"An eloquent, heartfelt epic." (Portland Oregonian)
The Stone Carversby Jane Urquhart
In 1867 a good-natured Bavarian priest, is sent by God and mad King Ludwig to the wilds of North America. Soon the backwoods are transformed into a parish and the settlers into a congregation, and Joseph Becker, a woodcarver, meets his future wife. Several decades later, Joseph Becker teaches his astounding carving skills to his grandchildren. One of them, Klara,… See more details below
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In 1867 a good-natured Bavarian priest, is sent by God and mad King Ludwig to the wilds of North America. Soon the backwoods are transformed into a parish and the settlers into a congregation, and Joseph Becker, a woodcarver, meets his future wife. Several decades later, Joseph Becker teaches his astounding carving skills to his grandchildren. One of them, Klara, shows exceptional talent and has a surfeit of what the local nuns call "a fondness for men's work." Untamed, she falls in love with an Irish boy, Eamon O'Sullivan, only to have him leave to fight in the Great War . . .
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Read an Excerpt
There was a story, a true if slightly embellished story, about how the Ontario village was given its name, its church, its brewery, its tavern, its gardens, its grottoes, its splendid indoor and outdoor altars. How it acquired its hotel, its blacksmith’s shop, its streets and roads, its tannery, its cemetery, its general store. This was a legend that appealed to fewer and fewer people in the depression of the early 1930s. Times being what they were, not many villagers had the energy for the present, never mind the past – the tattered rail fences and sagging porches of the previous century seemed to them to be just two more things in need of repair. The tannery and blacksmith’s shop had disappeared years ago, and though the general store was still a fixture, its counter was so warped and scarred it looked as if it might have once served as a butcher’s block.
It was difficult to believe, in those days, with the older parts of the village in a state of decay usually associated with the decline of a complete civilization and the newer sections consisting of sloppy, half-finished attempts at twentieth-century industry, that one hundred years ago there was no sign of western European culture in the region. Difficult also to believe that it took only one hundred years for this culture to break down under the weight of economic failure.
Still the tale continued to be dear to one thirty-eight-year-old spinster who lived half a mile away from the village at a spot known as Becker’s Corners and all of the good Sisters at the small Convent of the Immaculate Conception near the top of the village’s only hill. These women believed the story connected them, through ancestry, through work and worship, and through vocation to the village’s inception. They believed it also connected them to the great church, under whose shadow, in the seldom-visited cemetery, their forebears slept beneath iron crosses that leaned at odd angles to one another, as if trying to establish contact after a long season of isolation and neglect.
The nuns and the one spinster clung to the story, as if by telling the tale they became witnesses, perhaps even participants in the awkward fabrication of matter, the difficult architecture of a new world.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, in the small village of Inzell, Bavaria, the wonderfully named Pater Archangel Gstir had no opinions about difficult architecture. In fact, Father Gstir was such a contented young man, a young man filled with such happy certainties, that beyond his faith and his fierce desire for a suitable bell to adorn the Romanesque belfry of the little parish church of St. Michael where he was pastor, he had few strong feelings about anything at all. He was troubled by neither women, nor fashion, nor financial insecurities – the usual afflictions of young men. In his church he was surrounded by a devout and devoted flock of parishioners, and once he stepped outside he was presented with a view of some of the finest mountain scenery in Bavaria, a region not now, and certainly not then, impoverished when it came to ravishing landscape. He spent his weekdays after morning mass cheerfully encouraging German-speaking boys in the study of classical languages, history, natural science, and liturgy. He ate well, enjoying Bavarian beer and his choice of European wines with his meals, and after these meals he took long walks along the edges of the gorgeously scenic Knappensteig, where he was able to admire the peaks of the Watzmann, the Hochkalter, the Hocheisspitze, and the Reiter Alpe. It was his habit on these promenades to pray to the Creator of all this beauty at the charming outdoor shrines and crosses scattered liberally across the hills and mountains. During one of these periods of reflection, just as he was beginning to be distracted by a rare wildflower – blue with black markings, quite unlike anything he had pressed in his album so far – he was startled by an announcement from God Himself with whom he often carried on conversations in his mind. “Go to Canada,” He told him now. “There is much work for you to do there.”
Father Gstir was astonished. As far as he knew he had not, until that very moment, even thought about Canada. Snow, he mused vaguely, and savages. “The English,” he whispered aloud, “and, I believe, some French.” He plucked the wildflower from the grass, placed it inside his breviary, and tucked the small book firmly under his elbow. “There must be some mistake,” he said to the Creator and continued along the mountain path, forgetting about Canada altogether.
