The grass had all turned brown. Snow, crusted gray by car exhaust, hugged the curb. A blare of shift change whistle blew at the factory a few blocks away; 5:00 pm and the gloaming of evening had already fallen. From his bedroom window in the rectory, Father Francis watched the cold breeze tug at a lone leaf on the tree in the front lawn. His own heart felt like that leaf. He went down the hall to the kitchen to heat water for tea. Although he’d only turned forty-six earlier that month, days after his mother’s death, he walked with a slight limp. The rectory was as quiet as a tomb.
At the sound of the factory whistle, Sister Katherine glanced up and looked outside the convent’s basement window. Above the rooftops, she could see the plume of smoke from the factory’s chimney against the ink-wash sky. She paused at the ironing board in the laundry room where she was pressing the nuns’ habits. The globe on the ceiling threw white light. A glimpse of her ex-husband entered her mind, and she shook it away. In the convent’s small chapel directly above her, she could hear Mother Superior’s quiet voice leading the rosary, followed by the answering chorus of the other nine nuns. She saw a light blink on in the rectory’s kitchen.
It was the early winter in that industrial section of Cleveland. St. Richard’s church, school, convent, and rectory were all made of red brick, smoke-stained over the years. Most of the apartment buildings, businesses, and small houses in the old neighborhood were built with the same brick. A tangle of telephone wires and clotheslines hung suspended among them. Father Francis had come to the parish two years earlier replacing a longtime priest who’d been promoted to a larger parish. With the congregation’s census in decline, after the monsignor retired later that year, the diocese didn’t replace him, but left Father Francis there to run things on his own. Sister Katherine had only been at the parish for less than a year; it was her first assignment after taking her vows. She taught second grade at the parish school.
Shortly after Sister Katherine arrived, Father Francis overheard two of the other nuns talking about her. One told the other that Sister Katherine had been married for seventeen years before having her marriage annulled when she’d discovered her husband’s affair with another woman. They’d had no children. She’d started her training in the order up in Michigan shortly after the annulment became official.
At her orientation, Mother Superior provided Sister Katherine only a brief overview of Father Francis’ background: he’d taught English at a Catholic high school in Cincinnati for a number of years at the beginning of his career and then moved on to be a chaplain at a prison before coming to St. Richard’s. This was his first parish assignment. Father Francis was a quiet man, Mother Superior told her, but a good one. Rather shy, she said, somewhat reserved.
Aside from the general pleasantries exchanged between all of the nuns and Father Francis and the daily early morning Mass he said for them in the convent chapel each weekday, Sister Katherine did not have occasion for much personal contact with him until he began preparation with her second graders for their first confession and communion in October of that year. He came to her classroom twice each week to teach them, and she sat at her desk in the back of the room and watched him as he spoke. He was gentle and patient; even when a student didn’t know the answer to a question tied to the catechism reading from the prior day, he was kind and encouraging. Occasionally, when a student said something silly or off topic, they would exchange glances and smile. She was struck by a sadness in his eyes with which she sensed a kinship. Father Francis felt the same.
His lessons with her students came at the end of each afternoon, and he stayed after dismissal one day to ask if she had any teaching suggestions for him.
“Well,” she said, “you might tell them about your own spiritual journey.”
“My own journey?”
“Yes, it may help them personalize the sacraments you’re preparing them for.”
She smiled. “You have a lovely way with them. They’re very fond of you.”
He looked at her for a long moment. There was a smudge of chalk on her cheek; he touched his own and pointed. She regarded her reflection in the classroom window and wiped it away. When she turned back to him, she was blushing.
After he left her classroom, Father Francis went for a walk along the river and thought about what she’d said. His own spiritual journey had long been a struggle. He’d entered the seminary mostly to please his mother, who was devout and had raised him alone, and her pride in his being a priest was the primary factor, he now acknowledged, that had maintained his religious commitment over the years. With that gone since her death, he felt untethered. He felt very much alone.
From her classroom window, Sister Katherine watched Father Francis walk away with his awkward gait until he turned the corner. She put her fingertips against the pane and found herself weeping silently. His manner, she realized, was the polar opposite of her ex-husband’s. She closed her eyes against the memory of his shouts and beery breath.
Father Francis began to linger after her students left on the pretence of helping her clean up her classroom. At first, they spoke only about religious instruction and benign parish business, but eventually he told her a little about his own experiences teaching high school and ministering in the prison. She shared a few things about the period of prayer that led to her vocational calling after her marriage ended. They listened quietly to one another as the late afternoon light fell outside. Over time, they allowed their stolen gazes to become bolder.
Father Francis found himself thinking about her before falling asleep at night. In spite of her efforts to the contrary, the same thing occurred for her, and at times, he entered her dreams.
He often joined her on the playground when she had recess duty. And at communion during the early morning Mass in the convent chapel, she began to look up at him when he placed the host on her tongue instead of closing her eyes.
