Priest Murdered. Alter-Boy Held
By Bernie Suttle
Mom said, “We are going to a mission at the church.” A mission was a session designed to scare everyone into repentance with hell-fire and brimstone. “I said, “Do I halfta’ go?” Mom said, “It’s good for us all to go.”
A tag-team of two pale, gaunt, under-fed, unhappy-looking monks preached the mission. While these guys were yelling, then whispering their scary message, confessions were being heard to aid any repentant parishioner before he changed his mind and missed out on salvation.
Mom told me to sit still. I was doing my best but these guys and their dramatics were a pain. I needed something to do so I said, “I’m going to confession.” Mom smiled and said, “Fine, Son.”
I climbed out of the pew past my grumbling sister, Meg, and then I saw it. The sign over the confessional said, “Father O’Keefe”. I froze. It was the dreaded pastor. My buddies had told me tales about him, which would have led them to leave the faith if their mothers didn’t stop them.
As an altar boy I sat next to him during mass one Sunday at the side of the altar while the choir sang. I liked being a server and wanted to see and be seen by my family in the congregation. “Where are they? They usually are down the left side near the door by Saint Joseph?”
Father O’Keefe jabbed his elbow into my ribs. Accompanied by significant spittle, he whispered, “If you look out dere again I’ll t’row you off ‘da altar.”
Whenever I went to confession I was concerned about how I appeared to others.
Were they wondering, “What has he done?”
“For all the time he’s taking he must be a world class sinner.”
“Obviously he can’t be repentant. He’s here every week”.
As I approached the confessional I wondered, “Will Father O’Keefe recognize my voice?”
The typical confessional is three small, attached chambers. The one in the middle is for the priest. It has a chair and a light for reading, which he turns off when a confessor shows up. The priest’s section is between two smaller enclosures with kneelers for penitents. Communication is through a gauzed, ten-inch square window with a sliding door operated only by the priest. When he is hearing one confession the sliding door is open and the other is closed. When waiting on the closed side I found humming keeps the other side’s words obscured if not confidential.
“There’s no way out. I’m committed. Mom’s watching. Here goes. I’ll lower my nine-year-old voice and use a Russian accent.”
I open the door and step into the pitch-black, silent, penitent cubicle. I kneel in front of the pastor’s closed window and practice, “Bless me Father for I have sinned” and I start making up benign transgressions that I think won’t upset the pastor too much. Everyone knows he’s under doctor’s care for cough and high blood pressure.
Several minutes go by and I don’t see or hear anything. Maybe he opened the window when I entered and is waiting for me to start. So I begin with my new accent and altered voice. “Bless me father, for I have sinned.”
“Father, are you there?”… I repeat with increasing volume. “Father are you there?”
Still only silence. No light on the other side. Maybe the old priest dozed off.
“Hi, are you there? I’m over here and ready.”
“People in the church, including Mom, will be wondering what terrible sins I’m confessing to take so long.”
I know he’s been sick. Maybe he died over there in his cubicle? Will people think the enormity of my sins caused his demise?
I can see it now, a headline in The LA Times, “ALTAR BOY CONFESSES. PRIEST DIES.”
“I’m getting out of here.”
I step out of the cubicle into the blinding light of the church. I see Mom note my reappearance as though just remembering that I had accompanied her to church.
My sister Meg leans over and says, “I wondered how long it would take you to realize that there was no priest. He went out when you went in. It took you a long time to figure out what was going on. You dummy!”