The spinster was particularly fond of this moment in the story because it always brought to mind an increased awareness of the serendipitous quality of one’s presence here on earth. Where would she be had Father Gstir resolutely decided to ignore God’s call? Indeed, where would anyone be had the slightest incident not occurred in the chaos of details that led to their birth. The past need do no more than shrug its shoulders or lift its eyebrows for us to cease to exist. But the wonderful thing about saints, the spinster had been known to remark to the nuns – for she was confident that Father Gstir, recognized or not, was a saint – is that saints have no choice.
God forgot neither Father Gstir nor Canada and was moved to remind the Bavarian priest of His wishes in a direct and ultimately fateful way. In the middle of a spring week, while Father Gstir was removing his vestments after morning mass and silently preparing his Sunday sermon in which he would compare each of the virtues to a mountain wildflower, the postmaster knocked at the door of the vestry.
Father Gstir pulled back the bolt and invited the man in. “You were not here at mass, Johann,” he said.
This was a joke between them. Johann Heipel, postmaster of Inzell and a very devout man, could never attend weekday morning mass because of his letter-carrying duties. He felt this very deeply and often confessed it – much to Father Gstir’s amusement.
But on this day, the postmaster did not respond with the customary explanation. Instead he reported excitedly that there was a letter from the bishop.
Father Gstir had never received a letter from the bishop, despite his writing regularly to this venerable person petitioning for funds to replace the bell and, in his braver moments, for a limewood altar for a side chapel in the church. A wonderful ringing was in his mind as he tore open the envelope.
The message, which made mention of neither bell nor altarpiece but which nevertheless made quite clear that the bishop had received Father Gstir’s petitions, read as follows:
May 30, 1866
Our esteemed King Ludwig, benefactor of the Ludwig Missions, has lately interested himself in a small group of our people who have established themselves in the wilds of Canada where they have no priest to minister to them or to instruct their children in the ways of the Blessed Church of Rome. I have noted from your many letters that you reside in an alpine district where the air is necessarily much colder and fresher and therefore more like the air of Canada. Because of this, and because of your rumoured great good humour, you have therefore been chosen by me to complete this Holy Task & etc. . . .
The Sisters at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception knew the contents of this letter by heart, as did the spinster, who had memorized it in her youth. They also knew that Father Gstir would have been moved by the letter to recall his inner conversation on the Knappensteig and at the same time the authority of his holy vows. Some of the nuns wondered why the spinster had not taken holy vows herself, since she had no husband, and it was unlikely at this late date that one would appear. But most of the Sisters suspected that the spinster was completely unsuited for convent life, and were content to appreciate the way she dusted and polished the church pews, washed and sewed the altar cloths and linens, and decorated the altar with flowers in the summer.
They were also very grateful for the small Madonnas she carved for their rooms, and the complete crèche she had made, down to the last animal in the manger, to be assembled outside the church in the Christmas season, though all of them believed that carving was men’s work. They knew the spinster was unsuitable for convent life because of her fondness for men’s work – carving, farming, tailoring – her fondness, and her skill.
Like every other man, woman, and child in Bavaria, Father Gstir was well aware that King Ludwig was mad, and he knew that an interest in Canada was precisely the kind of course the King’s mad mind was likely to take. Was the bishop mad as well? Were the alleged Bavarian settlers also suffering from diseases of the brain? Instead of being ministered to in that wild place, should they not instead be encouraged to return to civilization? He put the last of these questions as delicately as possible to the bishop in an eloquent letter that also included a list of reasons why he, Pater Archangel, was a completely inappropriate candidate for the task, ending with a hopeful reminder regarding the bell. The bell, he told his superior, would ring out from the beautiful Romanesque belfry, the last vestige of the original parish church that had been founded in 1190 by Archbishop Albrecht II of Salzburg and that had unfortunately burned in 1724. Did the bishop not agree that the fact that the belfry and its splendid onion dome were spared in the conflagration was surely a kind of miracle, one that should be celebrated by a perfect bell, with a perfect pitch, rather than one filled with cracks that therefore emitted a disturbing sound that put the pastor in mind of a choirboy singing a Bach chorale just slightly off-key.
The bishop did not reply but sent instead the necessary documents for the journey.
