A short story by Patrick Michael Clark
Photos courtesy of Library of Congress
They were tearing down the last of the scaffolding from the towers that rose above the overgrown park. For three years Davey and Connor had watched the workmen climb the ladders and catwalks that surrounded the face of the new cathedral. Each day it grew taller, until the it looked as though it would swallow the rows of houses and trees along the streets that flanked its massive walls. Now the years of scraping, hammering, and waiting were at an end.
“You think the Pope’s gonna come to town then?” Davey asked his friend.
“Course not, ya dumb twit,” Connor replied. He always thought himself to be the more sensible one, “It’s just gonna be Bishop Van what’s gonna open it.”
“You think we’ll get to go to the openin?”
“If ya got the money for a ticket.”
They dodged a trolley as they crossed the street.
“I’m guessin’ all the rich folks are gonna ride to Mass now,” Davey observed.
The electric streetcars were the proudest thing the city had next to its statue of General Lee. Now the Irish of Richmond would have something to be proud of, even if they thought their bishop a sour Belgian who didn’t like them very much.
Of course these venerable institutions were of little concern to Davey or Connor, both just having turned thirteen that earlier in the summer. The streetcars were simple enough, they could usually get away with jumping fare and riding for a couple blocks before having to rush off, but most of the jumping they actually did was to get out of the way when one of the trolleys came flying down Gamble’s Hill.
General Lee was another matter. Although there always seemed to be a revival preacher slamming the Catholics for worshiping the Virgin Mary or some such thing, the old Protestant city kept it’s own communion of saints and heavenly hosts. Of course the greatest of these was Lee himself, who sat astride his horse atop a Monument Avenue pedestal, looking southward for all eternity.
The graying veterans with walking sticks and their sons in stiff collars paid Lee and his lieutenants homage every Decoration Day, that solemn April festival when the city would wrap itself in the Stars and Bars. Last year Davey ventured to ask his Grandad Fergus if he had ever seen General Lee. The ancient man had worked in one of the city’s iron foundries during the war and lost an arm in a rolling machine a year afterword. Now he kept court on the porch, where he would sit in all weathers with a less than decent cigar and yesterday’s newspaper.
“I never saw the man hisself, but his boys tried to burn down the foundry when they was leavin’ the city in sixty-five. So we went an’ stood with our rifles at the gate to stop them from torchin’ the works. The grey coats sawed us with our rifles and didn’t even thry, they just made for the western road out of the town,” Grandad Fergus told him.
“Why were they gonna do that?” asked Davey.
“Aye, they didn’t want the Yankees to use it against them. But the shootin’ was finished a week lather. Would’ve ruined all that fer nothin.”
The Irish didn’t venerate the sainted Lee as did their Protestant neighbors. It wasn’t a matter of being poor; there were poor whites south of the river that turned out for every veterans’ parade. There were even a few old Irishmen living up at the Soldier’s Home, but Davey and his friends paid them little notice. The withered men mostly played dominos and attended their comrades’ funerals.
Davey’s people were still a people apart. For the grown folk it was in their trades, laboring in the tobacco factories and flour mills along the river. Such was Davey’s father, whose education consisted of some rough grammar school and the Catechism, and who returned to the house on Gamble’s Hill each night world-weary and smelling of the warehouse.
For the children it was in their schooling. The parish church, the parish school, and their parish cohorts, were the formation for the sons of St. Peter’s Cathedral on Grace Street and Sacred Heart Church on Floyd Avenue, with Davey and Connor proudly counted among the former. To those temples their fathers gave a portion of their wages and their mothers gave hours of needlework and silent bead-counting.
The announcement itself came at the end of October, on the last Sunday of the month. Davey watched Father O’Reilly climb into the marble pulpit that rose above the sanctuary at St. Peter’s, the vicar always combed his oiled hair straight back until it would glow in the light of the gaudy stained glass.
“The boys of the parish school have been asked by Bishop Van de Vyver to help serve the Consecration Mass for the new Cathedral on Thanksgiving Day,” Father O’Reilly projected over the heads that stuck up from the crowded pews, “I know we’ve all been eagerly awaiting the opening, and I’m sure the magnificent edifice will be filled to bursting come the day.”
Davey remembered when they laid the cornerstone three years ago. Bishop Van had acted abominably and gotten the boys from Sacred Heart to serve the ceremony on their own. But he had a chance this time.
