The small figure nudged past the heavy and creaky door pausing to appreciate the sweet, lingering aroma of Mass, comingled with the sharp, dry scent of cold stone. Quiet as a mouse, he scuffled inside the church, teetering on his uneven gait which, over time, has worn deeply the outside sole of his left shoe. Or perhaps it was the old ill-fitting shoe itself that unevened his walk. Nevertheless, asymmetrically and silently, the urchin skirted the wooden chairs with wickered seats, loosely rowed. At the enormous clamshell font, he crossed with sacred water to register his faith. Almost before opening his eyelids, the lad slipped secretly up the dark, hidden stairway. Only Father knew the boy’s practice and he cared little. A long moment since the creak, Father lifted his eyes to assess the larger than life wooden Blessed Virgin Mary surveying his domain. Father recognized the telltale shadow marking the urchin’s installation at his afternoon respite of peace.
So many years ago, the Virgin’s head was carved separately and dowelled in place, leaving a curve of space through which the urchin now peered, like a cat on a sill, examining the comings and goings in the church, a scene generally unchanged, day after day. Robust dark beams held the high roof aloft, with glory. Long sturdy chains extended unlit, but ornate globes in two rows lining the nave. Bright sun poured coloured beams through a million panes of stained glass bursting a furious rainbow of light into the belly of the church. St. Anne’s chapel was in clear sight, to the urchin’s right. A chapel to St. Ignatius Loyola was across the nave, to the left. And the chapel to The Virgin was tucked at the edge of his view, at the corner of the transept, all holy blue and gold.
The central altar was dressed in smart, clean but yellowing linen, guarded by four enormous golden candelabras, ready for service. The urchin’s scan of the church found Father standing outside the sacristy, observing him in return, conveying a gentle smile. The few faces below were familiar. To his left sat the old woman, eye rimmed by tears and fingertips clacking wooden beads even older than she. Father’s comfort, time and again, yields no relief. The husband is years dead. Her heart is simply broken. Only God can intercede now. To the right, nearest the entrance door and adjacent to the confessional, a man of middle-age knelt on tender joints, leaning back against his seat to gain small comfort. This man came to pray every few days, probably on his work break or on his way home. The urchin’s puzzled face considered his schedule but could not recall seeing the man at a Sunday Mass. The urchin knew from overhearing the man’s confession that his prayers were for his son. He named his son “tepette” speaking as if he were angry with him, or with someone, anyone. The urchin did not know what that word meant, yet somehow he knew well enough not to ask Father. Father regularly counseled the man to love his son as God loved his own son but the man endured steadfast in his private, hopeless and furious disposition.
Before curling into the blanket Father had kindly lain in his nest, the urchin caught the click of hard sole against stone. He looked down and followed the young woman walking slowly in the direction of the chapel of Saint Anne, mother to our glorious Virgin. Her cherubic face was haloed in platinum kinks, pinned to the side with a series of combs, exposing black roots. She called on St. Anne every Tuesday, without fail, and sometimes other days as well. The urchin once overheard her pleading with Father, wishing for a baby to hold and love. Father agreed she ought to petition the Lord but also reminded her sad eyes that children were God’s will and blessing, prayer alone not the sole remedy. The urchin knew for sure that the she prayed, probably for the baby she wished, and she always lit a candle to Mother Anne. But he also knew, unlike Father, that the young woman never paid for her votive. Squirming into a comfortable ball, the urchin wondered to himself, as he surrendered to weariness, if that was her sin.
Increased rustling and soft scraping of chairs roused the lad. There was no particular boister; the hint of excitement revived him. Mass would soon begin. The grieving old woman remained pasted to her seat, still pestering her beads. The forlorn father had abandoned the prayers for his son. And the melancholy young offering dodger had long departed. The church filled with a less serious crowd. The faces of these early afternoon Massers too were familiar. The urchin knew many of their stories from overheard confessions and conversations that unveiled their wishes and their dreams. He neither pitied nor envied them but he felt close, joined to them in the safe and distant way of community.
