by Sarah A. Peterson-Camacho
“…it has always seemed to us rather to be expected that when people have lived close to the spiritual world all their lives, that world should manifest itself to them as the veil between time and eternity grows thin.”
—The Denver Catholic Register, Thursday, Aug. 13, 1931.
December 1941: as Pearl Harbor burned and the United States marched headlong into its second World War, the Sisters of the Holy Cross took up residence at 1050 S. Street in downtown Fresno, a grand Colonial Revival home crowned by a widow’s walk.
Not only did it provide this teaching order of nuns with elegant convent housing, the address was also conveniently located a mere block from St. John’s Cathedral and its eponymous school—at the corner of R and Mariposa—where the nuns taught.
And for nearly three decades, the Sisters of the Holy Cross called this historic abode—erected by wealthy building contractor Frank Rehorn in 1906—their home. But by the early 1970s, it was the Villa Carmel Home for unwed mothers, and had acquired a reputation for being haunted.
By the time architects William E. Patnaude and Allen Y. Lew moved their firm into the stately former home in 1976, however, all talk of ghosts dissipated at the years flew by uneventfully. Neither architect ever reportedly experienced anything even remotely resembling a paranormal encounter during their firm’s tenure at 1050 S Street. (The house, later added to the National Register of Historic Places, would mysteriously burn to the ground in 2016, its legacy virtually gone up in flames, in a matter of hours.)
But just as one ghostly nun was laid to rest, another sisterly spirit would arise—quite literally—from the grave. There were whispers of a phantom nun who roamed the hushed halls of St. John’s Hall School at night, the patter of her ghostly footsteps echoing down the long, dark corridors of the girls’ dormitory.
Then there was the icy breeze that would whoosh by the Sisters of the Holy Cross as they gathered for Mass at St. John’s Cathedral; some swore they could hear the rustle of the spirit’s robes, and feel the sweep of her veil brush past.
Was she really one of their own? Was it really the ghost of Sister Irenita?
The young nun—a Sister of the Holy Cross and a teacher at St. John’s Hall School—had died in the sweltering August of 1931, after a short illness—either appendicitis or peritonitis, no one could be quite certain. But Sister Irenita had suffered greatly at the end, and since then, had made her presence very much known to the students, faculty, clergy, and parishioners of St. John’s Cathedral and its boarding academy.
Female students complained of her noisy nightly patrols, which left them frightened and sleepless. The late nun’s fellow sisters would feel her rush past them in the halls, as they went about their daily duties—the weight of her judgement, the disapproval of her spectral gaze. One night, the ghost even appeared to an unsuspecting janitor’s wife, leaving the poor woman in near hysterics.
Wasn’t there anything to be done?
So troubled were the Sisters of the Holy Cross, they went so far as to attempt an exorcism of sorts, dousing their living quarters in holy water. But all to no avail. But by 1936, five years after the young nun’s tragic passing, change was in the air. Sister Irenita spoke for the first—and final—time.
“Please tell Monsignor Crowley to say the Mass for me that he received a stipend for,” she requested of one parishioner, “and I will be at rest” (White 84). (The Irish-born Monsignor John Crowley, St. John’s pastor at the time of Sister Irenita’s death, had moved on by that time, so the ghost’s message was passed on to him at his current post.)
Shortly after her request was made, diocesan chancellor Monsignor James H. Culleton was preparing to offer Mass at St. John’s one evening, when he heard a knock on the chapel door. He heard a woman’s muffled voice speaking to him through the door, but upon opening it, Culleton discovered that there was no one there.
A subsequent phone call from the custodian at Calvary Cemetery, where Sister Irenita was buried, revealed that the deceased sister’s final resting place had been disturbed by vandals. And though her grave had been dug up, a tree root had grown through the coffin and across the nun’s corpse, preventing the removal of the casket and its occupant.
Rushing over to the cemetery, Monsignor Culleton climbed into the nun’s open grave, and raised her casket lid—only to discover the body of Sister Irenita in a perfectly preserved state! She looked as if she were sleeping, so lacking in decay were her features.
So in accordance with her spirit’s wishes, a Mass was offered for Sister Irenita by Monsignor John Crowley, and she was reinterred at Calvary Cemetery.
But the question remained: if the young nun had paid to have a Mass said in her name, what exactly had happened to her request?
And proving that there are no accidents, the answer came swiftly; around the same time as Sister Irenita’s re-interment, the plumbing at St. John’s Cathedral went haywire. A plumber was dispatched to the scene, and while the pipes were being repaired, the late nun’s written request was discovered behind a desk where it had remained forgotten for the previous half-decade.
And so the restless spirit of Sister Irenita was finally laid to rest, putting an end to the five-year haunting of St. John’s Cathedral. Or was she?
