“Stella.” Father Reinhardt finished his daily reading from the Breviary and wanted his morning coffee. He closed his prayer book and smiled when the tinkling sound of a bell advanced toward his office. He became a child, about to be scolded for tracking mud on his sister’s clean kitchen floor. A picture of his mother began to emerge from a depth of consciousness. Normally, these childhood memories were vague, enhanced by pictures and various stories.
This time he actually remembered his mother telling Stella, “He’s an eight-year-old boy. What do you expect?” His sister’s anger melted into a hug followed by a cookie. Tracking mud into the house wasn’t his crime this time, but would a reward follow her scolding?
Stella extended the hand not clutching her apron and flapped a small bell up and down. Following the quick back and forth motion of her head, her salt and pepper hair momentarily flared and resettled into equal halves divided precisely at a part in the middle.
“I’m sorry, Stella.” He stood, reached for the bell and placed it on his desk. “I’ll keep it in front of me so I won’t forget to use it.”
“Bring it to the dining room tonight. You do remember Frank and Gloria Lorenz are dining with you?”
His sister encouraged his relationship with this couple because they owned the only bank in Bovine—or had she considered their Spanish Catholicism more interesting than the German variety around Bovine?
“Please join us tonight. They’re quite nice people.”
“It isn’t proper for the priest’s housekeeper to dine with the guests. Just remember to use this bell when you want to be served. I’ll have the pot roast ready around six. They’re scheduled to arrive at five.”
“You’re not only my housekeeper. I hate for people to think I’m excluding or hiding my own sister.”
“Everyone knows I am here.” A light blotch of red appeared on shallow cheeks. “Don’t forget, I kept this house for Father Busch until he . . .” She made the sign of the cross.
Shamus lowered his eyes to his appointment book, but he knew they betrayed the smile he kept from his lips. Stretching to her full height, she reached the approximate level of his shoulder, his mother’s hazel eyes glaring at him.
“Father Busch served St. Alphonse Parish when it was a missionary post and the town was called Skunk Hollow. I spent twenty years with him while you were hidden away in a monastery.” She took a step back. “God brought us together, but I won’t let you discredit Father Busch.” She shook her finger. “He was a holy man.”
“Especially after his reincarnation as the patron saint he emulated all those years.”
She peered at him past her finger, no longer shaking but still pointing, crossed herself a second time and lowered her head. “It was terrible, Shamus, what happened. I realized his mind had been leaving him when asked me to call him St. Alphonse. To avoid a sacrilege, I addressed him as Saintly Father. It satisfied him, yet he insisted the entire congregation be informed of his transformation.”
“Did he really accuse Bishop Schweibach of adultery from the pulpit?”
“I’m afraid he did mention it during one of the bishop’s visits.”
“Technically, adultery’s not possible because the bishop isn’t married.”
“Well the folks of this parish didn’t make such a fine distinction, or Bishop Schweibach didn’t feel they had. He stopped Saintly Father in the middle of his sermon and suggested immediate retirement at St. Benedict’s home for old priests. If you remember, your first official task as pastor was to read his letter of apology to the congregation.”
“He didn’t deny the adultery charge.”
Stella crossed herself a third time. “Shame on you for making fun of the bishop. Isn’t it a sin to disrespect the clergy? Or, are priests dispensed from obeying God’s second commandment?” Her eyes rolled toward the ceiling. “Or does the fourth apply?”
“I’m not sure. I better ask Bishop Schweibach.” He grinned. “Perhaps I’ll show him what you gave me the day I was ordained.” He reached into his wallet, removed a tattered card and read, “I am a priest. In case of an emergency, please call a bishop.”
“It was meant to be a joke. What if you were in an accident and needed help?”
“I printed your name and address on the back side.” Lines of anger formed on her face as she abruptly turned and left the room. He summoned her back with the bell.
She returned and gave her imitation of a British butler, “You rang, sir?”
Assured he’d been forgiven, he said, “I’ll be meeting with Mrs. Sylvester Rastner this morning. She should be here any minute. Please offer her some coffee and show her in.”
Her lips formed into a tight circle, no doubt gathering tidbits of information about his visitor, but he didn’t give her an opportunity to share any gossip. He sat down and began thumbing through papers in a folder. “She said something about baptismal records, so I’ll meet with her here in my office rather than the parlor.”
“Of course, not the parlor.” She reached across his desk and retrieved the bell. “I’ll put this on the table in the dining room. Don’t forget to use it.” She flashed him a grin, turned and left.
Stella reserved the front room for special visitors such as Frank and Gloria Lorenz or the Cunninghams who owned the local John Deere dealership. When an uncle back East gave Shamus his Cunningham Motor Car, Stella arranged for Victor Cunningham and the local newspaper editor to meet at the railroad station in Harrington when it arrived. A story with pictures of the two Cunninghams, the car and the man, appeared in the newspaper and it embarrassed Shamus. Stella and Victor were ecstatic.
When Bishop Schweibach assigned Shamus his first parish he confided, “Your sister refused to leave St. Alphonse, and she might feel responsible for keeping you from a parish in a larger town such as Harrington.”
Shamus found St. Alphonse frightening enough and appreciated his sister’s decision.
“Greater opportunity to socialize didn’t appeal to her.” The bishop sipped some wine and brushed at the drop landing on his cassock. “Claimed her vocation involved the service of God’s priests, not the community. She’d struggled to establish a proper distance between herself and the people of Bovine and didn’t want to go through the process again.” He filled his glass and gestured with the decanter, but Shamus shook his head. “I do prefer priests having their sisters as housekeepers, however that’s not the main reason for my decision.” He sat back in his chair and folded his hands. “Quite frankly, it’s time you got involved with parish work, and St. Alphonse is an excellent place to begin. You’ll find it very different from St. John’s Abbey where you’ve been a chaplain since your ordination.”
