On 1 September 2019, on Deepertruth Radio, John Carpenter gave the testimony of the conversion of Claude Newman whose story we will share in a few moments. But I feel this story begins with a prayer from a Catholic Priest, Father Malcolm O'Leary, the one time Pastor of St. Mary's Catholic Church in Vicksburg Mississippi.
This story begins with a prayer of dedication during World War II when Fr. O'Leary found himself in a dangerous situation in Holland. Father O'Leary's prayer was that if he survived this war, he would build a Church in honor of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary.
As time and space had come and gone, Father Malcolm O'Leary did survive the war and was in the United States serving in Vicksburg Mississippi. The Virgin Mary never forgot Father O'Leary's promise even when the good priest at least for a while, did forget. As the result of the following story, this church was dedicated in 1947 where it stands today!
Our Lady literally begins this story with a very unique and powerful message for all to hear. This is where a death-row inmate, Claude Newman (1923 - 1944), the son of a black sharecropper from Stuttgart Arkansas who was raised by his grandmother, Ellen Newman of Bovina Mississippi comes into focus.
In 1939, Sid Cook took Mrs. Newman for his wife who repeatedly abused her. On December 19, 1942, Claude Newman took revenge and killed Mr. Cook for all the abuse. The law finally caught up and captured Claude Newman (January 1943) who did confess to the crime of murder. Being found guilty, Claude Newman was sentenced to die in the electric chair scheduled to be executed on January 20, 1944.
The prison chaplain was Father Robert O'Leary (1911 - 1984) who was no relation with Father Malcolm O'Leary developed a relationship with Claude Newman while he was on death-row. One night, Claude and five other inmates began a discussion talking about their situations when Claude noticed a medallion hanging around the neck of one of the other men. Being curious of what this medal was, he asked the man wearing it what it meant.
Interestingly, the man responded with anger towards Claude took the medal off his neck and threw it to the ground giving it to Claude who reached down and picked it up. What he held in his hands was the Miraculous Medal that Our Lady gave to the world in 1830 giving it to St. Catherine Labouré promising to prepare people for God's grace and disposes grace for them who cooperate with it. Claude then placed the medal around his neck.
During that same night while in a deep sleep, Claude was awakened by a gentle touch on his wrist by who Claude described, "the most beautiful woman that God ever created." Stunned and surprised that any woman would be in his cell, the woman calmed him down with a question, "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."
With that the lady disappeared! Claude immediately began screaming that he had seen a ghost, he kept screaming he had seen a ghost and wanted to see a Catholic priest. Claude was not able to sleep when the next morning, Father O'Leary being notified of Claude's strange request, he received the story about what happened the night before by Claude.
The event did not only affect Claude Newman, but also other inmates who were all moved by this wanted to be received into the Catholic Church. None of them were literate, new very little of Christianity, let alone the Catholic faith. This whole occurrence was unique and it puzzled Father O'Leary.
A couple of days following this event, two religious sisters who served at Fr. O'leary's parish-school visited the prison. News was beginning to spread and the sisters were interested to meet this Claude Newman. The sisters also met with other women held in the prison. The story of this woman appearing in prison to Claude Newman was spreading like wildfire. People were asking for instruction into the Catholic Faith.
The following story as relayed by Angelo Stagnaro of the National Catholic Register:
Several weeks passed, and Fr. O'Leary came to the point of needing to teach the catechumens about the Sacrament of Confession. The sisters sat in on the class.
The priest introduced the sacrament when Claude interrupted him saying, "Oh, I know about that! The Lady told me that when we go to Confession, we're kneeling down not in front of a priest, but in front of the Cross of her Son. And that when we're truly sorry for our sins, and confess them, the Blood He shed flows down over us and washes us free from all sins."
Fr. O'Leary and the sisters sat in perfect stunned silence. Claude mistook their shock for anger and furiously apologized.
"Oh, don't be angry! Don't be angry!" he pleaded. "I didn't mean to just yell that out!"
Overcome with emotion, the priest replied, "We're not angry, Claude. We're just surprised. Have you seen the Lady again?"
Claude pulled the priest aside not wanting his cellmates to hear what he was about to say.
When they were alone, Claude whispered, "She told me that if you doubted me, I was supposed to remind you that you made a vow to her while you were lying in a ditch in Holland in 1940 during the war. She said she's still waiting for you to keep your vow."
Fr. O'Leary later related, “Claude then told me precisely what the vow was.”
Claude's revelation absolutely convinced Fr. O'Leary that Claude was telling the truth.
Apparently, Fr. O’Leary had promised the Blessed Virgin Mary that he would build a church in honor of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception. The priest was later able to do exactly that in 1947 when he was transferred to Clarksdale, Mississippi to serve a black parish in need of a church building. The Bishop of Natchez, Mississippi had been sent $5000 by Boston Archbishop Cushing for the Negro missions. The money was exactly what was needed to build the church for which the Blessed Virgin Mary had been waiting.
Stunned, Fr. O’Leary returned with Claude to the discussion on Confession. Claude reminded his fellow prisoners, “Don't be afraid of going to Confession. You're really telling God your sins, not the priest. You know, the Lady said that Confession is something like a telephone. We talk through the priest to God, and God talks back to us through the priest.”
