No parish priest ever escapes the burden of the saints.
When we arrive in that first or next parish, no one cares about our GPAs, our degrees, or our resume. All they care about is how we measure up to the Local Saint. We won’t. It is impossible. Dear Old Father Nonesuch is more than a saint. He is the Local Saint. He, in retrospect, did no wrong, was wise, kind, generous, tireless, and did better than walk on water, because he snowshoed around the parish after that terrible storm in 1954, bearing communion and cookies. Or something.
He preached thunderous sermons, baptized babies by the hundreds, prayed the dying back to life, and if that failed (by the will of God) he buried them with style. If Father Nonesuch officiated in cassock and surplice, alb and stole were wrong. If Father stood at the altar in alb, stole and chasuble, all his successors must do the same or offend the sensibilities of church wardens forevermore, amen.
I was greatly handicapped in following in Father’s footsteps. In fact, all my predecessors who had followed Father Nonesuch had failed to meet that standard. To make the matter more difficult, Father had not blissfully and peaceably died in office, but was resident in the diocese. By the time I was the incumbent, he was in a very nice nursing home, mostly unaware of the world around him. If a parishioner did decide to relay the scandal of having a woman in his pulpit, and a feminine figure adorning the altar in surplice (one of the least sexy garments ever created, as it is basically a deeply gathered sheet with sleeves), he would probably reply with, “Right, captain! Send the cheese around again!”
I lived in HIS rectory, the house provided by the parish. Interesting house it was, two and a half stories in an area of constant high winds. It had been renovated for me, an undertaking delayed for a couple of decades. It became necessary when the former priest’s wife noted that snow came in around the window frames on the north side, and an electrical fire had ruined one wall. It had seemed blasphemous to alter the decor of the gloomy old house, which was the reverse of the Tardis, as it was much smaller on the inside than it appeared from the outside.
The living room was a long, narrow, poorly lit room, dimly paneled in brown. The curtains had been brown. The carpet had been brown. The dining room had been a deep beige. The kitchen – well, words failed to describe the kitchen in its previous state. A long, narrow, poorly lit enclosed porch fronted the house, and the upstairs was a warren of small bedrooms and an abrupt hallway. The attic was low-ceilinged, full of strange detritus, with a dormer window on the south side, and I put an orange-globed electric hurricane lamp in the window, on a timer, just for the effect. When anyone made note of it, I would say, “Light? I didn’t know there was a light in the attic.”
My own bedroom was pink and blue, girly feminine. Since I lived alone, this was all right. My study, though, was aggressively ugly masculine. Brown, with an oak desk which I think they built the house around, because there was no imaginable way it came up the narrow stairs. I could imagine the cellar being dug, a scaffolding erected, the oak desk positioned on a rope and pulley, and then hoisted into place as the floors were built. Then the walls would go up. The only way that desk was going to leave the house without taking out a large window was with an axe.
Whenever parishioners came in to visit, they would always note that Mrs. Nonesuch would never have liked the changes.
What is not to like about a renovated bathroom where one could actually get into the bath with the door shut first? Or the lovely new electric stove, and the side by side refrigerator and freezer? Or the bright wallpaper and cheery curtains with a view over the bay? I had a washer and dryer on the first floor instead of in the dank basement. New hardwood floors gleamed throughout the downstairs rooms. It helped dispel that eternal sense of proper Anglican gloom.
I had red toile valances and cushions made for the window seat. I hung my own cheery impressionist paintings. My black cat, Jacob, and I inhabited the rooms lightly, but mostly because I ignored the ephemeral presence of Mrs. Nonesuch. Most of her post-mortem work was in the church down the road, where things went missing, unexplained sounds echoed, and there was an everlasting cold spot in the choir, where she had kept the sopranos in line.
Part of her husband’s saintliness had been his devotion to her as she died slowly of cancer. Mrs. Nonesuch had been of an ex-pat British family, who had emigrated to the cold shores of Northern New Brunswick after failing as tea planters in Ceylon. I have no idea what they did for business on that primitive, windswept, haunted coast, as the only trades were fishing, turnip farming, and peat harvesting. The old trades and the old ways from Ireland still held fast. But this daughter of the Empire had taught deportment, proper grammar, piano, and how to wear hats and gloves to church.
I sympathized with Father Nonesuch, having lost a husband to cancer. It is a helpless situation, doing all one can to give comfort, relieve pain, feed a body that rejects nourishment, and encourage in the clear face of hopelessness. Father Nonesuch had struggled valiantly, I heard.
There had been a remarriage for him, charmingly with an old neighbour and friend of his late wife. Who better to offer comfort to the grieving widower? Who better to make a new life, supporting each other in the last years?
I was in Sand Hill cemetery one afternoon, on one of those interminable walk-throughs to find a gravesite. Mac, the gravedigger, couldn’t sort out which family of O’Reillys, in that numerous clan, was to receive the earthly remains of the recently deceased O’Reilly. Was it the Pat O’Reillys or the Tommy O’Reillys? I had to spend a couple of hours with parish records, another half hour with a graveyard warden, and I was then walking the graves, little wire flags in hand, to mark the appropriate plot.
In the mosquito haunted grass at the back of the Anglican quarter, I came upon a stone I hadn’t seen before. Marked simply “Elizabeth Hannah Spencer Nonesuch” with the dates of her birth and death, I was surprised by the unpretentious size and its tasteless heart shape, of a sort reserved for infants and little girls. I pushed my sweat-damp hair back from my forehead and said a quick prayer for the deceased. I’m sure she didn’t appreciate it, but then, all the more reason to offer it.
As I walked on, I turned back quickly and realized something.
There was no room for another burial, no room for another name on the headstone.
“Why, you old dog,” I whispered to the absent Father Nonesuch.