The Agonist Journal

The house in question has long since been demolished, the neighborhood thoroughly gentrified. The remaining houses now sport neatly trimmed lawns and expensive additions, like screened-in porches or expanded kitchens. One would never guess that not so long ago, a dark and pointy house with chipping paint and a mossy roof occupied a prime spot at the street’s end: a small and narrow thing, but unusually tall, casting shadows over the sidewalks and streetlamps. On a windy day, the third story would sway slightly, so by the time the construction crew tore it down, it was leaning to one side and, frankly, a bit dangerous.

“Foundation’s been eaten by termites,” one crew member said to Mrs. Flannigan, who lived down the block and enjoyed knowing things other people didn’t. “Surprised it lasted this long.”

On Sunday morning, when Mrs. Flannigan reported this to the neighborhood women after church, all agreed the home was an eyesore which should have gone long ago. They especially congratulated Mrs. O’Shea, who lived across the street and saw the place every day.

“They really should have committees to regulate these things,” Mrs. O’Shea told her husband that night. “Houses like that ruin the neighborhood. Think of the property values.”

Generally, Charlie O’Shea did think of things like property values. He was a very practical man. But Charlie had lived in the area all 74 years of his life, and so he still remembered the house’s back drawing room and its lovely bay window facing an old apple tree. Much to the neighborhood’s dismay, the construction crew took the house and left the tree, but Charlie was secretly glad the plant remained. He watched the crabapples thicken and fall every autumn with a certain fondness and, although he would not admit it, a kind of fear. For he remembered his days as a boy when Father McConnell, the parish priest, lived in that house— and Charlie did not want to disturb his spirit.

Father McConnell was once a young boy who loved his mother very much. He joined the seminary because she asked him to. She was a pious woman and he, being one of ten, became her tithe. The Sisters who buried him said it was his great love for her that drove him to it, although they never said anything more than that.

He excelled in the seminary, writing to his mother almost every day. He was a promising student. By 21, he had taken a particular interest in canon law and the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary; and by 30, he was well established at Our Lady of Sorrows, a sought-after homilist and confessor. He was asked to teach Latin at a prestigious university downtown for a generous stipend which, in keeping with his call to serve, he refused. His students were bright and interested young men who read Aquinas and pondered Boethius’ distinction between fate and providence. They visited Father McConnell frequently at his old house, bringing him wine and cheese. These gifts he accepted readily. He was well respected and occasionally traveled to give lectures. The Bishop often invited him and his mother over for dinner. Soon, his classes had waiting lists. He began to get fat.

It was with some sentimentality that he abandoned his older students to teach confirmation classes to young boys at his local parish. He did this in part because of his mother’s passing. She died very suddenly—a stroke, the doctors said. Father McConnell walked into the kitchen one morning and saw her, face down on the tiled floor, never to move again. At her funeral, he gave a beautiful homily, stately and assured. Everyone whispered how well he was holding up, how his confidence in her blessed repose was a true testament to the faith. But these whispers stopped when he wept soggy and bitter tears at the recessional “Salve Regina.” It was at the reception—a modest affair held in the church basement—he proceeded to drink an alarming amount of whiskey while telling Mrs. Pettinger and Sister Parker of his plans to leave the University, explaining how his mother had taught him the faith years before.

“The least I can do to honor her memory is dedicate myself to the youth—to their souls.”

He never did send a resignation note to the University. He simply did not show up that fall.

Instead, Father McConnell (with the permission of the Bishop) enlisted all promising young boys from the parish school into an exclusive catechesis class. He would begin each session by teaching scraps of medieval chant, so by the final class, his students could process down the aisle singing “Regina Caeli” for the congregation. He would insist they memorize sections of the catechism in full, assigning them long translation exercises if they did not.

“Boys,” he would say just before they received the sacrament. “I implore you to keep the word of God at the heart of all you do. And as you go into the world, remember the priesthood is the highest calling: to take Mother Church as our bride in a truly glorious union, foreshadowing the coming of Christ. Pray for me.”

He was feared. He was beloved. Many of his students took the robe. Few forgot their faith.

Only in his fifties did Father McConnell develop a paralysis in his left knee—a result of gout, according to the doctors—leaving him homebound. But he continued to teach, gathering the boys in his back-drawing room. They would sit on his bay window while Father McConnell, couched comfortably in his mother’s armchair, sat across from them gazing out the window.

After class, the boys would walk home, ushered out by the Sisters, who brought the priest food and prepared his dinner and helped him to mass on Sundays. He was always grateful for their company, inviting them to stay for a humble meal and perhaps a glass of sherry. The nuns, like the boys, would sit on the bay window, and Father McConnell would tell stories of his youth, how he and his mother would harvest their own apples, baking pies and crumbles and sometimes a strudel for his many siblings and their neighbors.

