Though Hortense had made her first communion under Madame Campan's care, she was not a practicing Catholic. She had lived in a world of free thinkers and anticlericals. Some of the remarks made by Napoleon Louis, that so shocked his father in Rome, had no doubt been overheard in Hortense 's salon. Once, when Abbe Bertrand, that mild ecclesiastic, asked her why she didn't go to confession, she said flippantly, "What should I say in the confessional? Bad things about other people, good about myself?" But within the past year, Hortense had felt a drawing toward the Church. While shewas in Abe, she frequently visited the hospital that she had endowed as a memorialto Adele de Broc. She was impressed by the self-abnegation of the Sisters of Mercy, who cared for the sick. Oneday, when she was there, a case of gangrene wasbrought in. Hortense was almost overpowered by the smell of decaying flesh, that filled the room. She thought she was going to faint, and marveled how the Sisters went on about their work, untroubled. Hortense had always prided herself on being charitable, but her charity, she reflected, had consisted only in giving money here and there, money that she did not need. She had been generous to those who came to ask for help, but she had never gone in search of misfortune. In her walks along the main highway that led to Constance, Hortense often saw bands of pilgrims on their way to the Benedictine abbey of Einsiedeln, in the Swiss canton just across the border. Hortense did not believe that prayer was anymore efficacious in any particular spot, but perhaps she might find something she craved at Einsiedeln.
In late October, she and Louise Cochelet made a pilgrimage to the abbey. They drove throughbeautiful country along the shore of Lake Zurich. Toward evening, they began to go up into the mountains. The cliffs seemed to close in above them and Hortense's mood, which had been of gentle melancholy, changed to fear. She felt as though she were going to say good-bye to all the joys of life. It was quite dark when she arrived at the abbey, where word had heen sent in advance of her visit. A French monk met her at the door, carrying a lantern.
Before taking her to her room, he wanted to show her the church, where a wonder-working black Madonna was enshrined. Over the portal was inscribed, "Hereall sins are forgiven." The next morning, Hortense made a confession of her entire life to a kindly and gentle-spoken priest. She found it easy to say that she forgave all those who had done her wrong, but when the priest told her her love for Flahaut had alienated her from the love of God, that she must renounce it completely, she began to weep.The priest left her for a time, saying she must make this sacrifice herself, without his help. When, at last, she was given absolution and was about to take her leave, her confessor said, with some embarassment, that news of the world penetrated even to this secluded spot. He had sometimes read in English newspapers things about Queen Hortense, which he was now sure must be calumnies. In future, he would be glad to set the record straight and speak the truth of her. "Father," Hortense said, "you can say what you like, but you will not be believed. In the passionate times in which we live, truth counts for very little. Once more in Constance, Hortense wrote her letter of farewell to Flahaut, urging him to be happy and to marry his English noblewoman. Even as she wrote, however, she hoped that he would not follow her advice, that he would return.