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Father Fitz had lost it. That didn’t come as a surprise to those of us who were his regular parishioners, but it knocked the socks off my brother, Ben. Luckily, Ben has enough poise as a person and experience as a priest that he didn’t fall off the altar.
On holy days of obligation, Father Kiernan Fitzgerald always managed to keep mass under forty minutes. Since December 8 commemorates the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, I attended the eight o’clock service on my way to work at The Alpine Advocate. Ben was concelebrating the liturgy while on vacation from his job as pastor to the Navajos in Tuba City, Arizona.
It is always with a sense of pride that I watch Ben say mass. Like me, he is dark and brown-eyed; he has the same round face (but more nose), and an extra six inches of height. He is not handsome and I am not beautiful, yet—as our late parents used to say—we make a very presentable pair. When we try. Certainly Ben looks most impressive in the vestments that some of his female parishioners made for him, complete with Navajo symbols of sun, earth, and sky.
The fifty parishioners and one hundred schoolchildren from St. Mildred’s sat huddled together in winter coats and heavy-duty footgear. At the left of the altar, two purple candles burned in an Advent wreath fashioned from fir, cedar, and pine. The remaining candles, one pink and the other purple, would be lighted on the last two Sundays before Christmas.
Outside, three feet of snow covered the ground. As usual, winter had arrived early in Alpine. At over two thousand feet above sea level, we were not only in the mountains, we were part of them. I turned my attention to Father Fitz as he stood to give the final blessing.
“I have some announcements,” he said in his low, mellifluous voice with its trace of County Cork. Father Fitz’s legs might be crippled by arthritis, his hearing may be poor, but there is nothing wrong with the way he speaks. “Last week’s Christmas bazaar brought in $1,185.37. Half we’ll be giving to the school, the other half to the families of unemployed loggers. God bless you for your generosity and hard work.” He paused, peering at his notes through thick trifocals. “The school Nativity pageant, Elvis Meets the Three Wise Men, will take place Thursday, December 17th, in the school hall at seven P.M.” He gave the principal, Mrs. Monica Vancich, a glance of disapproval. Mrs. Vancich smiled serenely, then tweaked the white shirt collar of Joey Bronsky, a notorious fidgeter and my ad manager’s son. Joey snapped to.
Father Fitz continued: “Finally, we ask you all to pray for the repose of the souls of the thousands of brave Americans who died in yesterday’s attack on Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands. Monstrous cruel it was, and our president will be needing your prayers as well. May Almighty God keep Mr. Roosevelt.” Father Fitz turned to his breviary. “The Lord be with you.”
“And also with you.” The congregation’s response was a little wobbly. I caught Ben’s eye. He was staring stonily ahead, his face tight. It was a sure sign that he was trying not to laugh.
Father Fitz bestowed the last blessing and dismissed us. Annie Jeanne Dupré pumped away at the old organ as the congregation launched into an off-key rendition of “Immaculate Mary.” Father Fitz and Ben left the altar, the schoolchildren began to file out in a disorderly fashion, and little clutches of worshippers buzzed in the aisles, presumably about Father Fitz’s unfortunate lapse. I edged off to a side altar where the statue of St. Joseph seemed to wear a bemused air. I was waiting for Ben and didn’t want to get caught up in controversy just yet. I faced enough of that every day in my job as editor and publisher of The Advocate.
It wasn’t unusual for our officially retired pastor to operate in a time warp. His sermons often reflected an era of bootleg liquor, creeping Communism, or family life lived only by Andy Hardy. This, however, was the first time he’d enlisted his parishioners’ prayers for a event long past.
Except for Mrs. Patricelli, who was lighting enough votive candles to bake a ham, the church had grown empty. I could feel the cold come through the stained glass windows and hear the wind stir in the belfry. It was going on nine in the morning and very gloomy outside. The heavy gray clouds had been hanging over Alpine since early November. We might glimpse the sun before May, but we wouldn’t see the ground. Only seven miles from the summit of Stevens Pass in the Cascade Mountains, the four thousand residents of Alpine knew winter far better than most Pacific Northwesterners. Eighty miles away in Seattle, I suspected it was fifty degrees with a seventy percent chance of rain.