Until Pater Archangel Gstir came to Canada, he had been able to walk along the edges of life in much the way he had walked along the edges of the beautiful Knappensteig. He had been an observer, albeit an appreciator. The mountain tracks he trod were lined with wildflowers; the views were gorgeous and distant. He loved climbing up to heights, but even more he loved gazing into depths. He turned from prayer at an outdoor shrine and looked down into deep green valleys. He stood in the altar and smiled upon his parishioners. Occasionally he climbed the miraculous belfry to inspect the faulty bell, and then he was able to look down on the whole village as it went about its business. All this would change when he came to Canada. He would become, as a result of geological, geographical, and meteorological necessity, a participator.
A year almost to the day after he had received the bishop’s letter – a year that had included a six-month-long hellish journey over water and land to the place then called Upper Canada – Father Gstir found himself in a pinewood forest trudging over an uncompromisingly flat terrain with a cloud of the Devil’s own insects, called blackflies by the English, buzzing over his head and the head of his horse. His territory – his parish – covered approximately two thousand square miles of practically unpopulated backwoods, an area filled with all manner of birds, beasts, and insects of prey. His task was to travel from one squalid cabin to another, avoiding those dwellings occupied by Protestants, known in these parts as Orangemen, bringing joy, comfort, and spiritual guidance to the German Catholics who had squatted on the land. Most of these settlers were so busy removing trees – and in a most unattractive fashion – that they hadn’t thought about the Blessed Virgin since they were children, if they had thought about her at all. The women had been glad to see him because his appearance suggested there might be someone – anyone – to administer last rites when they died in childbirth, as they so often did. The older men were respectful, though few had the reading skills or the time to study the catechism. The young men were difficult, sometimes almost surly, for it was they who ruled this domain, where physical strength was the key to survival. Still, it was one of them who had suggested that the good Father travel ten miles farther north, where a number of Alsatians and a few Bavarians were settled around the establishment of a sawmill.
“Don’t bother with us,” said one of two young and alarmingly large backwoods brothers to Father Gstir as he tried to intercept them in the muddy yard of their cabin. “Leave us alone, old man, we’ve no time for redemption.”
Father Gstir deeply resented being called an old man, for he was far from old, in fact not much older than the brothers themselves.
“Go to the settlement ten miles to the north,” they told him. “Storekeepers and millers there have lives soft enough for religion.”
The priest decided to forgo the correction he had been planning in regard to his age. “I’ll not give up on your souls,” he said. “But what then is the name of this village?”
“Doesn’t have a name,” said one of the brothers. “Ten miles north, sawmill, gristmill.”
Father Gstir set off in the direction the two brothers had indicated, the black cloud of flies accompanying him. When he had imagined Canada and his posting there, it had been the cold, the endless wastes of snow that he had dreaded. Now he longed for winter, prayed for it, for at least in winter there were no flies and the swamps and rivers would freeze, making his progress easier and the way shorter. But as he rode mile after mile in the heat and humidity of that early summer afternoon, he became aware that the swampy areas were becoming less frequent, that the ground was hardening underfoot, and that there was a slight rise in the level of the earth. He was enchanted by the appearance now and then of perfectly round ponds of water, a geological oddity he would soon learn were called “kettles” by the locals, though no one could explain why. It was shortly after he had skirted the edge of one of these that he emerged from the forest at a cleared area on the brow of a hill.
What lay before him was a view of his first deep Canadian valley, one with signs of settlement near a shining stream, and he fell in love at once. He had to admit, however, even in the midst of his sudden infatuation, that the place was a cluttered mess, all vegetation having been recently torn up or chopped down, leaving behind acres of mud littered with uprooted and rotting tree stumps. Any attempts at architectural construction – even the sawmill and gristmill – looked temporary, haphazard, and dangerously frail, the boards from which the structures were built pale and raw in the afternoon light, men, oxen, and horses moving sluggishly around them. The humidity of the season had settled in the valley, and everything alive appeared to be swimming in a slow trance through cloudy water. Only the little river was filled with vitality – Father Gstir could hear the sound of it – as it picked up and tossed light that came from a sun barely visible in a milky sky.
He saw all this, but he also saw how it would be later, with crops and orchards growing in the cleared areas, and with painted houses and barns, and with gardens sprouting flowers. He beheld all that was there in front of him, and all that he believed would be there in the future, and he knew he was home.
