The new church was an orange brick box with a nearly flat shingled roof on which sat a tiny, out-of-scale aluminum bell tower that contained no bell. Monsignor Garrison, who despised everything about the new church but never revealed his thoughts to his flock, thought the new church looked like a warehouse with a tin hat on top. The church held 900 worshippers and no surprises, except when that first winter came.
Three months after the church’s completion, the bolts at the bell tower’s bottom seams gave way during a typically bitter winter. The bell tower’s metal skin rolled up on itself like a poorly opened sardine tin. The scrolled sheets, still bolted to the tower’s pointed crown, squealed in metallic anger at the winter wind, which, in turn, broadcast the din to the entire parish.
Monsignor Garrison, rarely at a loss when it came to looking at the bright side of disaster, likened the noise he couldn’t afford to fix to the sound of the poor suffering souls in purgatory.
"Imagine, my brothers and sisters in Christ, how much greater the never-ending noise of hell."
When the wind was up that winter, which it often was, his plea fell on deafened ears.
Monsignor Garrison harbored his own dark thoughts about the unearthly din. This was the cacophonous music of liturgical modernism, a devilish symphony he believed demonstrated how dreadfully wrong it had been to ever abandon the old liturgy and with it, the Old Church.
To the elders of St. Francis parish, every howl from the “tin church’s” flayed hide was a wrenching reminder of how melodious had been the Old Church, with its bell, its familiar intimacy and its dank, sweet-smelling air of weekend redemption.
The Old Church had no discernible architectural pedigree. It was as simple and plain as its namesake. Its exterior walls were roughhewn stone etched with veins of ivy older than the monsignor himself. Its modest tower harbored a bell full of cheer that rang when everyone expected it to, just before 6:30 mass and at noon, to mark the Angelus.
Inside, a dozen milky white globes hung from the ceiling, seeming to radiate more gloom than light. On sunny mornings, the stained glass portraits of haloed saints painted the air in thick primary hues. That same air tasted, especially on humid summer mornings, of spent charcoal and frankincense, the fragrant remains of 80 years of funerals and Wednesday night benedictions.
A half dozen life-size plaster statues – bald-pated St Anthony, sad-eyed St. Catherine, and of course St. Francis, dove on his wrist and lamb at his knee -- stood frozen in shadow-filled coves like so many thieves, their mild, upturned faces given an ominous cast by the rows of flickering red-glass votive candles that glowed at their sandled feet.
The altar was multi-tiered and spangled in gold, so heavily ornamented it might have been modeled after a circus calliope, an aspect it shared with the ancient pipe organ that consumed the tiny balcony above the main entrance, where poor Mrs. Cooley warbled her way as dexterously as she was able through multi-part Gregorian chants, aided hardly at all by the wheezing old contraption that Monsignor Garrison had rescued from a wealthier, more ambitious parish that was about to sell the thing for wartime scrap.
The Old Church provided a sort of sneak peek at what many parish elders hoped would be their ultimate fate. This was exactly what heaven looked, smelled and tasted like. As for the heavenly choruses, they could always pray for better than Mrs. Cooley, and many did, but to no avail.
The Old Church was designed to both satisfy believers and create news ones. But its builders had suffered no thought of the future. The church's grotto-like qualities, its intimacy and other-worldliness proved troublesome when hordes of new families, fired by the G.I. Bill and a post-war wave of faith-based fecundity, crowded its aisles. The new families' needs brought bulldozers and steam shovels to once-empty fields where polliwog ponds were filled, old elms uprooted and replaced with new roads along which sprouted modest, two-story Cape Cods and cottages that sat uncomfortably in the shadow of the stately, colonnaded homes of the parish's founding families. It was those young families that necessitated three marathon building fund campaigns for new wings on the elementary school followed inexorably by the never-ending campaign to finance the new church.
