Bracken Farm

Deer have learned to avoid bracken fern, though sometimes people eat the plant and get stomach cancer, or worse. Richard Hoeg, in Plant Lore, Legends, and Lyrics notes that “Witches detest the Bracken Fern because it bears on its root the letter C, the initial of the holy name of Christ, which may be plainly seen on cutting the root horizontally.” According to microfiched pamphlets of The Lower-Quarter Historical Society, a “coven of witches, or practitioners of the black magick” were arrested burning bracken fern during an August night in 1820. The fern grew back “double-thick that Spring, as if to spite the ne’er-do-wells.”

Bracken Farm was named and settled in autumn of 1872. Northwest Montana, the work-town was financed by Henderson and Pierce Trading Company. A horseshoe-shaped bridge was to be constructed over the Shale River to connect two swaths of logging along the opposite shores. Initial population was 548, mostly French-Canadian. Catholic parish founded in December of the first year, with Father Welles as priest. The bridge-in-progress collapsed on July 3, 1874, with at least 80 reported deaths. Project operations were canceled. Town deregistered. Parish operations were suspended until 1878, when the parish became a residence home for retired religious (St. Mary’s in Billings was the main home for the archdiocese but Bracken Farm was selected for less desirable candidates: those suffering from dementia or other illnesses, those given less than favorable exit responses, those suspected of impure activities). Low staff: cook, nurses, administrator. A self-sustaining model was adopted with little outside interaction. Parish operations were resumed in 1915, though little documentation exists in the archdiocese office to explain that action. Operations were again suspended the subsequent year by decree of Portland Archbishop, Most Reverend Patrick O’Malley. A tentative agreement was reached between archdiocese and National Forest Service to sell the parish land, though the agreement was broken months later. Religious home was subsumed into St. Mary. Parish staff vacated premises. Church and rectory abandoned.

From Hoeg: “In some parts, lads and lasses try to discover in the Bracken-stem the initials of their future wife or husband.”

In 1945(6?) a team from the University of Montana visited site and reported smoke from rectory chimney. University president detected sarcasm in report (“Perhaps they were voting for the new pope”) and doubted claim. That same year two National Forest Service employees did not proceed further along trail, citing dangerous overgrowth, so the Montana team likely never visited site. In 1977, hikers reported to Forest Service Tower #77 (South Billings) that parish was in full operations. Claim that road was cleared, grounds were maintained, Mass held. Thomas Melazzi, a Jesuit from Pepperdine, was assigned to investigate parish (it particularly bothered the archdiocese that the parish appeared to be existing as a non-religious congregation: an autonomous, insular parish).

Current staff of Bracken Farm parish (incomplete) as of 1979: Father Louis French, 45, graduate of Harvard (AB, Philosophy), Father Constance, 40, Brother Paul, ?, Brother Kerrin, ?, and three women: Patricia, Erin, Katherine, all 23.

“Now comes the mystery.” Last words, Henry Ward Beecher, 1887.

Father Thomas, being a Jesuit, was never assigned to a parish. Entered the novitiate when he was 25. Hair curled past his ears. Wide-bottomed jeans. Questioned extensively about his sex life (“I don’t think I was ever a virgin” — 6/4/68, in interview). Eschewed “Father” and preferred simply Thomas. Only wore his collar when superiors were in view, particularly the Scottish monsignor. Worked with heroin addicts in San Diego; spent three months at Haight-Ashbury (superiors claimed he “disappeared;” he reappeared without much fanfare). Kept this quote folded in his pocket at all times: “Sinners are closer to God than saints. We are on his mind more often.” Attribution unknown.

St. George Jackson Mivart was not, and will never be, a saint, but he was Catholic. He wrote an essay titled “Happiness in Hell” and posited that for certain persons Hell is not damnation and suffering but, rather, the apex of their earthly dreams. Origen relates that Peter was crucified upside-down. Multiple instances of the Petrine inversion were observed by Thomas on the grounds of Bracken Farm (which were impeccably maintained by Brother Paul, who ran the John Deere at all hours). And Father Constance’s unfinished master’s thesis was on Mivart’s duel with Darwin. Father Constance, unlike Thomas, preferred the full pronouncement of his title.

Father Constance stood naked in the doorframe of the rectory and admitted — without prompting — to having ignored his commitment to celibacy. He referred to the “mothers” as The Daughters, three Cree women who were listed as staff but merely tended the garden, slept until noon, and painted landscapes in the basement. Father Constance put on a robe — “you Jesuits are so conservative nowadays” — and gave Thomas the guided tour. His quarters: two queen beds pushed together, sheets splayed over the ends. The kitchen, where the Host was kept in a cabinet over the stove. “Here we perform, not practice, Mass.” He said it was humorous that the Portland archdiocese had sent him to investigate their quiet parish, since several troublesome incidents had occurred during recent years (Father Constance insisted they sit, and one of the Cree women, who looked in pain, try to smile as she walked past): most notable of which was the allegation that three Franciscan brothers were found face down in a cypress swamp in northern Oregon. Thomas was unaware of that allegation but continued to listen. “How can we really know God? His shape? I mean have we forgotten the metaphysics of all of this?” Father Constance chewed mint leaves and spat the refuse in a bowl (“It calms the stomach. So often I have pains.”) He shared that he had four children. Two were upstairs (“you can hear them crying, right?”) and two had been given up for adoption. Father Constance had pictures; Thomas excused himself to the bathroom.

Katherine walked Thomas along the outline of the maintained property. Bracken fern leaned forward toward the shaved grass. They always keep growing forward, she said. She closed her eyes and said she dreamt they all woke one morning to the fern covering the windows, fluttering through the vents. Thomas thought there must have been a way to push back the plant: pesticide, controlled burn. “Or you could just have a big dinner,” he joked.

Katherine pressed against her stomach, exhaled, and said they had already tried that

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“To reach the city of Joseph, one must first become utterly lost.”