Father Gstir was not unaware that most landscapes looked better from on high – from a distance – than they did once one was presented with the banalities of their details at a close range. Despite this, he dismounted from his horse and ran eagerly down the track that led to the valley floor, his cassock flapping, his fists punching the air. As he ran, the normal passage of time either collapsed or expanded (he was never able to accurately determine which) so that the surprisingly delightful aspects of the terrain through which he passed impressed themselves on his memory, as if he had been looking at them for a long, long time. Rock outcroppings and shallow caves suitable for the statues of saints, bubbling springs that were surely holy places, towering deciduous trees miraculously overlooked by the axe – important trees: oaks and chestnuts – delicate green ferns, and an array of colourful wildflowers in bright emerald grass all caught his attention as he rushed by them. When he burst into the muddy and now quite startled domain of the millers who had set up near the little river, he was gasping with joy. “You live here in this beautiful valley, this shoneval,” he told two men who were so whitened by flour that he almost believed them to be angels. “God be praised!”
The younger of the two men smiled and held out his hand. He was long-limbed, fair-haired, with a well-chiselled rectangular face. His skin glowed opalescent as a result of its coating of white dust, and the folds of his clothing shone. As he moved toward the priest, a chalky cloud rose from him into the sunlit air.
It is at this moment that the spinster herself quietly enters the story, for the young man bathed in flour who stood smiling and holding out his hand introduced himself as Joseph Becker, and Joseph Becker was eventually to become her grandfather.
Son of a Bavarian miller, Joseph Becker had been lured to Canada at the age of twenty because of his passion for wood and the rumours he had heard about an unlimited supply of this material in the forests of the New World. After his initial dismay at finding nothing but cleared land in the southern regions of Canada, he had pushed steadily northward until he had reached the bush through which Father Gstir would soon trudge. But even there the trees seemed to disappear before he could fully appreciate them, lumbering being the chief capitalistic enterprise of the time. He was searching for perfect blocks of carveable limewood, or basswood as he would learn to call it in Canada. In his imagination he had already carved ornate altars from the trunks of the massive trees he had read about before departing from Bavaria. From the ages of fourteen to nineteen, he had been apprenticed to a stern old woodcarver in his native town of Ottobeuron, but by the time he was nineteen he was becoming impatient with his master’s reluctance to permit him to carve anything larger than putti. Still, Joseph had to admit that under the older man’s instruction he had learned well and now knew how to use various chisels, the combination of delicate and forceful hammer blows employed to encourage flesh to emerge from wood. He had also become a master of polychrome and could work with gold or in an array of colours.
In Canada, however, he had had next to no opportunity to make use of his training for anything other than recreational purposes, and time for recreation did not come easily. For a while he worked in the very lumber camps that destroyed the trees he cherished. But he could not bear to accept employment in the sawmills, where once, and only once, he witnessed the massacre of a tree trunk large enough for a beautiful sculpture of God the Father Himself. Soon his frustration and almost physical pain, his feeling that the very saints and angels he would have carved were murdered, and his knowledge of the terrible ordinariness of planking combined to make it impossible for him to take an axe to a tree ever again. He left the lumber camps and began to work at his father’s old trade of flour milling in the nearest town, moving north again only when the opening of a gristmill in a valley surrounded by new, raw German homesteads permitted him to do so.
Flushed and panting and filled with wonder, Father Gstir came to an abrupt halt directly in front of the tall young man whose pale, powdered demeanour made the priest believe for one dizzying moment that he might actually be in the presence of the angel Gabriel.
Then the divine being spoke in the voice of a human. “Hello, Father,” he said, gazing at him with benevolent curiosity. “Are you looking for bags of flour?”
“This village,” gasped Father Gstir, his arms opening as if to embrace the valley, “this is why I am here. Suddenly I under stand why God spoke to me in my mind, why I have been sent here.”
Joseph Becker glanced at the sawmill, the gristmill, the log bunkhouse, and the few shanties that stood near it. “We aren’t much of a parish,” he told the priest, “though families arrive presently from Waterloo County. And,” he added, “there is no church.”
The priest was staring with great intensity at the stream. “Such marvellous water!” he enthused. “From what miraculous spring does it emerge?”
“Springs all over here,” Joseph pointed to a limestone outcropping on the opposite side of the mud track. “There’s water all over. Hard to find a dry spot to build a shed. These springs bubble up when you least expect them right under the floor.”
