LEWISTON — Joseph “Jerry” Levesque was 7 years old, living on Blake Street, when he squirted red food coloring into moonshine and tried to pass it off as red wine to his Aunt Emily.

Not unexpectedly, he got into trouble. Not so much, to hear him tell it, for being a 7-year-old who dipped into his father’s moonshine, but for trying to hoodwink his aunt.

“I went to church, made a true confession that I was a bad boy,” Levesque said.

Really, it was just the beginning.

At 24, fulfilling a lifelong promise to himself — and after his girlfriend married his best friend — Levesque left Lewiston to became a monk.

Then he left the church altogether and became a bootlegger.

Among his specialities: Viper brandy with a real snake coiled inside the bottle. Levesque claims he was the only illegal maker in the U.S. at the time.

He’s 87 and a first-time author, now living in Oklahoma City. Levesque calls his new book a “tell-all” and says it’s just the beginning.

He’s at work on “Monk to Bootlegger: The Sequel.”

His self-published first book, a collection of short essays, is due out in November on Amazon. In the first chapter, Levesque is in elementary school, and boys are taking turns trying to peek under a teaching nun’s black habit to see what — if anything — she’s wearing under there.

In another chapter, he ticks through his Canadian aunt and uncle’s eight children with a synopsis of their fates so dead-panned that it’s almost darkly humorous: Failed private eye, tour guide stabbed to death by a tourist and missionary who caught leprosy in Peru.

“(Marcel) heard of the great reputation of the American leprosarium in Carville, La., and asked to be sent there for treatment,” Levesque writes. “He was told, ‘No, Canada takes care of its own.’ That’s the last I’ve heard of Marcel.”

“It’s a mishmash,” Levesque said. “I wrote the stories when the spirit moved me.”

He grew up in downtown Lewiston in a small, religious family, which attended St. Peter’s Church.

He wanted to be a monk “from the day I was born,” Levesque said. “The only reason you’re on Earth is to serve God. By golly, if that was the only reason, I was going to serve God.”

First, Levesque joined the Navy at 17. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, he was called to active duty and said a teary goodbye to his girlfriend. They’d talked of marriage.

When he returned from service, he discovered she’d married his best friend. Without letters from him, she’d assumed their relationship was over.

So it was off to the monastery.

He drifted between religious orders, eventually founding his own community in 1960, Oklahoma’s the Brothers of St. Joseph.

“At one point, I had 27 monks under me,” he said. “I used to tell my monks, ‘Remember your last end — you shall never sin.’ If you live your life remembering that someday you will die, you will be careful what you do in your life.”

Levesque, who was in Lewiston last month to visit friends, readily admitted that it’s not always advice he’s followed. 

“I’ve always been a great sinner,” he said. “I’ll tell you what — if there’s anything illegal, I’ll do it.”

Enter bootlegging.

In the 1980s, after Levesque had gotten “out of the monk business,” he became an expert on cognac. He’d travel to France and bring back samples for himself and friends. Then friends started asking for more. And more.

He was eventually flying over every month, bringing back 13 cases of cognac and one case of absinthe at a time, enough to push through the airport with two dollies. It was legal to bring back for personal use, but illegal to sell.

“The manager of TWA would meet me,” Levesque said. “He never questioned me — it was none of his business what was in the boxes.”

Levesque sold it here for four times what he bought it for there.

In his kitchen at home, he also made hundreds of bottles of Viper Brandy, a delicate — and cruel — undertaking that snagged up to $500 a bottle.

By the 1990s, Levesque said, “I was getting too old for that. My name was blackballed; I couldn’t send anything UPS anymore. There’s a time when everything catches up with you.”

He’s divided his new book into chapters, from “Early Life” to “Liquors,” with essays in each chapter.

His early girlfriend is in his first chapter, story two. Last month, Levesque spent time with her, catching up. She’s 80 and now a widow.

He suggested they get married.

“She answered: ‘Absolutely no way.’ But that was OK, I was testing the waters,” he wrote in an email this week.

Several days after his visit, he got word she had died.

“Of course I cried,” he wrote. “Will keep on writing till the Lord takes me.”

Weird, Wicked Weird is a monthly feature on the strange, intriguing and unexplained in Maine. Send ideas, photos and true confessions to [email protected]

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