Mrs. Elisabeth Comeau

[ Morceaux de rouet attribué à Élisabeth Comeau, trouvés dans les murs de la maison de Dédier, 2002 ]

Pieces of a spinning wheel said to have belonged to Elisabeth Comeau, found in the walls of Dedier’s house, 2002, Caroline-Isabelle Caron,

The name Jerome is an integral part of the folklore of this Acadian region of south-western Nova Scotia. Who doesn’t know the story of the stranger who lived among us for fifty-eight years without ever revealing his identity? This young man, dressed in a uniform of quality but without any buttons or distinguishing marks, was mysteriously and cruelly set ashore on the beach of Sandy Cove near Digby, his pockets empty and his legs amputated. He was immediately taken in by the people of Clare, with whom he spent the rest of his life (1854 to 1912) in complete silence.

This unfortunate man, barely twenty years old and suspected of being a military officer of European origin, would spend forty years of his silent life in the home of Dédier and Elisabeth Comeau of St. Alphonse. There, of course, he never heard talk of Milan, Madrid, Bordeaux, the Rhine or the Champs Elysées, but he did see the flowers in the fields, the stars in the firmament. He heard the church bell ringing the Angelus, the laughter of children, the songs of birds. He enjoyed the aromas of baking bread, hay during haying season, the salty air of the marsh and the sea. In short, he shared the simple life of an Acadian family, united in prayer and love.

As the years went by, the chances of discovering Jerome’s identity became increasingly slight, so without concerning herself with the why, “Zabeth” brought mercy to this human suffering.

Fortunately, in those days money did not have the power of attraction it does today! Receiving just $104 a year for Jerome’s keep from the federal government (the meagre sum of twenty-eight cents a day), it was simple Christian charity toward a fellow human being, affection for humankind, that moved her to give him a private room close to the big wood stove that provided heat for the entire house, and look after his clothes, without the help of a washing machine, and feed him and provide for his personal needs, all without ever being thanked! And Jerome became famous, while the story of Zabeth was buried in obscurity!

Elisabeth was born on August 22 and baptized on August 24, 1845 by Father John Nugent; her godfather and godmother were John Robichaud and Sophie Mayan. Her parents, Cyrille Thibodeau and Marie Mayan, also known as Maillet, were both from the village of St. Martin. In the family home in Bear Cove, a village between Meteghan and St. Alphonse, four children would grow up: Elisabeth, François, Charles Benjamin and John, of whom Elisabeth was the godmother. According to Metaghan parish records, “Dédier Comeau and Elisabeth Thibodeau, after having been duly published and granted dispensation for a 3rd degree of consanguinity, received the nuptial blessing in the presence of Ambroise Comeau and Marin Saulnier, on November 11, 1862.” Zabeth was just seventeen when she moved into the impressive house that Dédier, son of Marin Comeau and Madeleine Maillet, had prepared for her in St. Alphonse. Scarcely ten years later, Jerome would join this household, thus adding to the already heavy burden of domestic chores, for by then the family included five young children: François Anthanse, Marie-Agnes, Marie-Marguerite, Joseph and Marie Madeleine. Things were not always easy for Zabeth, who now had to resign herself to this communal life. Eight other children were born of her marriage: Adrien Nicholas, Marie, Jean-Louis William, Marie-Anne, Enos Jean, Stéphane Edmond, Charles and Marie-Aimée. Through it all, this courageous woman held her own! Short and fat, her black hair combed into a bun at the back of her head, she looked like a ball rolling along when, dressed in her big black mantle (a type of cloak popular with women at the time), she walked at top speed on her little daily visits to neighbours.

Zabeth led a simple and humble life. Nonetheless, she received the greatest honour an Acadian mother could be granted, that of giving a son to the Catholic Church. Her son Enos Jean, born on July 10, 1880, was ordained a priest in 1906. This was a great joy to her, but there were also painful ordeals in her life, as three of her children died at a young age.

Dédier’s house served as a stop for the post coach, and every day, travellers who used this means of transportation would enter her big kitchen, supposedly to rest and warm up, but in reality to get a look at the mysterious lodger. Many would offer candy and fruit to Jerome, which he accepted, but coins he flatly refused! Zabeth, who had to be very thrifty, set out a little box for these modest donations. It was with the five- and ten-cent pieces collected in this way that she managed to provide Jerome with the clothing and sheets he needed.

When her husband left her a widow, she immediately invited her son William (1876-1949), who had settled in the United States, to come live closer to her. In 1912, Jerome in turn fell sick. Zabeth, who was deeply devout, wanted at all costs that the stranger be ‘buried a Catholic’. She sent at once for Monsignor Alphonse Benoît Côte, P.D., from the Meteghan parish. He administered the sacraments of both Baptism and Extreme Unction. Before dying, Jerome attempted to speak, no doubt to express his gratitude to Zabeth, but his vocal chords, which had gone so long unused, no longer functioned. Jerome died without revealing his identity and without thanking his benefactress. With her work of mercy ended, Zabeth spent her final years with her son William in St. Alphonse and then with her daughter Marguerite in Little Brook.

Zabeth’s grandchildren remember how attentive she was! They tell of her great kindness toward everyone. At the time, grandmothers couldn’t go to the store for candy or sweets to offer little ones as a sign of love. Eager to show she was a loving grandmother despite her limited budget, Zabeth treated her family to golden crêpes, crisp and delicious, at any hour of the day. Her favourite phrase was, “Gâtre de foutte! If I catch you I’ll tan your backside!” And when she caught them she would take off her “shoe” to spank them! The funniest thing was that she always wore slippers! Seated at her little wheel and spinning wool and lint, or knitting socks to sell, her work would become a pleasant way to relax.

It could be said that in a concrete way, Zabeth proclaimed the message of the Gospel:

“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you invited me in…”
[Mathew 25, 35-36]

I know of no higher praise to give her.

Source: Edith (Comeau) Tufts, "Mrs. Elisabeth Comeau" in Acadiennes de Clare, (Clare: , 1977), 32-33.

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