It’s the great untold story of The Exorcist: how the most dramatic scenes in the actual case behind the movie never made it onto the screen.
Years ago, we interviewed Father Walter H. Halloran, one of the two main priests involved in delivering the boy (yes, it was really a boy, from Maryland, not a girl) during which he revealed three fascinating things.
One was that the exorcism succeeded only after they placed a statue of the Archangel Michael next to the boy’s bed in an old rectory behind St. Francis Xavier College Church on Lindell Boulevard in downtown St. Louis.
Second: that at the very concluding moment of the final ritual (it was a weeks-long effort), St. Michael’s voice came through the boy’s own lips, casting out the devil.
Third was that at this very moment, “there was a very loud sound, a boom — sort of like a sonic boom — and then the boy opened his eyes and said St. Michael came and that it was over,” Father Halloran (now deceased) recounted.
“At the same time this took place, there were about six or seven priests over in the college church saying their Office and there was a huge boom over there and the whole church was completely lit up. Father [William S.] Bowdern [the other key priest] was doing the exorcism in the old rectory.” An actual booming noise marked conclusion of the most famous exorcism in modern history!
The church, part of St. Louis University, still stands and is very active, as we discovered when we attended Mass there Sunday on Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit likewise moved like wind).
A surprisingly beautiful and anointed church it is. Incense is used. On Pentecost, there is a renouncing of Satan. There is an incredible choir, complete with grand piano, perfectly pitched voices, and a bass fiddle.
Take a look toward the ceiling, as those priests saying their office did at the critical moment of exorcism so many years ago. What a scene this would have made in the movie! Victory. A booming victory. It was the real story.
Yet, there might not be a single person in the pews during any given Mass who is aware of what happened up in the reaches of those arches back in the late 1940s…
Now, the old rectory no longer exists.
It has been replaced by a parish center.
On the other side is Verhaegan Hall.
What a story this is! Noted the St. Louis Dispatch:
“One night in 1949, when Verhagen Hall at St. Louis University was a residence for Jesuits, a priest just back from a year of study at Harvard University heard a diabolical laugh that froze his blood. That evening, the young Jesuit had been saying his office – a priest’s daily prayers – as he sat in his small room directly across from the old rectory at the back of St. Francis Xavier (College) Church. He was not 20 feet away from a rear window in the rectory, he recalled.
“The old priests’ house – which has since been razed and replaced with a newer building – was nestled between the creaky, wood-and-brick splendor of DuBourg Hall and its nearby 19th-century cousin, Verhaegen, now home to the university’s theological studies department. ‘I heard this wild, idiotic, diabolical laughter,” said the Rev. Lucius F. Cervantes, whose late brother, Alfonso Juan, was mayor of St. Louis. ‘I hadn’t heard a thing about the exorcism at the time. So I tried to find out what it was about. I looked toward the window from where the light was coming, but saw nothing.’ What he had heard was a 14-year-old boy from Mount Rainier, Maryland, a Washington suburb, who many believe was possessed or obsessed by demons.”
Between the hall and the church is now an alley and massive air conditioner.
Note how eerily similar the stairs there are to the famous cement stairs in the movie (at Georgetown University, where some of it was filmed).
Ah, but let’s talk victory here:
St. Michael won the day, though inside St. Francis Xavier College Church the only angels we spotted now are statues, worshiping at the sides of the side tabernacle.
But back then: St. Michael was there, with full and historic force.