“I can’t be guaranteeing anything,” the priest said, folding up his heavy gold vestments back in the sacristy, “It’s up to the Bishop in the end. He’ll be deciding this week I suppose. ”
“I served Mass for him before,” Davey offered.
“Still you’ve also got the boys over at Sacred Heart to think about. The Bishop wants the parishes to cooperate. If you ask me I’d say that’s a creative way of doing penance.”
The priest locked the cabinet with his great ring of keys and Davey went outside to meet his family.
“Ah we never had any fine cathedrals back in Ireland,” Grandad Fergus said over his shaving bowl later that day. Davey held the cracked mirror up so the old man could scrape his withered face, “When John Bull come over he went an’ gave ‘em to the Protestan’ church. We’ve some big churches now, but not back when we was livin’ in Connemara.”
Grandad Fergus wiped his razor and pitched the dirty water into the street. The two sat and the old man lit a half-smoked cigar. It was early evening and the sounds of the last trains at the Chesapeake & Ohio depot could be heard pulling out of the station, the weathered colors of the houses along the street changing in the fading sunlight.
“I suppose this means we’re Americans now,” Grandad Fergus said.
“‘Cause of the new cathedral?” Davey asked.
“Aye,” the old man puffed his cigar, “We made a propher place for the Almighty and a propher place fer ourselves. That must suffice fer something.”
On Monday the boys from St. Peter’s Academy filled the yard to take their lunch. The school was near the center of town two blocks up from the church, the once-stately brick made dull by soot and the stone entrance worn down by time.
Many things had changed since the great clock at city hall had rung in the century. The smoke and din of a city had overtaken the quiet neighborhood that had been there when the Xaverian Brothers first arrived to take charge of the school. Outside the boys could hear the carriages and streetcars rolling along the pavement, joined by with constant sounds of men and beasts at work.
There were a little over two hundred students at the Academy, and even though they took their lunch in shifts, the small court would always be packed and noisy. Davey found Connor on his usual stoop by a side door. Connor ate peanuts for lunch every day and he would always grind the shells into the dust of the yard.
“Are you tryin’ to serve the Mass on Thanksgiving Day?” Davey asked.
“Nah,” Connor replied, “You know how early you got to get up?”
“Father O’Reilly said you’d have get up at four ‘cause it’s gonna start at six.”
“Ya see? I’m not gonna waste my day off from school doin’ that.”
“It wouldn’t be wastin’ it,” Davey said.
Connor scoffed a bit and cracked a shell between his fingers.
“It’s the same thing day in and day out. Dunno why ya like it so much.”
“I just feel like it’s important,” Davey countered.
There was silence for a moment and Connor looked about to see if anyone was within earshot.
“I’m not lookin’ to waste my time servin’ at the Mass, but them Sacred Heart boys already think they gotta claim to the place,” he chewed a peanut, “There’s a brawl comin’ up and we gotta get ready.”
“Where?” Davey asked.
“Monroe’s Park. It’s on the edge of their territory. We’ll get word in a couple days.”
The school bell rang and the crowd of boys began heading inside.
“We’ll give ‘em what fer. I know I can count on ya, Davey,” Connor said rising from his spot, brushing the crumbs off his shirt.
“Yeah, course,” Davey said.
When the last school bell on Friday afternoon came the St. Peter’s boys crossed town and tramped up Grace Street to the park, the looming towers of the cathedral growing taller ahead of them. The twelve of them were stoic as they came to the chosen place. They had been festering all week, waiting to get at their rivals for real or imagined offences.
“You sure we gotta do this?” Davey asked his friend.
“Course we do. You wanna be there on Thanksgiving Day, right?” Connor replied.
Of course he did. If it had to be done, then it would be done.
They reached that jungle of a park and stood in something of a line, the cathedral staring down at them. In the shadow of the great church was Colonel Wickham’s statue, a proud bronze figure in a Confederate uniform. One of the Sacred Heart kids was leaning on the base of the monument, shaving a stick down to nothing with a penknife. Tipping his head up he locked eyes with Connor.
“You gonna say somethin’ then?” the kid asked.
“Aye,” Connor said, “You tell your friends to shove off, Jimmy Tyrone.”
Davey quickly spied around the park. Other boys, with their school ties tucked into their white shirts, were making their way towards the statue. There was soon a crowd of them behind their captain, who was still jousting with Connor.
“We got first rights to the big church,” Jimmy Tyrone said.
“Says who?” Connor snapped.
“Says Bishop Van, and the angels, and the saints.”