Half a century passed. Monsignor John Crowley—whose Mass laid the spirited sister’s soul to rest—was killed in the California desert one September night in 1940 when the speed-loving padre, 49, hit a deer with his Model T. St. John’s Hall School eventually closed, the Gothic brick structure now housing the community hall for St. John’s Cathedral. But in 1986, five decades after vandals unearthed a dead nun who would not rest, Sister Irenita was back.
Lights started snapping on in the empty, locked classrooms of the old cathedral school puzzling church rector Father Patrick McCormick as he would lock up for the night. But the rattled priest, who had experience with paranormal activity, began to engage the ghostly presence in conversation. And her response? To turn on the lights in other empty, locked rooms. So the following year, McCormick offered up another Mass for the ornery soul of Sister Irenita. And all was quiet once again.
So who, exactly, was Sister Irenita? And how much—if any—of her ghost story is actually true? Well, thanks to the digital archives of the Denver Catholic Register, her original obituary has been unearthed—answering some questions, but raising many, many more.
Per the Thursday, August 13, 1931, issue of the Denver Catholic Register:
“Sister M. Irenita of the Holy Cross Order, a native of Switzerland, and a convert to the Church, died August 5 at Fresno, California. What Monsignor J.J. Crowley wrote about her in his Frater Con Column for The Central California Register this week brought a choked-up feeling to us as we read it and will probably do the same to our readers. He said: “‘A little nun was buried last week from St. John’s Cathedral, with a Solemn Mass. She would have been 28 if she had lived until this writing. She never taught class—her task was to wash clothes, sweep floors, and mend torn and worn garments. Yet few sisters have been as deeply loved, few had as wide an influence for good with those who knew her as boarders at St. Augustine’s academy. Her example and advice were largely responsible for at least two vocations to the Sisters of the Holy Cross.
“‘After her death—she had been in bed only four days after an operation—an autopsy revealed she must have suffered excruciating pain during most of her life, yet not even her closest friends suspected this fact. She had been disowned by her mother and stepfather in her teens because she insisted upon practicing her religion.
“‘Informed just an hour or two before her flight to God that she was in danger of death, and asked if she were afraid, she replied: ‘Afraid? Why should I be afraid to meet my God? No. I am not afraid to die, but it is so lonely going out alone!’
“‘During her days in Fresno, she had been noted for her devotion to St. Joseph—his statue never lacked flowers from her hand. A moment before her death, and she was conscious to the last, her eyes opened wide and with a sweet smile she gazed into space saying, ‘Why, here’s St. Joseph coming for me.’
“‘Sister Irenita’s name will live long, and we who knew her know that it is written large in the Book of Life.’’
Her name did live on, though not in the way Monsignor Crowley thought. Why her spirit came back and why her ghost insisted that no Mass had been offered in her name, when one, in fact, had—remains a mystery.
Perhaps Heaven just got too lonely.
“Listening In.” Denver Catholic Register, Thursday, Aug. 13, 1931, p. 4. https://archives.archden.org/islandora/object/archden%3A6664/datastream/OBJ/view. Accessed Nov. 17, 2021.
White, Betty Lou. “The Ghosts of Fresno.” Fate, Vol. 20—No. 8, August 1967, pp. 83-85.
Crowe, John. “The Haunting of Fresno.” The Fresno Bee, Sunday, Dec. 17, 1978, pp. A1, A16.
Marinacci, Mike. Mysterious California: Strange Places and Eerie Phenomena in the Golden State. Los Angeles, California: Panpipes Press, 1988, pp. 63-65.
McCarthy, Charles. “Spirits Seem Willing to Stay at Cathedral.” The Fresno Bee, Thursday, Oct. 31, 1991, pp. A1, A16.
Branam, Chris. “BOO!” The Fresno Bee, Thursday, July 21, 1994. “Northwest Neighbors,” p. 3.
Branam, Chris. “Ghosts Said to Occupy Local Haunts.” The Fresno Bee, Thursday, July 28, 1994. “Northeast Neighbors,” p. 10.
Pollock, Dennis. “Dead Nun, Priests Seem Reluctant to Leave Church.” The Fresno Bee, Sunday, Oct. 30, 1994. “Life,” p. F1.
Pollock, Dennis. “Things that Go Bump in the Valley Night.” The Fresno Bee, Sunday, Oct. 30, 1994. “Life,” p. F1.
Hauck, Dennis William. Haunted Places: The National Directory. London, UK: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 43.
Brisson, Tom. “Haunted Valley.” The Fresno Bee, Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2000, pp. E1-2.
Tehee, Joshua. “Fresno Landmarks are Rumored to be Haunted.” The Fresno Bee, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2003. “Neighbors Cityview.”
https://www.historicfresno.org/lrhr/090.htm. Accessed Nov. 17, 2021.