Driving Miss Mary

Fr. Arthur Deneault, MS

Romeo the painter was just what Fr. Arthur Deneault, M.S. (1887-1979), his priest-brother, was looking for. He wasn't the Rembrandt kind of painter—more a wall-to-wall kind of painter. The newly acquired property of Enfield, in the foothills of New Hampshire, needed a bit of sprucing up, some freshening that only a few coats of paint could accomplish.

This was 1931-32 when the country had sunk into the well of the Great Depression and people weren't panting after painters to color their houses. Romeo “had time on his hands” as the Depression expression went, and he was eager to head for the foothills of New Hampshire for gainful employment. The La Salette Missionaries had just acquired this sprawling Shaker property, vacated some years before by its industrious former proprietors. It clearly needed some nailing down and sprucing up.

Romeo Deneault quickly brushed up on his painting. He and a few painter-colleagues soon had the old Shaker domain gleaming again with fresh first and second coats of white and gray and green. Everyone was happy in the Chosen Vale: the Fathers were preparing for a visit from the Provincial Council, and although it was not everything, appearances still counted, and gleaming paint could easily color the visitors' report; the workers could expect a salary—no mean consideration for that time. For a while, all was well. Still, there is a limit to what one can lay a brush to and in a few months of hard work the painters had covered all that paint could cover. Romeo and his companions had painted themselves into the jobless corner.

Miss Mary Keane

It was then that Miss Mary Keane, the La Salette Community's generous benefactress-in-residence at Enfield, NH discreetly approached her friend Father Arthur Deneault, and asked him if he could provide her with a driver for her two cars, one a Cadillac, the other a Buick. She was getting on, she said, and she would rather be driven than driving.  Of course, it would have to be “someone reliable, responsible and dependable, you understand.” Of course. Fr. Deneault knew where he could find just such a person. Romeo Deneault was quite willing to swap his brush for a wheel, and found himself behind the controls of an automobile he could heretofore only look at from a distance and surely never own, working for an employer whose like in kindness he had never met.

The two, Miss Keane and her devoted chauffeur were often seen tooling along the Valley countryside, sweeping into Lebanon, drawing appreciative glances from the spatted Hanover “swells”, stopping at fruit stands for apples, oranges, pears and vegetables in season ‘for the Fathers’. To vendors and merchants the attentive chauffeur and the tall, stately lady were an accustomed and welcome sight. “Always courteous,” said Romeo, “she would ask me,” ‘What do you think the Fathers would like, Mr. Deneault?’ “For the Fathers,” said Romeo, “she could have bought the fruit stand.”

They sometimes ventured onto back-woods country roads, visiting hidden mountain villages and tiny hamlets the lady from Hartford never dreamed existed.

plaque.jpgEager for new horizons, Miss Keane one day suggested they go up Mount Washington with the Cadillac. For the former big-city school teacher whose idea of height was a classroom podium, Mount Washington was, well, a peak experience. Coming down the mountain was another kind of adventure, especially when at the outset, the Cadillac developed the unnerving, and perilous habit of slipping from first gear to neutral without warning, releasing the full weight of the heavy automobile into a high-speed downward plunge. At that time, guardrails were a thing of the future, and Romeo worked the brakes, grappled with the floor shift and maneuvered the large automobile back into first only to hear the gears release the mechanism again into neutral. Miss Keane calmly took hold of the shift stick and held it firmly into first gear all the way down to the foot of the mountain. Was she nervous? Was she afraid? “She was always calm,” said Romeo. “She was praying, though. But then, she was always praying.”

The high-point of the “driving” week came early on Sunday afternoons, when the Lady and the chauffeur would set out to “pick up” the Fathers who had done ministry in various towns and villages of the Mascoma Valley and beyond. “That was my favorite thing,” said Romeo. “We would set out and go to places like Winnipesaukee, and Franklin and Potter Place. People were wondering how come the Fathers from Enfield rated such high-class transportation. But Miss Keane was always thinking of the Fathers” insisted Romeo Deneault.

Mary_Keane_headstone.jpg“Later on,” Romeo said, “she built her own house with all the amenities and the comforts in fashion at the time because she intended that house for the Fathers, and she thought they should have the best. She lived for La Salette.”

 “Why did she like the Fathers so much?” Romeo was asked. “After all, besides Father Deneault, she hardly knew any of them.”

 “Well, she liked what they were doing” said the painter-chauffeur. Romeo's wife Rena had been listening quietly during the interview, and finally ventured, “I think she believed in the work they were doing.”

“Yeah,” repeated Romeo, “that's it. She believed in the work they were doing.”

Fr. Normand Theroux, M.S.

Note: This article is the result of a conversation I had with Fr. Paul Rainville, M.S., wherein the Pastor of St. Helena's mentioned that Romeo Deneault, Miss Keane's erstwhile driver, was still alive and well—and living within the confines of his parish. The Pastor called Romeo, who volunteered to be interviewed, and the rest is his story.

Romeo also shared another vignette: “Another time, we drove to Washington, D.C. Miss Keane had donated an altar for the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and she wanted to see how it had been installed and if it met her specifications. This was December and we drove back on roads covered with “black ice” and at one point, the car swerved almost out of control. I saw a patch of naked black-top and I maneuvered the big car onto it and the swerving and the spinning stopped.”

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