The urchin thought of Father preparing for mass; thoughtfully robing and stilling his mind with prayer. Father stepped into the foyer to begin his procession toward the sanctuary and deliver mass when a young man wearing a cap scooted past him, and slid into a wicker seat near the St. Anne chapel. A stout glare from the man beside him reminded the young man to remove his cap. He looked vaguely familiar. Safe to stare, the urchin recognized this young man from elsewhere, from his life outside the tender boundaries of the church. The urchin usually left his perch at this point to participate in afternoon Mass but today he was distracted by a desire to study events from above.
Mass unfolded beside the usual incantations and scripture. Father’s homily called us all to sow and reap a mighty harvest of love and peace. Worshipers joined in prayer to prepare for the celebration of the Eucharist. As they rose and approached Father for communion, the cap-wearing man also stood but he did not approach the altar. He stepped aside and walked apace toward the chapel of St. Anne. The urchin followed each step with curiosity. Not that the capped man was abandoning communion but because he felt sure this man was up to no good. Cap still in hand, the man paused near St. Anne’s chapel and with a quick glance to and fro, he leaned toward the wrought iron votive manger, as if he were about to purchase a prayer. Instead, he reached out beyond the candles and beyond the offering box. Craning his rough-haired head for a clearer glance, the urchin observed the man place something behind a ceramic vase, between the pottery and the stone wall it guarded. Lifting his cap back to his head, the man swiftly withdrew to the exit.
Mass concluded with the gift of peace, a gesture of friendship and solidarity. Peace be with you, murmured over, over and over, celebrants smiling and nodding. Father retreated down the nave, chanting in his deep, soulful voice. Well bred, the small crowd fell in behind, systematically row-by-row. The urchin tracked the regression so closely he nearly overlooked the second alien, a man wearing a burgundy jacket, who walked with purpose behind the departing worshipers. He also headed toward St. Anne’s Chapel. As with the capped man, the burgundy jacket man halted near the ceramic vase. Unlike the capped man, he rattled several coins into the offering box and used one of the wooden sticks to ignite a wick. Bending, as if to deliver his prayer, the urchin noticed him retrieve the package, so recently hidden. Then, slick as you can, he disappeared through the heavy transept door.
The urchin rocked back on his worried haunches, awkward in his confinement, wondering what to do about these two men. Should he tell Father? If so, what exactly would he tell? He tried to remember all he knew of the familiar capped man, if anything. These past two years, as was his comfort and habit, he separated his life inside this church and his life outside. One life was serene and peaceful; the other life was rough and unpredictable. Now, this small piece of rough intruded on the serene. Still pondering, the urchin wriggled through the panel enclosing the shoulders of the Blessed Virgin and hip-hopped in his jagged scurry along the narrow passage leading to the stairway. He emerged once again on the cold stone floor of the church, and ambled across the nave.
Father conversed with a pair of visitors, apparently here to enjoy the original stained glass, dimming as the sun retreated. About once or twice a week, or more often in good weather, tourists followed their city guidebooks to our church to see the shimmering shards that fashioned the colorful figures of Saint Augustine and Saint Sebastian. Father was gratified when the awe of these guests proved generous, especially in the donation box, whereas the urchin’s awe yielded no fund. The interruption solved the urchin’s pressing dilemma. He could not speak with Father now even if he wanted to. He revisited St. Anne’s chapel and casually considered the vase in question, so near to the wall. It was not really a good hiding place for something important. It could only be temporary.
A door thudded shut in the distance, interrupting the urchin’s study. He turned and saw Father striding toward him. “Saying your prayers today, lad?” Father asked, drawing near. “Of course, Father.” The urchin replied, dropping his head with respect. Father smiled warmly, recognizing within the urchin a strong love of God and God’s home. “Come along with me then. Let’s see what I have for you.” The urchin knew this as code for an orange, or a half sandwich from Father’s own plate, and hobbled behind the rustling robes.
Over the next two weeks, the urchin’s surveillance revealed events unchanged. The old woman arrived daily, at least an hour before mass, to pray to her husband, long gone. The forlorn father appeared several times, manifestly aiming to make his peace with the Lord and to spark a flicker of love for his son. The wishful mother missed several days, troubling the urchin. And the odd package exchangers visited two more times. So, now three packages were dropped and retrieved under the scrutiny of St. Anne and the urchin. It was time to inform Father because he trusted Father would know what to do.