“Holy water,” said Father Gstir, and then remembering the golden liquid of his homeland he added, “Perfect for a brewery.” He turned and looked up toward the height from which he had first seen the valley, the same hill where two decades later sun would shine through coloured windows of an established convent.
“A church up there,” the priest said, pointing, “made of logs at first and then, in time, a stone cathedral.” He continued to gaze at the hill. “Or at least a large stone church,” he added, “with a magnificent bell.”
Joseph was amused, even intrigued, but not at all convinced. “The people around here aren’t much interested in religion. Most of them are in the backwoods cutting down trees,” he said.
“Then we must make them interested.” Father Gstir paused and placed his hand on his forehead, considering. “We’ll begin with a Corpus Christi procession,” he said slowly, turning briefly away from Joseph while he assembled his thoughts. “Colour, pageantry, perhaps singing. We’ll visit every corner of the valley, flush them out of the forest. Pageantry . . . in this place pageantry will be the answer.” He moved a few steps closer to Joseph. “How many parishioners would you say were within a day’s walking distance?”
“A hundred, maybe two hundred, but . . .”
The priest interrupted, “Do you know anyone, anyone at all, who might be able to carve a crucifix or the Blessed Virgin?”
Later Joseph Becker would tell his granddaughter that at that moment he shared Father Gstir’s belief that to be in this unlikely valley had been part of a great plan, a key to his own destiny.
“Yes, Father,” he said. “Yes, I do.”
Father Gstir applied for and received permission from the bishop of the sadly neglected diocese of Hamilton, Upper Canada, to remain in the place he would call Shoneval among the almost entirely German settlers of the incongruously named Carrick Township. (The single Irish family in the vicinity had successfully argued that because the English had changed the name of virtually every city, town, and hamlet in their homeland, they ought to be given the privilege of affixing this Celtic moniker to lands ruled by the British crown.) At first the priest slept in the bunkhouse with Joseph Becker and all the other mill workers, but his presence put such a damper on the men’s usual banter about women and their constant drinking of homemade whisky that in short order they built him a not uncomfortable log shanty.
These were grateful men. They knew they had much to thank God for. Had they remained in Germany, for instance, they would likely have been soldiers by now, committed to fighting a number of petty yet deadly wars, the exact rationale for which no one was able to keep straight in their minds. They regretted the absence of a suitable number of women, but they were happy to be alive and not starving. They sensed God had treated them reasonably well, and they respected the priest as a result.
Shortly after Father Gstir had installed himself in his new quarters, the bishop wrote to inform him that his request to stay in the valley had miraculously coincided with the arrival in Guelph, and in Hamilton, of six missionary priests from Europe who could now administer to Catholics in the rest of the territory. He was, however, to remain in contact with three or four nearby German villages about which the bishop had heard ominous rumours of planned breweries. Father Gstir, reading the letter to Joseph Becker, glanced up with fondness at the nearby crystal stream.
“Procession, church, bell, brewery,” he announced. “These are our priorities.”
Of the four, Joseph maintained that the men were only interested in the last. “We have only a sawmill and a gristmill,” he reasoned. “You have no parishioners. How can we have a church?”
“The procession will bring the parishioners,” the priest assured him. “You must begin work on the crucifix.”
And so in the low light of high summer mornings and evenings, before and after his work at the gristmill, out of a huge tree trunk grudgingly donated by the sawmill owner in order to rid himself of the pestering priest, Joseph Becker began to carve the body of Christ. He had brought his most beloved chisels with him from Bavaria, and made his mallets himself from scrap lumber found in the yard. But it was with an axe that he first approached the wood, loving the idea that he could use the instrument for creation rather than destruction. Stripped to the waist, his muscles polished by his own sweat, he skilfully chopped out the rough shape of a slender man whose slightly raised arms were extended as if to embrace the world. This was pure labour and he enjoyed it as such, his heart pumping, blood rushing to his back and shoulders. The following week, as the face and feet and ribs emerged from the beam, he remembered and recognized the joy of carving, the miracle of turning wood to flesh. By the time he began to fashion delicate details – facial features, creases in the fingers, nails, and thorns – he was almost brought to tears by the poignancy of what he had made. In the final stages, even the toughest mill workers were removing their caps before entering the hut he used as a workshop.