Ben came from the sacristy just as Mrs. Patricelli ran out of matches. On her way out, she beamed at my brother, a gap-toothed, maternal smile, befitting the mother of nine and grandmother of eighteen. Maybe they were the reason for all the candles. The last I’d heard, her oldest was president of a bank in Yakima and her youngest was doing time for embezzling. Not, I guessed, from his brother’s bank.
Ben had planned on taking himself to breakfast at the Venison Eat Inn and Take Out after mass. “I’d better skip the ride downtown,” he said in his crackling voice that could keep even the sleepiest parishioner awake during a sermon. “Father Fitz is pretty shaky and the housekeeper is upset.”
“Mrs. McHale? Really?” Teresa McHale had been the housekeeper at the rectory for a little over a year, but she struck me as having a cast-iron disposition. “Is Father Fitz sick or just daffy?”
“He went through his usual routine this morning: up at six, got dressed and showered, devotions in his room, heard confessions at seven-thirty for the holy day, then readied for mass. He seemed fine, but Mrs. McHale wants to call Doc Dewey.” Ben steered me down the aisle toward the main entrance. “She thinks Father may have had a little stroke.”
“Oh, dear.” I pulled on my driving gloves as we stood in the vestibule. At eighty-nine, a stroke couldn’t be a surprise. Still, in the second week of Advent, Father Fitz’s timing was lousy. Or, I thought, glancing up at Ben, maybe not. “Could you take over?”
Ben rolled his eyes. He was back in his street clothes, thick navy sweater, blue jeans, and knee-high boots. He was very tan from his assignment in the desert. “So there goes twenty days of my twenty-one day vacation? Hell, Emma, I just got here day before yesterday.”
“Ben …” I sounded reproachful. “You’re a priest, after all.…”
“A tired priest,” he put in, looking unwontedly grim. “After twenty years, I finally got things halfway organized down on the Mississippi Delta, then I get shipped to the Navajo reservation a year ago and have to start all over. To make matters worse, the Mormons got to Tuba City first—over a hundred years ago. And the Hopis have been plucked right down in the middle of the Navajos. No wonder they hate each other. The federal government’s relocation in the Seventies still causes hard feelings. Now D.C.’s got a new plan, but who knows if it’ll work. It’s rough out there on the fringes of the Painted Desert. I’m almost forty-five, Emma. I have this dream of a well-heeled, well-oiled parish in the suburbs. Alpine ain’t it, Sluggly.”
I grinned at the old nickname, a cross between Sluggo and Ugly. “You’d last about two weeks in the suburbs, Stench,” I asserted, retaliating with my childhood moniker for him. “You thrive on adversity and you know it. Besides, it may be only a few days. Think not of your vacation, but of your vocation.”
“The parishioners might resent my stepping in.” Ben rubbed the thatch of brown hair that he combed off a side part. “On the other hand, I am here.…” One of Ben’s flaws is his indecisiveness. He always sees six sides of any issue. I have a similar tendency, which I regard as journalistic objectivity. But with deadlines to meet, I can’t often indulge myself. Conversely, Ben’s propensity for equivocation has grown more pronounced over the years, perhaps as a result of two decades spent in the slow lane along the Mississippi Delta.
We argued briefly, and at last he gave in as I knew he would. “I’ll have to check with the arch,” he said, referring to the archbishop in Seattle. “But first we’d better see how bad Father Fitz really is. I don’t want to usurp his authority. You know how proprietary these old pastors can be, especially the ones from Ireland.”
I was about to concur when Teresa McHale entered the vestibule from the church proper. She gave me the briefest of nods, murmured “Mrs. Lord,” and then addressed Ben: “I called young Doc Dewey. He’s in surgery, but that new man, Peyton Flake, will be over as soon as he finishes cleaning his guns.”
Teresa McHale had replaced Edna McPhail, who had served in the rectory for over thirty years. Edna had died the previous year, suffering a heart attack while cleaning the bathtub. Since Edna was some ten years younger than Father Fitz, he had presumed she would outlive him. When she didn’t, he had a tizzy and put an ad not only in the church bulletin but The Advocate as well. Except for a well-known alcoholic and a woman whose wits could be most kindly described as lacking, there were no takers.