Tomasso Aldini and Esperanza Balderes stood on the platform waiting for their train. The wind whipped a chilly spring rain around the platform. Esperanza pulled her cardigan a little closer to her neck while Tomasso did his best to use his umbrella to shelter them both. Newly engaged, the couple was traveling from Bayeux, Normandy, France to Cannes, on the French Riviera. However, the trip was not for pleasure.
Mr. Tomasso Aldini, surgeon and nurse Esperanza Balderes were asked to escort a monk from the Cistercian Monastery on île Saint-Honorat, back to Normandy for medical treatment. This was no ordinary monk and therefore no ordinary trip.
It all began two weeks prior. The Catholic Church and Esperanza's family gave Tomasso permission to ask for her hand in marriage. Their courtship had been short therefore the church required a special procedure to assure that they were properly suited. Even those who were envious of their relationship had to admit that they were perfect for one another. They worked together seamlessly in the surgical suite at the Bayeux Hospital. As a surgeon, Tomasso Aldini was one of the Bayeux Hospital’s finest. The surgeon worked best with nurse Esperanza Balderes by his side. The two had a God given talent for healing.
In honor of the auspicious event, several engagement parties were planned; however, the first celebration would be held at the Columbus Café. A string quartet and delicious food were provided by M. Riopel at an intimate gathering. It was fitting that the celebration should be held at this café where the two had their first date for coffee. Esperanza and Tomasso were filled with immense joy. Afterwards, M. Riopel asked them to stay. M. Riopel and Tomasso were good friends, so the couple did not mind staying to chat. Father Jerome soon joined the three of them. M. Riopel poured coffee as the Father began his story.
“Tomasso, Esperanza, we are going to ask you for a favor. I know that this has been an exciting day for you both. It is an honor to be a part of your engagement. However, M. Riopel and I feel that we must speak to you today because the situation is not ideal." Father Jerome said.
“What is it Father? How can we help?” asked Tomasso.
“I think M. Riopel should tell you his side of the story first,” said Father Jerome.
“Thank you for staying, children, I would not have asked if it were not so important. Both of you have heard of the French Resistance during the War. There was a lot of underground activity in Normandy. During, and to some extent after the war was declared over. This café acted as a type of message center for some of these activities. Better that you should not know more than that at present. One of the most fearless men acting on behalf of the Resistance was, at one point, a famous thief. You might call him a second story man. He was not a nice man nor a good man. However, he was recruited because of his special talents. Initially, he joined for the money but he saw the savagery of the Nazis. His goal became dismantling the Nazi heirarchy in France as much as possible. We called him L’eau, the water because no one could catch him, though they did come close. As a result he sustained some rather serious injuries.” Explained M. Riopel.
Father Jerome picked up the story, “The man managed to escape both German and French Nazi sympathizers. The experience of the war turned the man from a life of hate, crime, and bitterness, to a man who sought forgiveness from God. He came to the Catholic Church in search of help. We did not trust him, as the early Christians did not trust Saul before he became Saint Paul. He lived up to his word. Having taken vows, the monk has now entered the church."
"I became friends with this man. We ate together, we battled together to bring down the Germans, and we cried together when the war ended. He needs our help now. He was nearly captured by the Nazis while
setting explosives ten years ago. He was forced to jump from the building, breaking his leg in three places. Despite our protests that he shouldn't take on these missions alone, he did so alone.
Then he had to hide out all night long! In the morning, he was discovered by a cleaning woman. The experience nearly cost him his life, not just his leg. The medical help he needed to set his leg was not available, and he developed pneumonia. The incident has left him with permanent breathing problems, and his leg is still severely damaged. He now has circulation problems in his leg, according to the monks at the monastery. He will need surgery. Tomasso, we need you to perform this surgery," said M. Riopel.
“But first, you and Esperanza need to examine the leg and his breathing to determine whether the operation can even be performed. Arrangements have been made with the hospital for your absence, and the church has also requested that you be accompanied by guards. I am sure you have heard that there are men in the church that are specially trained in this type of work. It's a top secret, you understand. It comes straight from the Pope. In this packet you will find information and train tickets. You are, as far as anyone knows, on a mission of mercy. Risks are involved. Before you say yes, I ask you to think carefully about this. You should discuss it together. The chapel will be open for prayer and contemplation.Please come to my office tomorrow at 5:00 pm." Father Jerome stated.
Esperanza and Tomasso looked at each other then at the two men with whom they sat. After shaking their hands, Father Jerome abruptly left. He was late for evening mass. Before they returned to their respective quarters to sleep, M. Riopel prepared bread, cheese, and coffee.