Each day in the gristmill he had been aware that in the nearby sawmill enormous virgin trees, trees from which hundreds of beautiful sculptures might be made, were being fed to the teeth of the saws. Now late in the afternoon Joseph was permitted to shake the flour from his clothes and continue with the work of coaxing muscle and bone and sinew out of wood grain. At night by the soft light of the bunkhouse lantern he brushed curled shavings from his sleeves, dropped his trousers on a planked wood floor, and lay down on a cot made from timber and bark beside men whose lungs were filled with sawdust.
It began to seem as if his whole life were made of wood.
Years later as a very young woman, his granddaughter, Klara Becker, would experience similar sensations in her own workspace, which had once been her father’s blacksmith’s shop before he gave up in the face of all that heat and effort and had his horses shod in town. She would begin to understand the joy and oppression of the material needed for the task. But only in the moments when she could permit herself the luxury of carving, the moments when she was not making something for someone else to wear. In the early part of her adulthood, before she was changed by loss, her life seemed to be a minor war fought with a chisel and a needle, each tool demanding her time and attention, the shortness of her busy days suggesting she should perhaps commit to one profession or the other. And finally, how uncomplicated that war would seem in the face of the two real wars that would follow, the war with Eros, and then the Great War itself.
As the days shortened and huge flocks of pigeons and geese flew southward, passing noisily over the roof of his shanty, Father Gstir began to write a series of impassioned letters to the Central Direction of the Ludwig Missions at Munich. Reasoning that if he were to make these epistles lively and entertaining he might more quickly reach his goal, and knowing his countrymen’s fascination with the trackless wilds of the northern New World, he decided that the Lord would forgive exaggeration if the exaggeration in question resulted in the building of a church. He described, therefore, terrifying encounters with wild beasts – particularly bears – “which approached in such great numbers that they crushed the large trees in their path,” and with wolves the size of horses “whose howls filled the night with such noise that a conversation between two men was impossible to hear.” He told of trees with trunks so wide it would take a healthy man ten minutes to circumnavigate them. When he made mention of the mill workers, he described them as hardworking, pious Bavarians whose desire for a house of worship was heartwarming to behold. “They will, of course, supply all labour free of charge,” he predicted with optimism. “But where,” he wondered, “are we to get money for stone and,” he added, “for a bell?” He had also envisaged an attractive rectory but felt it prudent not make further demands at this stage.
In November, once the frost had hardened the ground, Father Gstir saddled his horse, strapped his portable altar to his own back, and attempted to negotiate the unreliable tracks to the outlying farms to disseminate the news of a magnificent Corpus Christi procession held the following June in the beautiful valley after which Shoneval had been named. The majority of the settlers he visited had but dim memories of this kind of pageantry, and many had no knowledge at all of the feast days of the church. But most had lived in isolation for so long that the announcement of any kind of collective experience was met with interest, and all promised to attend.
As he tramped wearily over the frost-covered mud, leading the horse that had developed a fear of the ice in the many pot-holes, Father Gstir fretted over the details. He knew that Joseph would successfully complete the large crucifix and the statue of the Virgin that would be carried in the procession, so his mind was at ease in relation to this. But someone in the procession was going to have to be splendidly robed, and that someone was himself. After making several inquiries along his route, a woman surrounded by whining children told him that the twenty-year-old daughter of a settler near the village had worked as a seamstress in a tailor’s shop in one of the southern towns. Interestingly, like Joseph Becker, she too had brought her most cherished tools with her to the wilderness, in her case scissors and embroidery needles. (The spinster always experienced a slight thrill of recognition at this point in the story, for the handsome young woman who agreed to embroider Father Gstir’s spare vestments, and who promised to contact her old employer about the donation of heavy red cloth, was her grandmother. “It was a Corpus Christi procession in the backwoods,” Joseph Becker would tell his granddaughter, “that brought together the chisel and the needle.”)
How young they were then, the carver and the seamstress and the priest, all dead by the 1930s, by the time Klara and her friends in the convent would recall and cherish the story. Younger than the spinster, and younger too than any of the nuns. But the backwoods was no place for even the middle-aged, as everyone was necessarily engaged in the act of turning one thing into another, an occupation that required an athletic form of labour, a labour that never ceased. The carver transformed barley into flour and wood into statues; the seamstress made bedsheets into altar cloths; the men in the sawmill helped turn forests into wastelands, while the farmers attempted to turn wastelands into fields. The priest was hoping to turn a barren hilltop into the site of a pilgrimage church whose bell would ring out to an established village and whose song would carry over beautifully cultivated fields. All of them were trying to force western culture into a place where it undoubtedly had no business to be. It was hard work.