The mastermind behind the new church was Father Harold Abraxis, one of the parish’s two assistant pastors. Like so many of the other young priests being turned out by the Diocesan Seminary, he was bent on ushering the parish out of the Medieval darkness and impossible heating bills into something resembling at least the late 19thor early 20th centuries. If that meant breaking a few aged, devout hearts along the way, well, so be it. Times were changing, fast. The country now had a Catholic president. It was the future that needed attention.
Father Abraxis treated his parishioners in the same brisk, efficient manner that he treated the pot-bellied Italian and Polish construction crews that took about six months to raze the Old Church and throw up the new one.
He was not popular and he knew it. But his abrupt manner didn't -- couldn't -- stop Mrs. Irma Dailey, president of the Rosary Altar Society, from trying to welcome him into parish life when he arrived there, two years previously.
Mrs. Dailey's idea was simple. Young Father Abraxis would play Santa Claus at the society's annual mother-daughter December breakfast.
Knowing he had no choice, Father Abraxis agreed to submit to a fitting before the ladies of the society. The Santa suit Monsignor Garrison dug out of his old steamer trunk in the rectory attic had gone pink with age. If it wasn't moth-eaten, that was only because it reeked of moth balls. Snapping the wiry false beard over his mouth, Father Abraxis nearly gagged; it was redolent of the monsignor's vanilla-flavored pipe tobacco, which he abhorred.
Father Abraxis knew he was supposed to be a good sport and not really hold it against her when Mrs. Dailey told her little group of admirers that father didn’t really need a pillow to fill out the costume, now did he? He wondered what the rest of his tenure would be like if this was going to be, as Mrs. Dailey kept promising, “the fun part.”
The day of the breakfast, following a pained minute of half-hearted ho-ho-ho-ing at the main table’s podium, Father Abraxis had a revelation. He realized it was Advent and that he was still a priest charged with the shepherding of young souls. Enough of this secular nonsense. As the clucking mothers and their chirping daughters dawdled over the remains of their rubbery scrambled eggs, Father Abraxis tapped the microphone for their attention and, in what he considered his most jocular tone of voice, said that he was considering canceling Christmas this year.
"That is, of course, unless all you girls have been as good all year as our dear Mother Mary.”
There, he thought. That got their attention. He paused in the suddenly silent room and considered how best to describe the bad things he knew the little girls had been up to all year – nothing mortal, of course. Venial sins -- talking back to Mommy, that sort of thing. He smiled for a moment at his own canniness. He had done what was requested of him but hadn't forgotten his priestly duty. He had, in fact, yoked – very skillfully, he thought -- secular desire with ecclesiastic need.
He opened his mouth, preparing to "close the deal," as he liked to say, when a squeal arose from the back of the cavernous basement room. It was quickly joined by another wail and finally a scattered chorus of cries and gasps and of shushing mothers trying to comfort their terrified daughters. As more cries erupted, Father Abraxis looked madly about and, sounding his only heartfelt ho-ho-ho of the morning, seized a paper plate full of the wretched eggs, held it aloft as proof of his announced intention to go and feed his hungry reindeer then spun on his heel and slammed his body against the push-bar of the emergency fire exit behind him. The alarm he triggered contributed its own special squeal to the morning's festivities.
Mrs. Dailey hadn’t spoken to him since, a punishment Father Abraxis endured without complaint.
Father Abraxis’s lobbying for the new church struck most of his older parishioners as something close to wicked, even as it impressed his superiors at the Chancery. Monsignor Garrison did not intervene when Father Abraxis's plan was preliminarily approved. He disliked his young assistant almost as much as the bean-counters at the Chancery, but, knowing that he had at best six months left to live, the old priest decided against ending his days in hopeless battle with the forces of the future. If the parish council couldn’t find a way to stop Abraxis, then the Old Church’s fate was in the hands of an Authority higher than even the Chancery could wield or enlist.
