Not so long ago, I entered the Catholic Church on my hands and knees. Humbled by an atheistic life that was propelled by selfishness, materialism and lousy steering, I crashed into a wall. So groveling for God’s favor is an apt metaphor.
In time, I was able to find a direction for my life–and stand–because the teachings of the Church became my true bearing. Buttressed by crystalline religious truths that melted away my cynicism and doubts, I eventually learned to walk in faith.
The path has been wondrous.
However, there’s an aspect to the Catholic perspective that draws me back to my knees–in a good way. Like a wide-eyed child who sees a butterfly for the first time, I’m in awe of the mysterious interplay between the natural and the spiritual, where mystics and saints have supporting roles in humanity’s epic drama. Directed by God, of course. It’s faith reaffirming.
Yet, there are extraordinary moments–supernatural private revelations–when Mary, the Mother of God herself intercedes in a person’s life and graces them with a glimpse of the Divine. Is the following story such an instance?
Claude Newman, an illiterate African-American man born in 1923, murdered his beloved grandmother’s abusive husband in 1942. Stealing the man’s money, Claude fled but was captured in a short amount of time. He was returned to Mississippi, found guilty by a jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair. [Note - As to motive, Claude may have murdered this man because he was caught raping Claude's wife.]
Awaiting execution, Claude passes the time in his cell block with four other men. One night, he notices a “trinket” around another prisoner’s neck, he asks about it, there’s an argument, and the trinket is thrown to the floor. “Take the thing,” the man says. Strangely compelled, Claude places it around his neck. He has no idea that it’s the Miraculous Medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Later that night, Claude is awakened by a touch on his wrist. As he later tells Father Robert O’Leary–a priest who becomes a confidant–there stood “the most beautiful woman that God ever created.” Frightened, but eventually calmed by Our Lady, she says, “If you would like me to be your mother, and you would like to be my child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church.” Then she disappears.
Claude’s reaction is not unexpected. Yelling “a ghost, a ghost,” he then screamed for a Catholic priest. Father O’Leary arrived the next morning and upon hearing Claude’s story, he agreed to not only give Claude religious instruction but the other four cellmates as well. This would prove to be somewhat problematic as Claude couldn’t read or write and was woefully ignorant of all things religious. However, the other prisoners chipped in to help.
A few weeks passed and Father remarked to the group that he was going to teach them about the Sacrament of Confession. Claude said, “Oh, I know about that! The Lady told me that when we go to confession we are kneeling down not before a priest, but we’re kneeling down by the cross of her son. And that when we are truly sorry for our sins, and we confess our sins, the blood he shed flows down over us and washes us free from all sins.”
Hearing Claude say this, Father O’Leary sat stunned. Claude thought he was angry and said, “Oh don’t be angry, don’t be angry, I didn’t mean to blurt it out.” The priest said, “We’re not angry Claude. We are just surprised. You have seen her again?”
Claude motioned for the priest to join him away from the others. When they were alone, Claude said to Father, “She told me that if you doubted me or showed hesitancy, I was to remind you that lying in a ditch in Holland in 1940, you made a vow to her which she’s still waiting for you to keep.” Father O’Leary later recalled, “Claude then told me precisely what the vow was.” (Father told Our Lady that he would build a church in honor of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. He did just that in 1947.)
The catechesis proceeded over the weeks and Claude was able to share the Blessed Mother’s insight about Confession as well as Holy Communion. Eventually, the teaching complete, all five men were received into the Catholic Church. Soon thereafter, Claude was to be executed after midnight on January 20, 1944.
The sheriff, named Williamson, asked him, “Claude, you have the privilege of a last request. What do you want?” “Well,” said Claude, “all of my friends are all shook up. The jailer is all shook up. But you don’t understand. I’m not going to die; only this body. I’m going to be with her. So, then I would like to have a party.”
“What do you mean?” asked the sheriff.
“A party!” said Claude. “Will you give Father O’Leary permission to bring in some cakes and ice cream and will you allow the prisoners on the second floor to be freed in the main room so that we can all be together and have a party?” The Sheriff consented and the festivities went off without a hitch.
Whatever good cheer may have been created by the party were quickly dashed–at least from Claude’s viewpoint–by a two-week stay of execution. It brought terrible anguish for him. “What have I done wrong these past weeks that God would refuse me my going home?”
But Father had a sudden inspiration. He reminded Claude about James Hughes, a white man in another part of the jail who was to be executed as well. Hughes was a despicable, immoral reprobate who rejected God and loathed Claude. Father asked Claude if he would be willing to sacrifice himself for Hughes in an offering to God? Once he understood what that meant, he agreed, and for the next two weeks he offered his sacrifice and prayers. No one else on earth knew of this personal offering.
Claude was put to death in the electric chair on Feb. 4, 1944. Concerning Claude’s death Father O’Leary testified: “I’ve never seen anyone go to his death as joyfully and happily. Even the official witnesses and the newspaper reporters were amazed. They said they couldn’t understand how anyone could go and sit in the electric chair while at the same time actually beaming with happiness.”
Three months later, the pitiful James Hughes was likewise strapped into the electric chair. Asked if he had anything to say, he began to rant and curse but then stopped suddenly. Looking at the corner of the room, his faced turning to absolute horror, he screamed in terror. All of the observers were shocked. “Sheriff, get me a priest!”
Father O’Leary went to the condemned man, the room was cleared, and he heard Hughes’ confession. “He confessed all of his sins with deep repentance and intense fervor.”
When everyone returned, the Sheriff asked Father what made Hughes change his mind about speaking? Father hadn’t asked.
Knowing he needed an answer, the Sheriff went to the condemned man and asked, “Son, what changed your mind?”
The prisoner responded, “Remember that black man Claude–the one whom I hated so much? Well he’s standing there [and he pointed], over in that corner. And behind him with one hand on each shoulder is the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Claude said to me, ‘I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross for your salvation. She has obtained for you this gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.’ I have been shown my place in Hell, and that’s why I screamed.”
“James Hughes was executed as scheduled, but the heavenly appearance of our Blessed Mother with Claude Newman and the subsequent vision of hell had instantly converted his soul in the last moments of his life.”
Why Claude Newman? Why James Hughes? What are we to make of any of this?
If events happened as chronicled, we make of it what we will. That Holy Mary would intercede in the lives of two inconsequential men, that the Mother of God would intervene to save two lowly creatures, that the Blessed Virgin would consecrate two souls to the redemptive love of her son seems, well, miraculous.
Maybe it is. Or it’s Looney Tunes. Like so many things in life, it’s a matter for personal consideration.
Thanks to the terrific work of Glenn Dallaire–which provided the inspiration and framework for this post–a more complete story of Claude Newman is here.