Tomasso left Esperanza at the door to her room at the Abbey and made his way to his own quarters at the hospital. He had a lot to think about that night. Mostly he wondered if it would be possible to protect Esperanza if her life were in danger. Even though he knew she'd be annoyed if he worried about her more than their patient. He smiled to himself. She often reminded him that she had 4 brothers. He could take care of herself. Then there was the patient. Tomasso sat on his bed reading the packet from Father Jerome. The patient (not named in the packet) was a 50 year old male with breathing difficulties that often present like asthma, left leg broken in three places, sometimes walks with a cane, has various other injuries and scars, lives in the monastic community and works in the winery. It told him exactly what he already knew. He looked at the train tickets. They would travel from Normandy to Cannes. Well that told him where their mysterious stranger lived, Lérins Abbey.
The Abbey, well known for excellent wines, is situated on île Saint-Honorate in the Lérins Islands in the French Riviera. The Cicsterican Monks have had an active community there since the year 410.
The next day was very long for both Esperanza and Tomasso. There were two emergency surgery cases beside the normal surgery schedule and they still had a meeting with Father Jerome to attend. First they agreed to meet in the chapel for prayer.
Esperanza felt she needed a moment of calm. The church had always provided her with solace. She sat in the chapel meditating on the quiet, taking strength from the surroundings before Tomasso came in for prayer. As the door opened Tomasso could see Esperanza kneeling her red hair covered by a handmade lace chapel veil. He slipped quietly beside her and the two began silent prayer. Tomasso had not always been a man of prayer. Sometimes he felt awkward praying but not when he was with Esperanza. Her calm assurance in God was inspiring.
Once they had finished praying Tomasso asked Esperanza if she felt she was ready for this adventure. She smiled.
“Of course one does not go on a mission of mercy without some trepidation about the task at hand. Yet when a friend asks for help I can hardly turn my back,” She replied.
Tomasso pulled the train tickets from his pocket.
“Yes, these were my thoughts exactly. Then it is agreed. We have tickets for Cannes. We leave in the morning.” he said.
Father Jerome ushered the couple into his office where M. Riopel was waiting with two men. He’d made a light meal of fruit, cheese, bread and pasta.
Father Jerome turned to the two men. “I would like you to meet nurse Esperanza Balderes and Mr. Tomasso Aldini, the finest surgeon at The Bayeux Hospitalier. The two have recently become engaged to be married much to our delight,” he said beaming.
“This is David,” he said motioning to a tall man in a well tailored brown suit.
“This is James,” Addressing a man of medium height but strong build wearing a dark blue suit.
“These men are members of the Knights of Jerusalem. However, as far as you are concerned they are traveling with you in support of your mission of mercy.” Said Father Jerome.
Tomasso shook hands with the two men.
M. Riopel said “Please sit down and eat before the pasta gets cold.” Though the meal was light, there was enough food to feed a small army.
David and James said little during the meal. However, Father Jerome did give more details about the trip including the name of their patient, Brother Julian White. This was not his own surname but one given to him by the church. David and James were given the location of the meeting place once they arrived in Cannes.
As the train pulled up Tomasso and Esperanza were escorted to a private car. Something neither of them expected! The church had provided the car belonging to the Bishop of Greater Normandy. This was another precaution to protect not only Tomasso and Esperanza but their important patient. They would be meeting him in just a few hours now. As the beautiful scenery flew by Esperanza kept thinking that Brother Julian must have done something extraordinary to rate this treatment.
The train pulled up in Cannes, the city was stunning. There would be no time for tourism on this trip. David and James got off the train first standing on either side of the surgeon and his nurse, they walked toward the church Notre Dame de Bon Voyage.
James whispered to Tomasso; “Our guest is waiting for us in the Rectory. You will be very welcome there.”
Esperanza organized the medical bags as soon as she and Tomasso entered the Rectory. David and James checked on the status of the patient. He was resting quietly in a room in the back of the Rectory.
Tomasso and Esperanza began to transform from engaged couple to medical team. It was silent as they began unpacking instruments, medicine, and sterile bandages. Each wore a lab coat and a hat to protect their patient from infection.
"Brother Julian, Mr. Aldini, and Nurse Balderes are here to examine your leg and evaluate your lungs," James said.
“Pleased to meet you both,” whispered Brother Julian. Dressed in the traditional black and white habit of the Cicstercian Monks, Brother Julian White was observing them not as patient to doctor but sizing them up as people. His tanned face, not allowing an emotion to escape. Though he was relaxed and lay quietly.