And so it was that the Chancery gave Father Abraxis final permission to purchase an off-the-shelf building design in which opaque, frosted plastic windows embedded with bits of what looked like spiraling metal worms replaced the Old Church’s rainbowed windows. The new altar was no more than a fat slab of gray marble sitting atop a stone sawhorse. St. Francis and his fellows were now rough-hewn wooden characters whose unpainted shapes and faces had lost their Italianate flavors in favor of bodies and visages so simply sculpted they looked like the work of a child. There was no organ, since there was no need of one. All the music would, by order of the Holy Father, be henceforth provided by earnest seminarians with guitars whose job was to incessantly help Michael row the boat ashore.
It was commonly held among the parish elders that Monsignor Garrison’s collapse and death had been caused as much by these shocks as by the cancer that had eaten a hole in his long-suffering liver.
Father Abraxis kept his plan to raze the Old Church and sell off its tiny patch of land under his biretta until the last possible moment. The purchase price took a large chunk off the mortgage's principle, a fact that went unmentioned among his many critics.
If Father Abraxis was taken aback by the coldness of his flock’s response to his deal-making, he never showed it. He was fond of saying that being a priest wasn’t a popularity contest, though he found himself wondering, the morning of the mob scene that was Monsignor Garrison’s funeral service, whether so many as 10 parishioners would turn up when his time finally came.
For all his business success, or possibly because of it, the Chancery passed over Father Abraxis in naming the monsignor's successor. He was initially happy with the Chancery's decision. He had by then recognized his style of leadership was inimical to parishioners grown used to Monsignor Garrison’s brand of back-slapping ecclesiastical blarney. Father Abraxis told himself he was content to stay in the background, masterminding (a word he loved) from behind the altar. If only Father Arthur, his fellow assistant pastor, hadn’t gotten the nod, Father Abraxis would have been the happiest priest in the diocese.
Father Kevin Arthur was a few years older than Father Abraxis and was considered a rising star at the Chancery. He was as short as Father Abraxis but 40 pounds lighter. A glad-hander? Yes, but more. A dynamo. A go-getter. The ladies of the Rosary Altar adored him. The men in the Knights of Columbus chapter were happy to buy him a beer at the Hibernian Hall down the road. And he was only too happy to drink their health. Even the altar boys he taught Latin to liked him, since he never yelled at or threatened them, the way Father Abraxis so often did.
When asked to take over for Father Abraxis at the next year's mother-daughter Christmas breakfast, Father Arthur took one look at the mangy old Santa Claus costume and convinced ancient Harry Sprague, the chief usher, to personally spring for a new get-up. Harry, notoriously tight-fisted, seemed as surprised as everyone else by his unexpected generosity.
“He’s a charmer, he is, there’s no escaping that fact,” he told Mrs. Dailey, who didn’t need convincing. Even though Father Kevin wasn’t Polish, (Dailey was her married name) and despite his being a priest, the 45-year-old former Irma Dalecki had what amounted to a late-stage schoolgirl crush on the fast-moving little priest.
Mrs. Dailey made the mistake of confessing her impure – though glancing – thoughts to Father Abraxis, since the monsignor was gone that Saturday and she couldn't very well confess to Father Arthur. She called the subject of her thoughts “a man of the cloth,” thinking she had sufficiently camouflaged his identity. But Father Abraxis was sure he knew who she meant. And he was startled at the instant pang of jealousy he felt toward his new superior. He did not lust after Mrs. Dailey – far from it. But to be lusted after? That was another matter.
Father Abraxis told Mrs. Dailey to say two complete rosaries for her penance.
It was only after he’d finished eating dinner and emptied half a bottle of the cheap burgundy the monsignor used to get for nothing from a favored vendor of even cheaper altar wine that Father Abraxis realized the source of the flickering unease he'd been feeling all afternoon. He had given Mrs. Dailey the harshest penance of his priesthood, for the most innocent sin a lonely woman married to a brutal drunk could commit.
Father Abraxis finished the burgundy and made his way next door to the church he had brought into being, where he got down on his knees and said three rosaries, trying as his knees screamed in agony to instead remember the sounds of the poor suffering souls in purgatory, whose wails once rattled the air above his head.