Christ’s mercy found in ‘Deathbed Conversions’

In the introduction to her book, “Deathbed Conversions: Finding Faith at the Finish Line” (OSV), which recounts the lives and conversions of 13 well-known figures (and from which these three excerpts are drawn), author Karen Edmisten writes: “Never give up on the potential deathbed conversion in your life. If there’s a lesson in this book, it’s this: it is a grace and a privilege to be the friend who is still around at the end, ready to offer whatever is necessary to help another soul reach for Christ. If we are present at such a genuine moment, we will know without a doubt that a deathbed conversion is not a loophole, or an unfair advantage for the other team. It is the mercy of God at work.”

Oscar Wilde

1854-1900

Upon his release from prison, Oscar’s first wish was to attend a six-month long retreat with the Jesuits. What an astounding request! Surely they embraced this broken man and helped him to fully realize conversion. No. Heartbreakingly, his request was denied. It’s hard to believe that the rejection didn’t crush what must have been a deep, gnawing hope for redemption, mercy, and charity. “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future,” Oscar once said, but perhaps he no longer believed in a future with the Catholic Church after being abandoned so coldly.

The final three years of Wilde’s life were painful and sad. He had no money, no social standing, and only a handful of friends as he lay dying in an ugly, cheap hotel room in Paris. ...

The cause of his death was long speculated to be syphilis, but recent study points to complications from an ear infections that moved to his brain. In his final days, Wilde’s longtime and still loyal friend Robbie Ross, a convert to Catholicism, called a priest. Fr. Cuthbert Dunne recalled that he was asked to “come in haste to attend a dying man.” Fr. Dunne said he firmly believed Wilde knew exactly what he was doing.

“He could be roused and was roused from this state in my presence. When roused, he gave signs of being inwardly conscious. He made brave efforts to speak, and would even continue for a time trying to talk, though he could not utter articulate words. Indeed, I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and give him the last sacraments. From the signs he gave, as well as from his attempted words, I was satisfied as to his full consent. And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope, and Charity, with acts of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.”

Wilde died on November 30, 1900.

Wilde
Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and dramatist most famous for “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Newscom

Buffalo Bill (William Frederick Cody)

1846-1917

Buffalo Bill’s astounding success and entrepreneurial spirit would not ... carry him through his final years. The Wild West show eventually began to lose its luster and money, and poor investments drained Cody’s bank account. In the face of vague but growing health problems, he kept the show going far longer than he wished as he desperately tried to earn enough money on which to retire.

deathbed conversions

In late 1916, while visiting his sister, Cody was exhausted from the strain of the show and caught a cold, which threatened to turn serious. Lulu and Irma [Cody’s wife and daughter] quickly joined him in Denver, fearful he could no longer hold up under the stress and anxiety of working. But he rallied, promising to follow his doctor’s orders to quit smoking. Then in January 1917, while trying to get some much-needed rest in Glenwood Springs, he collapsed and was taken back to Denver. On January 8 came a public announcement that Buffalo Bill was dying, and on January 9 Fr. Christopher Walsh was called in from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to baptize Cody and receive him into the Catholic Church. His connection to Fr. Walsh is unclear.

There is speculation that his baptism was at his wife’s request, but Cody had come to God on his own terms. In a 1905 letter to his sister, Cody had written:

“And it’s in my old age I have found God — and I realize how easy it is to abandon sin and serve Him. When one stops to think how little they have to give up to serve God, it’s a wonder so many more don’t do it. A person only has to do right. Through this knowledge I have quit drinking entirely. And quit doing rash things simply by controlling my passions and temper when I find myself getting angry.”

William Frederick Cody died of kidney failure on January 10, 1917.

John Wayne

1907-1979

John Wayne had stomach cancer. He deteriorated quickly. By the following year, he was extremely sick, wasting away, and often hospitalized.

Wayne had watched his friend John Ford suffer the same kind of cancer just a few years before. Ford had been a Catholic; he died with priests in the room and a rosary in his hand. Ford’s faith and its uplifting effect on his life and death were etched into Wayne’s psyche. Duke remembered the comfort and courage Catholicism had given his friend.

On May 14, 1979, [Wayne’s son] Michael asked his father if it would be okay to have Archbishop Marcos McGrath come and visit. Duke said yes, and the two men spent and afternoon together talking. Wayne agreed that day to call for a priest before he died. Duke had often joked with his family that he was a “cardiac Catholic,” that at the last minute he’d call in a priest. Now he made that promise.

With the end near, Wayne was in constant agony. The nation that had always loved this icon of America rallied, eager to acknowledge the Duke’s contribution to the country. A special gold medal was proposed. Actress Maureen O’Hara testified to a House subcommittee, suggesting that the medal be called, “John Wayne, American.” President Jimmy Carter approved, and a letter was sent to the hospitalized hero.

Two days before he died, Wayne, in tremendous pain, agreed when his son Patrick asked him if they could call the priest now. “Yeah,” Duke said, “I think that’s a good idea.” Fr. Robert Curtis, UCLA Medical Center chaplain, arrived. He baptized the dying man, probably conditionally, as Wayne had grown up in a Christian church, and administered last rites. That night, Wayne fell into a coma. “I don’t know the technicalities of the Church or what constitutes a conversion,” said Michael. “But Dad died in the Church.”

The man who had achieved worldwide fame was buried quietly in an unmarked grave, the location known only to a few select intimates for many years.

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