As the winter progressed, more and more wooden Euro pean ships – ships that brought a few sacks of mail and cargoes of human beings in a westerly direction and a few sacks of mail and cargoes of lumber in an easterly direction – were tossed on unfriendly seas. It wasn’t until March that Father Gstir finally received an answer from the Central Direction of the Ludwig Missions-Verig at Munich. The gentlemen, who had been delighted by the Bavarian priest’s portrayal of life in the wilds, were full of questions regarding hunting and taxidermy. No mention was made of the church or the bell, but there was mention of their benefactor, Ludwig of Bavaria, who “had great interests in the wild beasts of the northern hemisphere” and who, having read Pater Archangel’s letter, was now requesting that the “good arctic priest” trap three or four polar bears of highest quality and snowy whiteness to be shipped to His Majesty’s property, where they would be tamed and then permitted to roam at their leisure through the Sauling; the mountains and the distant plain.
Father Gstir was not deterred. He had made contact with the monarch, the great king of architectural endeavour, the patron of difficult projects in preposterous locations. Surely His Majesty’s desire for polar bears would diminish when he thought about the magnificent stone church Pater Archangel planned for the wilderness. Was not Neuschwanstein being designed for an inaccessible stone pinnacle in mountainous Bavarian wilds near Pollat Falls? And were there not plans for a vast hunting lodge in another improbable spot? Father Gstir determined that in his next letter he would suggest – with great respect and humility – that, unlike the German treasury department, God the Father would smile on all of Ludwig’s architectural creations were the king to make a contribution toward a church for Bavaria’s exiled sons and daughters, as well as, he added, a bell for said church.
The reference to the polar bears had given him a number of ideas for the Corpus Christi procession, now only three months away. “An inventory must be made,” he told Joseph, “of all the animals in our surroundings.”
He had entered the carver’s workshop just as Joseph was to begin work on the Virgin Mary – now with the approach of spring there was again some light before and after his shift at the mill. The large crucifix was completed and leaned against the wall. Joseph had not decided whether he would paint it and if so where he was to get gold leaf for the nimbus.
“All of the domestic animals, I mean,” the priest continued. “Horses, pigs, cows, and a donkey. We must have a donkey for the procession. Christ entered Jerusalem on a donkey. Do you know where we can find one, Joseph?”
“I do not,” replied Joseph, running one long finger across his jawline while staring at the block of wood from which the Holy Mother would emerge. “Shall I colour my statues?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Father Gstir, “it will do the people good to see colour. And what are we to do about music?”
Joseph said that the Irishman responsible for the township’s Celtic name played a sort of violin in a rather frenetic way. “It sounds somewhat like Bach,” he said, “but played much too quickly.” He took off his hat and shook wood shavings from the brim.
“And are there singers?”
Joseph recalled certain drunken evenings in the bunkhouse. “Sometimes the men sing,” he reported tentatively. The songs they knew were quite inappropriate but might be modified. “One of the men has an accordion.”
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Father Gstir. “And what is the Irishman’s name?”
“O’Sullivan . . . Brendan. A farmer and a carpenter.”
The mention of carpentry brought Father Gstir’s imagined place of worship back to his busy mind. He described his plan to interest King Ludwig in the church. But Joseph was skeptical. “He will never see it, this church,” said the carver. “He will not be interested because he will not know what it looks like.”
“O indeed he will,” maintained the priest. “Indeed he will see the church, for you will carve a small model for the procession, and then we will send it to Munich.” He smiled benevolently. “You may leave it unpainted. And before we send it,” he added, “the church will be carried at the head of the procession by the children who will eventually worship in it.”
“I have only three months!” Joseph threw his hands up in exasperation. “How can I work in the mill every day and then do all this carving for you?” He had no idea he was describing the division of labour that would determine the rest of his life, that he would always be employed at least half of the time to ensure survival while never – even for a day – letting his hand stray far from a chisel.
“You are not carving for me,” replied Father Gstir. “You are carving for God.”
What People are saying about this
"An eloquent, heartfelt epic." (Portland Oregonian)
Meet the Author
Jane Urquhart is the bestselling author of five internationally acclaimed, award-winning novels. She is also the author of a collection of short fiction, Storm Glass, and three books of poetry. She lives in Southwestern Ontario. She is the winner of numerous awards and has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize for The Stone Carvers and the International IMPAC award.
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