Hell of a House

For sale: three-bedroom Colonial in charming neighborhood. Hardwood floors. Lots of personality. And, oh yeah: Satan slept here.

Monday, March 21, the family, having had little sleep since the exorcism began, agreed to move the boy to Alexian Brothers Hospital for the night. For the next several weeks, the boy would move from the hospital to the College Church rectory and back to the home on Roanoke Drive, even returning to Cottage City for a few days when the priests erroneously thought the boy was cured.

The climax came the day after Easter -- Monday, April 18 -- when the boy awoke in a furor inside the psych ward of the Alexian Brothers Hospital. His seizures and spells continued through the morning, with the priests placing medals, rosaries and relics around his neck. In his hand they placed a crucifix.

The boy mocked the priests, saying, "He has to say one more word, one little word, I mean one BIG word. He'll never say it. I am always in him. I may not have much power always, but I am in him. He will never say that word."

A devil of a deal: The exorcism was performed in this very bedroom.
Jennifer Silverberg
A devil of a deal: The exorcism was performed in this very bedroom.


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Still, the priests endured, holding council over the boy in one final push to exorcise the demon. At 10:45 p.m. the boy lay still. In clear, commanding tones he shouted out: "Satan! Satan! I am St. Michael, and I command you Satan, and the other evil spirits to leave the body in the name of Dominus, immediately. Now! NOW! N-O-W!"

Seven minutes later the boy awoke to announce, "He's gone."

During his final spell, the diary reports, the boy saw a vision of the Devil and "ten of his helpers" engaged in a fiery battle with St. Michael the Archangel. At one point during the dream, the angel smiled at the boy and said "Dominus" (Latin for Lord), the word the boy vowed he'd never say that morning.

The exorcised boy, presumably Ronald Hunkeler, is reported to be living somewhere on the East Coast. He is now 70 years old. Rumor has it he named his first son Michael, after the archangel who rescued him from Satan's clutches. He supposedly has never spoken about the exorcism.

A brief addendum to the diary reports that the boy and his family returned to visit the Alexian Brothers in August 1951. The entry describes the boy, then sixteen, as a "fine young man" and tells that his father and mother converted to Catholicism shortly after the exorcism.

Little else has been officially reported on the event by SLU or the Alexian Brothers. Neither institution claims to keep extensive records of what is arguably the most famous, if not sensational, event in their history.

"Oh yeah, we get this question every year around Halloween," says SLU archivist John Wade, barely suppressing a yawn. "We have a file on the exorcism, but it's mostly just newspaper clippings."

In suburban Chicago, at the national offices of the Alexian Brothers, archivist Donna Dahl keeps a tight rein on any information regarding the case.

"This person was a patient and covered under the clause of confidentiality," says Dahl. "We don't release any information on our patients, no matter how bizarre the circumstances under which they were admitted."

Within the chancellery, Fathers William Faherty, 90, and Frank Cleary, 76, are two of the handful of people still living with any institutional memory of the exorcism, and both men knew several of the SLU priests involved.

"I was an undergraduate at SLU in 1949 when this was going on," recalls Cleary, who retired from teaching theology at the university a few years ago. "There were plenty of rumors about it at the time."

Cleary says it was only after the release of the film The Exorcist -- 24 years after the St. Louis exorcism -- that anyone made a big deal out of the case. "I tell students that it was probably not a bona fide case of possession," says Cleary.

As for the welts and scrapes that rose up on the boy during the rites of the exorcism?

"I'm told," says Cleary, "that is something people can do psychologically. It's like blushing."

Father Faherty, professor emeritus of history at SLU, isn't so sure. He knows his friend Father Halloran continued to believe in the possession up to his death earlier this year.

"You see from the gospel evidence of evil's influence on the individual, and the gospel took those to be possessions," reflects Faherty. "I'll leave it up to the experts."

Regardless of the veracity of the possession, the exorcism clearly put an emotional and physical strain on all involved, especially Father William Bowdern, who fasted throughout the duration of the lengthy ordeal.

"He must have lost thirty to forty pounds," recalls 80-year-old Betty LaBarge, a relative of Bowdern who had the priest over for dinner late into the exorcism. "He looked terrible, just fatigued. When we asked him what was wrong, he simply turned the conversation. It wasn't until years later we learned he played the leading role in the exorcism. Still he never did talk about it. The word came from others involved."

The only person still living in St. Louis with first-hand knowledge of the exorcism may be 86-year-old Brother John Grider. He was one of dozens of Alexian Brothers working in the hospital in 1949.

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