges of the French church in Canada. “Sym was, after all, a hospital mate of the garrison.”

Roux had worked hard to establish the Seminary as a bulwark of loyalty to the Crown. “The sisters have very tender hearts. It is possible that, in their agitated state and distress for Dr. Sym, their delicate attention took his undoubted esteem for our religion to an extent beyond which the doctor, in fact, inclined.”

“I thought that might have been the case. It has been very kind of the sisters to keep Dr. Sym’s body in a place of honour. Mr. Richardson will collect it this afternoon.”

As Roux walked him to the door, McGill said, “I am told the doctor left a sum of money to the hospital in his will. I was thinking I might do the same.”

“The sisters would welcome such generosity. The funds for maintaining their charity are not as ample as could be wished, when compared with their utility. They are very dependent on the income from their bakery and from the provisions the army formerly discarded in the river.”

Mother Céloron accepted the news with the piety and circumspection Father Roux expected. She addressed herself first to God, then she went looking for Sister d’Ailleboust, her predecessor as superior. She found the old nun with her needles on her lap in the agreeable light of the refectory.

“Father Roux says we must give Dr. Sym to the Scotch church.”

Sister d’Ailleboust nodded. She and Mother Céloron were both daughters of noble families. They had cousins in high offices. They could write, they could cajole, they could pull strings they had pulled before, but not if their own vicar took the side of the English.

“He says we must demonstrate a grateful return to the parent state, on which it is our happiness to depend, and to whom we owe from interest, from gratitude and from duty, the support of our lives and fortunes.”

Sister d’Ailleboust had entered the convent six years before the Conquest. She had seen the community through the capitulation to the British, through Montreal’s occupation by the Americans during their Revolutionary War, and through the dark days of the French Revolution, when the sisters had lost their capital in France, and thus most of their income. She had led the community through the years since, of making do and scraping by. “We must mind the things that are above, not the things that are on earth. An ounce of the cross is worth more than a million pounds in the treasury.”

“Though I have unburdened myself to God, I am afraid my sentiments bear no resemblance to those of the divine. They have much more in common with those of the ass.” Mother Céloron fingered Sister d’Ailleboust’s embroidery. “Poor Dr. Sym, so desirous of salvation. How will his soul enter heaven now?”

She took the dilemma to Sister Le Pailleur. When the sisters had lost the funds from their French property, Sister Le Pailleur had come up with the idea of the bakery. When the income from the bread was insufficient, Sister Le Pailleur asked the military for their cast-off provisions, making soap with the troops’ spoiled lard. Now Sister Le Pailleur thought and prayed, then thought some more and said, “The sun does not cease to shine because the blind man does not see it. Nor is God’s Providence checked because a sceptic may please to deny it. We will yet deliver Dr. Sym.”

The next day, the Presbyterian church on Saint Gabriel Street swelled with a respectable body of Sym’s friends and fellow citizens. The honours due to Sym’s appointment were performed by a detachment of the 100th Regiment, and the minister delivered himself of an acceptable sermon. He was compelled to raise his voice to be heard above the clanging of the Catholic bells; for, at the same time, a coffin was being carried across Place d’Armes, past the cathedral and down Saint Joseph Street towards the Hôtel-Dieu, attended by priests chanting prayers and boys carrying candles. At the head of the procession marched a seminarian, holding a pestle and mortar, and a boy bearing a tall silver cross. As the Presbyterians proceeded from their church to the Protestant burying ground, the sisters of Saint Joseph arrayed themselves behind the grate of their oratory and Father Roque began the mass for the repose of a soul.

It was a fine day, the sun glinting on the roofs of tin and sparkling on the river. McGill and Charlotte walked back from the cemetery to their house in town.

“Who is it?” Charlotte asked one of the sharp-faced women crowding the Catholic burying ground, where the coffin was being lowered into the earth.

“Why it’s Dr. Sym,” said the woman.

“But we have just buried Dr. Sym,” said McGill.

“You have buried his body. The sisters have saved his soul.”


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He was not of the Romish religion, of that I have no doubt, and I’ll be damned if I see him buried as one.