Notes pounced from the organ, hailing Father’s march toward the sanctuary. He sang proudly in a mist of incense. Passing the urchin, seated at the rear of the nave, close to St. Anne’s chapel, Father nodded his signal. Mass unfolded with prayers and scriptures, calls and responses, rising and sitting. Father’s homily considered the role of the church, a place of thoughtful worship but also God’s house, a dwelling of glory and respect. He pointed out the blazing windows behind him and was privately thankful that the sunny afternoon displayed them to their finest bounty. He urged parishioners to pray that this summer would yield tourist donations needed to repair the windowsills. He looked up thoughtfully at the carved Blessed Virgin, so recently vacated by the urchin, remarking that Our Lady watches over this house, she knows all and everything. We shared in the Eucharist and shared the gift of peace.
The urchin watched the young man, who no longer wore his distinctive cap, retrace his steps and advance toward the chapel. He saw the man repeat his mock prayer and slide another package between the vase and the stone wall. Before Father dismissed Mass, he announced upcoming events, prolonging disassembly. In this interval, the urchin quietly retrieved the package and knelt at the prie dieu situated at the precise centre of the saint’s gaze. Curiosity got the better of him and as he heard Father’s drone in the background, the urchin checked the package. It contained bills, lots and lots of bills.
A blast of organ jolted him back to present. As agreed, he continued to kneel while Father sang his way along to the back of the church, dismissing his flock to their quotidian. The urchin drew in beside him, just inside the foyer, and furtively passed along the package of bills. The urchin returned his knees to St. Anne. Father slid the package between his notes and his missal then walked casually toward the chapel. Burgundy jacket man approached the chapel but with the urchin so obviously placed at its centre, he withdrew to elaborately inspect their second treasure, a fading mural depicting the Assumption, filling the apse to their right.
From the corner of the urchin’s eye, he saw Father bid the last Masser farewell. He looked up to ensure that the urchin and burgundy jacket were in play before he sauntered reverently toward them. Father touched the urchin gently on the shoulder as he passed, whispering “Bless you, son” before a side-tilt of his head recommended the urchin remove to a less conspicuous corner. Father addressed the package retriever. The man puffed at first then his shoulders weakened and his head slung low as Father’s stern face spoke. He pointed up to the Blessed Virgin’s view, boring across the nave. Father handed him the package. Without a word, the man opened it and three times passed Father a bill without looking up.
When given his leave, the man backed away from Father and only as he approached the foyer did he turn to stride hurriedly out of the church. Mesmerized, the urchin waited until Father finished a quick prayer prayer at the chapel before he stepped forward, gaining Father’s view. Father floated toward him, quietly over the pavers. “Thank you” he said quietly to the urchin, bending down to the boy’s level. “This is your reward” Father whispered, handing over a bill. “Father, I cannot take this gift.” “Come.” Returned Father. “The church has long existed on the spoils of sin. Cannot you benefit from this gift?” And with that, Father drew out the urchin’s hand and folded the bill into it. “The other money will repair the windows.” Father smiled, beaming. “And I want to reward your service to God’s house.”
Father swished away, halting further deliberation. The urchin was left, gift in hand, to ponder and pray. He noticed the young baby-wishing woman emerge from the foyer. She he knelt and crossed herself, as required by custom. Slowly she made her way to St. Anne and deflated onto the kneeler. With her hands clasped before her, the young woman dropped her platinum curls and planted her face into her hands, her poignant sobs, silent.
For a very long time, the young woman and the urchin shared the same cool, incense cluttered cave. Recollections of his own long deserted mother infiltrated his woeful memory. Despair penetrated the young woman. As the once brilliant glass fully dimmed, she lit her usual unpaid votive and departed, so slowly, so burdened with sorrow. After a decent time, without reservation, the urchin pushed the wrinkled bill, long held in his tight fist, into the offering tin. He lit a votive and whispered a sincere prayer “thy will be done”.Short