“But now the tree is aging, and the fruit falls untended,” he would conclude, a misty look in his eyes. “And I am old and crippled. It is all in God’s great plan of course. It is all right and just.”

On such occasions, the Sisters would walk home into the thickening night, a feeling of otherworldly grace washing over them.

So the years wore on. Nothing changed, save that Father McConnell’s classes grew smaller and smaller. The Sisters shook their heads in disapproval when the Bishop hired a quick-

witted woman (unmarried) to teach confirmation for both boys and girls. Sister Parker scolded the Bishop for his “faithless treachery”—but he dismissed her out of hand, claiming he was no longer confident in Father McConnell’s pedagogical abilities.

“Retirement exists for a reason,” he said, surveying the nun over his glasses. “If you found McConnell a nursing home, that would be a true act of charity.”

This, perhaps, was the reason Father McConnell found it surprising the Virgin Mary appeared to him one autumn morning: because she interrupted one of his classes, which already were so small, so fragile. It seemed rude, almost low class, to deprive his pupils of their education, and moreover to show up completely unannounced while he was performing his sacred duty. All this, simply to request he wear his rosary on his left knee. Certainly his own mother would never approve of such conduct. Annoyed at the disturbance, Father McConnell shooed the Virgin away with his beads. But he aimed poorly and grazed Gregory Bank’s hair by mistake, while the Virgin smiled wider and continued to gesture at his knee. So Father McConnell, mumbling an apology to Gregory, wrapped the rosary around his leg. The Virgin gave a little curtsey and disappeared.

After class was dismissed and the boys were safely home, Father McConnell addressed the incident, begging the Virgin never to interrupt him again. “It is essential,” he said to the woman sitting across from him, “crucial even, that these boys receive a proper formation in the faith, just as I did from my mother. You must understand.”

Unperturbed, the Virgin fiddled with the hem of her robe. She pointed to the rosary wrapped around his knee and smiled. Then, she lay down and fell asleep.

As he and the Virgin became more intimately acquainted, Father McConnell became more of a recluse. Rarely did he accept visitors now, and even the Sisters learned not to disturb him in the drawing room. They entered through the side door, unloading groceries in holy silence, before scurrying back to the convent. And so they did not know exactly when Father McConnell began wearing rosaries all over his body—not just on his left knee, but also on his right ankle and draped around his neck. Only when Father McConnell was caught attempting to steal an icon of the Virgin Mary from the cathedral downtown did anyone realize something was wrong. It was Sister Martain who found him, huddled on the floor and clutching his paralyzed knee in pain. She claimed she never would have known to look if it hadn’t been for his whimpers, which were occasionally interrupted by bursts of medieval chant, sung so joyfully they filled the cathedral.

“The only thing I can’t understand,” she told the Sisters the next morning, “is how he got all the way there on that knee of his. And how he managed to climb those stairs.”

After that, it was generally understood among the Sisters that Father McConnell was not to be mentioned and avoided whenever possible. They began sending novices to drop off groceries as a kind of initiation rite—an act of trust in Divine Providence.

One evening in the still of late October, Charlie O’Shea was walking home from detention. Sister Parker had nabbed him for vandalizing a math textbook with a word his older brother had taught him, and now he was late for dinner. His mother was sure to be angry, and Charlie was calculating his chances of avoiding a spanking that night (low, very low, unless his older brother was out drinking again), when he saw Father McConnell wavering under the apple tree in a serious conversation with no one at all. In his right hand, the priest held what looked like an old sewing basket filled with rosaries and apples.

Charlie stopped and glanced around for the conversant—but the street was empty. It appeared that Father McConnell was speaking to his back-drawing room window.

“I cannot give all of them to you, I cannot reach those branches. You’re being unreasonable.”

In awe, Charlie watched the priest’s face grow redder and redder while his voice grew louder. He was shouting.

“You leave me alone. I’ve done nothing to deserve this. I cannot do that for you, I cannot give you that. My vow is to the church, leave me alone, leave me alone!” As he spoke, he stood tiptoe on his left leg, reaching for apples on the tree’s highest boughs. Too terrified to move, Charlies watched the priest totter back and forth.

In nomine patris, filii et spiritus, amen. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus nunc et in hora mortis nostrae… Father McConnell muttered wildly, reaching higher and higher for a piece of fruit. Charlie thought to go over and offer to climb the tree for the priest, but it was too late. Father McConnell had grasped an apple, and, looking with fury towards his drawing room window, threw the red sphere straight at the glass. The pane shattered.

When Charlie O’Shea saw that Father McConnell had fallen, he ran to the backyard, only to find the priest dead, surrounded by his rosaries and apples. Almost every fruit was rotten.