Tomasso listened to the man’s lungs first. Clearly congested, Tomasso quickly came to the conclusion that any surgery to be done would not be done at The Bayeux. Damage to the bone could be seen through the skin on the leg. The color of the skin indicated that his circulation had been affected by the angle at which the bone was broken.
“Brother Julian, surgery will have to be done here in Cannes. First the lungs then the leg,” said Tomasso after the exam.
“David, would you and James please see to the arrangements with the Abbey while I speak to Father Jerome,” asked Tomasso?
Father Jerome answered the telephone.
“This is Tomasso, I have examined our friend. The event will take place here as I am unable to bring him back. Make the arrangements as you see fit. Call me with the details.” he said cryptically in the unlikely event someone should be listening.
“Understood,” replied Father Jerome.
Tomasso entered Brother Julian’s room quietly as Esperanza administered a breathing treatment.
“How does that feel?'' she said after the last of the medicine was gone.
Brother Julian smiled “Much better, thank-you. Now tell me when are you two going to be married?”
Esperanza laughed; “How did you know? Is it that obvious?”
“Yes it is and it’s delightful!” Brother Julian said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Aldini, that’s quite a pedigree. What are you doing in Bayeux?” his sharp eyes following Tomasso’s face
“I would imagine the same thing that brought you to the Abbey,” Tomasso stated
“Quite right,” replied the Brother.
“While I have you both here I want you to witness something. It is a document, a testimony, if-you-will, of great importance to the Church. Since you will hold my life in your hands it is only right that I trust you with this record. All I ask is that you sign this knowing that it is true and accurate to the best of my ability. The Holy See will be sending someone from their Embassy in France.” Said Brother Julian in a tone barely above a whisper.
Both Esperanza and Tomasso signed the document as witnesses without reading it, as promised. Thereby absolving them of any responsibility for its contents.
Later that evening Tomasso spoke to Father Jerome by phone.
The Holy See would be sending an airplane to deliver the necessary supplies, a pulmonology team and Tomasso’s usual surgical team from The Bayeux to Cannes. Brother Julian's breathing would first be stabilized by the pulmonologists. The next step would be an operation on his leg performed by the surgical team from Normandy. This seemed like an extraordinary effort for one man but if what Tomasso and Esperanza suspected was true, this man was extraordinary.
After a good night’s rest Tomasso and Esperanza met up with both groups that had been flown in to perform procedures on Brother Julian while he was being prepped for an evaluation by the pulmonary team.
Tomasso and Esperanza took some time to rest and pray during the pulmonary team's evaluation of Brother Julian's lungs. Surgical team members gathered in the chapel for prayer and a mass said by the local priest. A debriefing was held at the Rectory with all the medical personnel involved. It was good news. Although he had some scarring and fluid present in his lungs, he was able to proceed to surgery on the leg.
The following morning David and James escorted Tomasso and Esperanza to the hospital. They were taking no chances with Brother Julian’s life. He would need delicate vascular surgery to restore blood flow to his lower leg and foot. The recovery would be long, but surgery on the bone was not an option.
The surgery was a complete success but not without challenging moments. Tomasso would follow up with his extraordinary patient in three months. Meanwhile he would remain in the hospital for breathing treatments and to strengthen his leg. If he took care, Brother Julian could live a long life in Lérins Abbey.
David and James, their bodyguards, and now friends, stood on the train platform with Tomasso and Esperanza. To their surprise, they were once again permitted to use the Bishop's private rail car. James went ahead to inspect the car while David helped them with their bags.
Once inside the car they found a lovely bouquet of flowers and a case of white wine had been given to them as a wedding gift by Monks at the île Saint-Honorat. With a note thanks from the Abbot.
David and James secured the luggage then sat down to a specially prepared meal ordered by the Bishop himself.
Then David said, "I have been permitted to tell you what is so special about our friend Brother Julian. Both of you know that he possessed a unique skill set. He not only helped the Nation of France, but also the Holy See with these skills. It was he who prevented Nazi criminals from obtaining certain items. That's all I can say. We, the Knights of Jerusalem, offer you a promise with great gratitude. You can always rely on us to help if you need it in the future."
Tomasso looked at the two men with deepest sincerity.
“Gentlemen, if the Knights of Jerusalem are ever in need of my help, I would consider it a privilege if you would call on me,” he said.
“On us.” said Esperanza with a little sob in her voice.
As the evening came and a hush settled over the four travelers Tomasso thought about his new friends and especially Brother Julian. His mysterious friend, the extraordinary stranger in black and white.