A week later, Fr. O'Leary was preparing to teach the prisoners about the Blessed Sacrament. The Sisters were again present for this lesson as well. Unbidden, Claude spoke.
“The Lady told me that in Communion, I'll see what looks like a piece of bread but she told me that it's really and truly her Son, and that He'll be with me just as He was with the Lady before He was born in Bethlehem. She told me that I should spend my time like she did during her lifetime with Him―in loving Him, adoring Him, thanking Him, praising Him and asking Him for blessings. I shouldn't be distracted or bothered by anybody else or anything else. Instead, I should spend that thinking about Him.”
After this period of catechesis, Claude and his cellmates and the women prisoners were received into the Catholic Church. Claude took the name Claude Jude. The baptismal log at St. Mary’s parish in Vicksburg records his baptism as being on January 16, 1944. Fr. O’Leary officiated and Sr. Bena Henken, SSpS, was Claude's sponsor. Fr. Malcolm O'Leary, the current pastor of the parish, verified this for me when I interviewed him.
Claude's execution was scheduled for 12:05 AM on January 20, 1944―just four days later.
As a last request, Claude wanted cake and ice cream for himself and his fellow prisoners saying, “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 is going to die. I'm going to be with the Lady. So then, I'd like to have a party.”
Though the warden was initially reluctant, Fr. O’Leary persuaded him to accept the generosity of a wealthy patron of the parish who generously supplied the ice cream and cake for the convicts’ party.
After the party, Claude requested a Holy Hour with a recital of the Stations of the Cross.
The prisoner received the Viaticum moments prior to his execution and Fr. O'Leary prayed with the condemned man.
Fifteen minutes prior to the execution, Sheriff Williamson halted the procedure, citing that the governor had given Claude a two-week reprieve. Unbeknownst to Claude and Fr. O'Leary, the sheriff and the District Attorney were secretly trying to get a stay of execution for Claude to save his life. However, when Claude found out, he started to cry saying, “But you don't understand! If you ever saw her face, and looked into her eyes, you wouldn't want to live another day!”
Claude lamented, “What have I done wrong these past weeks that God would refuse me my going home?” Fr. O’Leary later testified that Claude sobbed as one who was completely brokenhearted.
The priest had a sudden inspiration and reminded Claude of a fellow prisoner, James Samuel Hughs, a white prisoner similarly on death row, who hated Claude intensely. Hughs was an ex-Catholic and a convicted murderer. “Maybe Our Blessed Mother wants you to offer this denial of being with her for Hugh's conversion,” offered Fr. O’Leary. “Why don't you offer to God every moment that you are separated from your heavenly Mother for this prisoner, so that he won't be separated from God for all eternity.”
Two weeks later, Claude was finally put to death by the electric chair on Feb. 4, 1944, having offered the intervening time for the expiation of the sins of the reprobate James Hughs. (Coincidently, Mildred Johnson was also executed for murder in Vicksburg on that same day. She, too, had become a Catholic through the ministrations of the nuns from St. Mary's parish.)
Fr. O'Leary later testified to journalists and his fellow priests, and to the current pastor of St. Mary's (who was a seminarian when the two met): “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.”
Claude had his favorite dessert, coconut pie, on the night before he died. His last words to Fr. O'Leary were, “Father, I'll remember you. Whenever you have a request, ask me, and I'll ask her.”
Claude's death notice was printed in the Vicksburg Evening News on the day of his execution. He was buried in the historic African-American Beulah Cemetery in Vicksburg.
On May 19, 1944, three months later, James Hughs was scheduled to be executed for his crimes. Fr. O'Leary said of him, “This man was the filthiest, most immoral person I had ever come across. His hatred for God and for everything spiritual defied description.”
He refused to speak with any clergyman and showed no remorse for his crimes.
Once strapped into the electric chair, he was asked if he had any last words. At that, he let lose a stream of the vilest invective and blasphemies.
Suddenly, Hughs froze as if in horror staring off at the corner of the room. His screams pierced the otherwise respectful silence of the execution chamber. He begged the sheriff to fetch a priest.
Fr. O'Leary came forward and the execution chamber was cleared so that the two might speak privately. Hughs gave his confession, suddenly remorseful of his past life and the murders he had committed.
Apparently, Hughs had experienced two visions while strapped in the electric chair. The first was of Claude Newman who stood before the Blessed Virgin Mary, her hand resting upon his shoulder. Claude only spoke once saying, “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 don’t repent.”
The second vision was of Hughs’ final disposition if he refused to repent.
James Hughs was executed as soon as he had finished his Confession and given the Viaticum.
What a great example that is given to us, just thinking about this second vision granted to James Hughs, I am reminded of another vision the Children of Fatima witnessed when the Virgin Mary appeared to them on July 13, 1917. They too saw the vision of hell and this had great impact on them as well.
John 14:1-4 states, "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going."
This story as told by John Carpenter and Deepertruth and relayed by Angelo Stagnaro of the National Catholic Register has a deep impact on me. I have been giving talks on the four last things, death, judgement, hell and heaven. This story is a great sign of victory because of the intervention of Heaven.