The Elusive Father Stephen

by

Pamela York Klainer

When Katie or Stephen wanted to see each other they tucked a prayer card, with a time written lightly in pencil, in the blotter on top of one or the other’s desk. The place was always Stephen’s office, because it was the most private and because Katie had reason to go there. Stephen was her department chair, and no one could question Sister Kathleen going in for a consultation behind his closed door.

Katie left a prayer card, but when she went to Stephen’s office at the appointed time the door was closed and uncharacteristically locked and there was no light under the door. She knocked, to no avail. She left, unable to check whether the prayer card had been picked up or was still there.

Stephen was in the building, she knew, because she saw him teaching through the long, narrow window of his classroom door.

Father Stephen didn’t come to the school cafeteria to buy his lunch, or eat in the faculty lounge.

Usually Stephen and Katie crossed paths multiple times during the day in the school hallways, giving each other a discreet nod and if no one was around, a conspiratorial smile. Improbably, amidst the crush of students and faculty and the janitor who always put up his cones signalling a wet floor in the busiest possible place, Stephen was nowhere to be seen.

Katie couldn’t bear to tell Loretta that she and Stephen hadn’t talked.

Katie couldn’t call the rectory. Stephen had been clear about that. The housekeeper for the priests, an old Irish woman named Minnie, took a special interest in the comings and goings of her men. She took messages and wrote down the names and numbers with great care, but a caller rarely got right through to any of the Fathers. Her men needed down time, and when they were in the rectory they were home. Minnie didn’t think parishioners or parents needed to be bothering the priests at home. And the callers who came to the door, covered dishes in hand, usually looking for Father Stephen? Minnie took the dish, promising that Father Stephen would know who made the casserole or the cookies or the special recipe cake. But no one was invited into the parlor, or even to cross the threshold of the rectory. No one, in fact, ever used the parlor unless invited there by one of the priests. Minnie knew her job, and it was not only cleaning and laundry and preparing breakfast and dinner. Her job was to protect priestly privacy and their reputations. She knew that Father Clemence sometimes took too much of the drink and had to be helped to his room by one of the others. But Minnie’s father did that too, and no one outside their house had an inkling. There’s no call to be telling our business to strangers, Minnie’s mother told her often, slapping her face when she forgot, and to the world they were a happy Irish family who cleared up on Sundays and went to church. Certainly it was no one’s business if Father Clemence like his whiskey, and Minnie would be drawn and quartered like a saint of yore or burned at the stake before she’d be forced to tell.

The school secretary, who kept a master calendar, was less fierce. Katie finally asked her to set up a meeting with Father Stephen, and the woman smiled and nodded and said she’d let Sister Kathleen know as soon as she could grab Father and get him to commit.

“He’s the worst of all, because so many people want him. Honestly, that man could be meeting all day long with students or parents or even people from the parish who wander in. I don’t know how he finds time to teach his classes.” The woman looked quizzically at Sister Kathleen. “You usually set things up with Father Stephen on your own, don’t you? If even you can’t pin him down, we’re all in trouble.” The secretary laughed, her comment innocent and intending nothing, and she turned away to answer the ringing telephone.

Loretta nailed Katie as they both left the building, heading back to the convent. “Have you talked to him yet? What did he say?”

“Not yet. He’s been really busy. We just haven’t had a chance.”

Loretta, already furious with Father Stephen, wasn’t fooled. “Katie, is he avoiding you? Don’t lie to me. You and he see each other fifty times a day in the halls, and nothing is more important than this. What did he say when you told him you and he have to talk?”

Katie bit her lip, her eyes welling with tears. “But I haven’t seen him in the halls. I don’t know what’s happening. He wasn’t in the faculty room for lunch, and I didn’t see him after school when he usually walks right past my classroom. He’s teaching his students, but other than that he’s just not around.”

Loretta was alarmed, and didn’t hide her concern from Katie. “He has to do the decent thing and talk to you. Katie, you have to set a deadline. Next Monday. If you haven’t heard from him by next Monday, you have to go and stand outside his classroom and wait.”

Katie nodded silently, anguish written all over her face. “I will, Loretta. If I haven’t heard from him by Monday. But I think I will. He knows I want to see him.”

Friday night supper at the convent was a more relaxed affair, and never more so when Mother Superior was away. Her absence left just the tiniest opening for gossip, which came while the Sisters were all giving a hand clearing the table. Sister Mary-of-the-Lake heard it from Sister Assumpta, who worked in the diocesan office. A prominent family in the parish had made accusations against Father Stephen. Their daughter, a senior, was pregnant. The father called on the Bishop in his office, demanding that Father Stephen be brought in right then and there and made to account for his behavior. People in the Bishop’s outer office actually heard the man shouting. This would not, the angry paternal voice insisted, be swept under the rug.

The Sisters were aghast. “Not Father Stephen. It can’t be.”

Katie dropped the plates she was carrying to the sink, and quickly stooped to clean up the broken china. Loretta avoided looking at her.

“Who would dare yell at the Bishop?” Sister Agnes asked it, and they all shook their heads. No one ever raised his voice to the Bishop. But apparently an angry father had.

The announcement came from the pulpit at Sunday mass, offered to the parish with a note of pride. Their very own Father Stephen, at the behest of the Bishop, was on his way to Rome, appointed to represent the diocese at a Papal Commission just getting underway. The appointment was for two years. The parish should be justifiably proud, and prayers would be offered right then and there for Father Stephen’s safe travel and for the success of his new assignment.

Loretta, sitting next to Katie, reached carefully and surreptitiously to hold her friend’s hand. Katie’s fingers were ice cold. She stayed silent and looked straight ahead as the collective voice of the parish was lifted up in prayer.

6 thoughts on “The Elusive Father Stephen

  1. Ditto Nedra. Also looking forward to a follow up on Father Leon. You have set up a mystery there😀😀 Will definitely stay tuned.

  2. for Joyce: Yes, Father Leon will return. He’s actually based on a wonderful chaplain we had at college – a very unusually kind and gifted man who spoke from a deep faith, but put the goodness of people before dogma.

  3. Of course Stephen’s being spirited away to Rome — well played, Pam! That’s what happened to Bernard Law from Boston, isn’t it?

    As I read the part about the housekeeper, Minnie, and her role in the rectory, I thought of my great grandmother, Alice’s grandmother, who was the housekeeper in her brother’s rectory in Newark. I wondered if she played the same role of fierce protector, of upholding the false sanctity of the clergy. What a strange world, and I wonder if anyone has ever written from the housekeeper’s perspective.

    I’m reminded of Louise Erdrich’s “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse”, which I think you would love.

  4. for Mary: That is what happened to Bernard Law, to the outrage of some of my friends who live in Boston. I’m quite fascinated to think of those loyal housekeepers, who must have been paid a pittance and had a lot asked of them. I also recall the story of a “housekeeper” who was in fact the 30 year mistress of the pastor, and had nothing in the end when he died, not even recognition as the chief mourner. I’ve read that work of
    Erdrich … yes, I do love it.

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