Stella entered and interrupted Shamus’ reverie. Behind her, a middle-aged woman stood erect, only the flashing of her eyes betrayed the anxiety so many visitors to rectory exhibited. Shamus rose and glanced down at his appointment book, careful to address her properly.
“Mrs. Rastner, please come in.” His gaze shifted to Stella and she disappeared back down the hall. “My sister will bring us coffee.” He gestured toward the chair in front of his desk. “Please, have a seat.” Her avoidance of eye contact made him wonder if baptism had been a ruse for a more intimate issue. His experience with counseling celibate men at the monastery offered few insights into advising married women. Husbands, often the root of their wives’ problems, seldom entered the rectory. He felt relieved when Stella reentered.
Liz stared at the shiny coffeepot, matching containers for cream and sugar, and two delicate porcelain cups with saucers on an ornate silver tray. Stella’s comment, “Shall I pour the coffee, Father?” unnerved her. She couldn’t imagine calling either of her brothers, Father.
“We’ll be fine. I’ll ring if we need anything else.” He glanced at his desk, the bell now missing, and grinned. With an exaggerated movement of her head, Stella marked the direction for her body to follow and left the room.
Liz worried Stella would eves drop, but when Father Reinhardt moved from his desk to shut the door, she felt embarrassed. He returned, poured coffee into the cups and handed one to her. She accepted it, but her hand shook and she placed it back on the tray. She stared at the book the priest held out as if she should accept it.
“All priests spend about an hour each day reading the Divine Office. It’s a wonderful book of prayers, and I like to sip coffee while I reflect on each day’s message.”
The relief she felt when he set the book back on his desk turned to anxiety as he lifted the small cup and gestured for her to follow. She wished to be back at home with her family.
“Today’s reading dealt with sadness in our lives. Yesterday’s was about joy.” He held the cup against his lips but didn’t sip at. “With the help of God’s grace, joy and sadness can be quite similar, both necessary ingredients for a healthy Christian life.”
She realized he was trying to make her feel at ease, yet she couldn’t explain why she came to him.
“I hope the reason for your visit is one of the joy variety?” He sipped and placed the cup back on its saucer. “Perhaps this meeting is not about joy, but certainly happiness derived from sadness.” His smile melted into a frown. “Tell me about it.”
This command cloaked in gentle tones unnerved her. The priest assumed a posture different than when he spoke from the pulpit where shivers of fear spread throughout the congregation, the reason her husband shied away.
Unable to bear the silence, she blurted out, “It’s about Freddie.” His frown turned into a scowl. “Freddie is, was, my sister’s boy. I promised to take care of him before she died.” She weighed her words carefully, not wanting to appear insensitive or unrefined. Was dead an acceptable word, or should she refer to her sister as passing on? A shiver of relief when he nodded and his smile returned.
“I am aware of your act of charity. Your sister would be very pleased.”
Confused and distracted, she eyed him folding his hands as if preparing a prayer. He put his head down and touched his lips to the tips of his fingers, but his eyes remained fixed on her.
“Tell Father what is troubling you.”
The figure across the desk from her ceased to be a person and became a religious symbol qualified to interpret God’s plan for man, in this case God’s plan for her.
“I’m afraid I can’t fulfill my promise.” She paused, not for effect, but to regain her composure as she fought off sobs developing deep within her chest.
He extended his hand as if preparing to offer a blessing. “Sometimes God sees in us qualities and strengths we’re not aware of. Remember, He will never give a challenge too difficult to handle. With His help—”
“It’s God who’s keeping me from my promise.” Her sobs surfaced in a mixture of anger and sorrow.
“Blasphemy.” He grasped the edge of his desk. “How can you possibly blame God for your failure?”
Terrified by the outburst, she whispered between sobs, “Father, I’m dying.”
The priest closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and Liz ran out the door, past Stella and down the hall.
Blasphemy! She understood the consequences of the unforgivable sin. Her fear turned to panic. Thoughts of dying were painful, but the threat of everlasting damnation became unbearable. Suddenly, she needed Svez. She sat behind the steering wheel enveloped in the seat where his body had formed a deep depression. She inhaled his scent, pungent tobacco and acrid sweat. Finding a pair of his work gloves, she held them to her face and wiped her tears. A Scapula of the Sacred Heart dangled from the rear view mirror, but the gloves she brushed against her cheek offered more comfort.
She noticed the hazy figure of the priest through the screen door on the rectory and panicked. Overwhelmed with thoughts of her family, her house, and the animals on the farm, she jammed her foot against the starter and the engine came alive. Father Reinhardt slowly grew smaller and smaller until he and the parish house and the church and the entire town disappeared.
“Father, I’m dying,” his accusation, blasphemy, and her desire to be with Svez, whose glove had found its way onto her hand whirled about in her mind. Blurred pictures began to assemble and reassemble on the windshield. Angels and saints, the recipients of many of her prayers, chose to show themselves. An image of Martha appeared and she spoke to it.
“My dear sister, what are you trying to tell me? I see sadness and fear in your eyes. You’re beyond those earthly matters, yet I feel your concern for me and for your son. Why has God . . .?”
She gasped. Wisps of steam had created the visions. She forgot to add water to the radiator, and her carelessness jolted her back to reality. Her mind had played tricks on her. She shut off the engine and let the car coast to the bottom of the hill near a small pond. The fading images continued to frighten her as the car cooled. She craved the comfort and safety of home. Her mind continued to imagine the faces of her family in the waves of steam advancing and retreating until a final burst resembled the image of a cross dripping slowly downward. She found an empty can in the trunk, dipped it into the pond and filled the radiator. She continued her journey home where everything would be in order.