One Saturday afternoon, he was taking the city bus back from visiting an ill parishioner, and she boarded a couple of stops later holding a shopping bag. The bus was crowded, and he was standing in the back. He waved to her and she joined him there. He told her where he’d been, and she said that she’d bought items at a craft store for an art activity with her students. At the next stop, a large boisterous crowd boarded carrying stadium blankets and wearing sweatshirts and caps of the local college. The bus quickly filled to capacity and Sister Katherine’s back was pushed up against Father Francis. They stood very still, and he tried to concentrate on the passing traffic, but she felt the bulge in his pants stiffen against her bottom. A flush rose up her neck and across her cheeks.
She heard him whisper, “I’m so sorry.”
She shook her head and didn’t move. When she got off the bus in front of the church, he stayed where he was.
That next week, he left her classroom promptly with the students at dismissal, and she kept her eyes turned downward at morning communion. She waited until the end of confession hours that Friday evening after the church had emptied to enter his confessional. In the dim light, they could just make out one another’s image through the small dark screen.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” she began.
Then she became quiet. His head was turned to the side where he sat on the stiff chair on his side of the confessional. She shifted where she knelt on the other, her hands clasped on the ledge under the screen.
“Yes?” he asked.
She swallowed and said, “I have covetous thoughts for a man. A man of the cloth.”
She could see his breathing quicken through the screen, but he said nothing. He didn’t turn his head. He closed his eyes.
“Father,” she finally whispered.
“My real name is Charles,” he said. “Charlie, I was called when I was young. I only took my middle name, Francis, when I entered the seminary.” He turned and looked at her with his sad eyes through the screen. “You see, I’m really just a man named Charlie. That’s all I really am.”
He stood up, and left the confessional. She listened to his footsteps cross the wooden floorboards and the sound of the church’s side doors open and close.
Sister Katherine stood the iron up on its end on the board and watched out the window. Father Francis appeared in the rectory kitchen and began filling a teapot with water at the sink. He looked out the window in her direction, paused, and turned off the light. The kitchen turned dark, but by the streetlamp outside, she could still see his face muffled there through the glass. Sister Katherine folded the habit she’d finished ironing carefully and set it on a bench next to her with the others. She unclipped her black veil, removed the white coif that covered her head, and shook her hair free. She lifted both layers of sleeves over her shoulders and unclasped the cross from her neck. She untied the woolen belt around her waist and slipped off the wooden rosary that it held before slowly taking off her tunic. Finally, she lifted the top underskirt with it black serge over her head, and then stepped out of the bottom one. She wore no bra; her underpants were black.
Next, Sister Katherine separated the garments on the ironing board and made a pile of them on the bench. She spread one of the underskirts on the board, and Father Francis watched her slide the iron slowly over it. Her skin was very white. Water was still running from the tap; he set the teapot in the sink. When she moved the ironed portion of the underskirt so that it dangled, Father Francis reached out as if to feel the warmth on it. His breath caught in his throat when he saw her look out the laundry room window at the rectory.
When Sister Katherine wasn’t at early morning Mass and when a substitute taught her class that next week, Father Francis didn’t wonder too much. He thought she must just have been ill. He waited until the following Monday to ask Mother Superior about her.
“She’s gone away, Father,” Mother Superior said.
She watched him frown. She’d seen them together on the playground; she’d watched their eyes as he served Sister Katherine communion in the mornings.
He said, “I don’t understand.”
“She had a change in calling. She wanted to serve the homeless.” Mother Superior paused. “I believe the order was able to arrange a placement for her somewhere in the Southwest.”
He looked off over her shoulder, blinking.
“Is everything all right, Father?”
Slowly, he looked back at her. “Yes,” he said. “Everything is fine.”
She nodded. He did the same, and she watched him limp away.
The second graders made their first confessions that Friday, and the bishop served their first communion the following day. The students all dressed in white for the Mass, and a reception was held in the parish hall afterwards. Father Francis made the rounds visiting with families and posing for photographs. Then he went for a long walk along the river. Afterwards, he wrote a letter to Sister Katherine in care of the order’s headquarters in Michigan, but he never heard back, so he wasn’t sure if it ever reached her.
Father Francis put up Christmas lights on the rectory earlier than usual and often walked out onto the front sidewalk to look at them when it became dark. In the spring, he began a stamp collection, which was something he’d done as a boy. And in the early summer, he planted a vegetable garden in the back yard. It did well, and he canned tomatoes and pickles that lasted him well into the winter.
Over the ensuing years, whenever John’s second epistle was included in the scriptures for a Sunday Mass, Father Francis preached on the gospel instead. But he saved a passage from it in
his wallet, the part that said: “And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” When he found himself thinking of Sister Katherine, which never completely stopped, he would sometimes take out the passage and read it. He wanted it to help, but it really didn’t.
At times, he looked out of the kitchen window down to the convent laundry room, but he never saw anyone ironing there again. On occasion, he wrote other notes to Sister Katherine, but buried them in the garden.
Note: This piece first appeared in The Red Line.