At that Davey felt something bristle past the side of his head. The piece of paving brick struck Jimmy Tyrone on the forehead, and two seconds later he was grappling with Connor. Then as if someone had called the dance, the boys each found a partner to grapple with.
Davey got a couple hits in before a round Sacred Heart boy with sandy hair placed his head between the concrete gutter and a puddle of city water. From this position he could see Connor tearing into Jimmy Tyrone and the rest of his companions throwing themselves into the upside-down brawl.
“Hell and damnation!” a man’s voice thundered from somewhere above the noise and bloodletting. The sandy-haired kid let go of Davey’s head and he was able to pull himself up from the muddy gravel.
“Get off him Connor McCracken!”
Davey looked up and could see Father O’Reilly pulling Connor away from his opponent. The black-robed priest towered over the bloodied kids. He was livid.
“What was it you were fighting and clawing at each other about?” he demanded, hauling Connor to his feet.
“They was here to ambush us!” Connor stammered, “It was them that started it.”
“Well it don’t matter who started it, I’m going to finish it.”
Davey sat outside one of the confessionals in the new cathedral. The St. Peter’s boys were together, with the Sacred Heart crew keeping to themselves a couple pews back. Fr. O’Reilly was dispensing justice from inside the box.
It was vast place on the inside. High above them was the plaster ceiling, unpainted and carefully patterned, held up by giant marble columns. At the far end of the long sanctuary the crucifix atop high altar rose to face the assembled, a gilded Christ expiring with his arms outstretched. The windows were darkening with the coming of evening.
Davey sat there for some time. His bruised and muddy comrades were muttering to each other and cursing the boys sitting behind them. After looking at the ceiling for a while he became dizzy and shut his eyes. That seemed to make the time slide along faster. Soon it was his turn.
He went into the confessional and heard the familiar voice.
“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.”
Davey took a second to gather his thoughts. He was surprised at how quiet it was inside his head.
“Whenever you’re ready then,” Fr. O’Reilly said.
He had been in the box last week, though it now seemed like an eternity ago. After explaining that in so many words he just said what came to mind.
“I rode a lectric streetcar without payin’ the other day. I looked too long at Lily McLeod when she was out hangin’ up her ma’s laundry I got to thinkin’ nasty thoughts about her. Then I got into a fight with one of the kids from Sacred Heart outside the church here and I slugged him a couple times.”
“Why did you do these things?” the priest asked.
“Cause I didn’t want to walk home in the rain. And I didn’t mean to think about Lily like that or anythin, it just happened.”
“And the last one then?” questioned the priest.
“I wanted to serve the Mass on Thanksgiving mornin.”
“And did you think that tearing and kicking at the boys from Sacred Heart was going to be helping in your cause?”
Davey was silent. The priest went on.
“Sometimes we can do the wrong thing for the right reason. I could throw by body away, could have myself burned thinking I’d become a martyr, but if I haven’t got charity in my own heart it’s useless.”
“Was I tryin’ to be a martyr, Father?” asked Davey.
“You look like one enough.”
The priest gave him absolution and some Our Fathers. When he was finished with the prayers Davey stepped through the great doors of the cathedral and walked back to Gamble’s Hill alone.
That coming week Davey was on the list to serve Mass at St. Peter’s before school. It was the seven o’clock and there were always a couple folks from the neighborhood in the pews, though the men of the parish would already be at work.
After putting on his cassock Davey went to light the candles and set up the altar, the church still dark in the early hours of the morning. Returning to the sacristy he went pale when he saw the figure in the room preparing for Mass.
“Good morning,” said Bishop Van in his high Belgian accent.
Davey was terrified, but managed a “hello” and waited by the door as the Bishop put on his heavy green vestments. He prayed that he wouldn’t be questioned about last Friday, but just as they were about to go into the sanctuary Bishop Van turned to him.
“They say you led the charge at the Battle of Monroe Park.”
Davey was silent. The Bishop looked at him blankly.
“Well, I’m sure you had your own reasons for that,” Bishop Van said as he went to ring the small bell in the doorway. Davey could hear the congregation rising from the pews.
“Lead on then.”
On Thanksgiving day 1906, Bishop Van de Vyver, along with Archbishop Gibbons from Baltimore, the Papal delegation from Rome, a dozen other bishops, and almost every priest in the state gathered for the consecration. They processed to the cathedral and began the ancient ceremonies, taking five hours to complete the rites and rituals. At eleven o’clock the Solemn Mass began and the organ thundered for the packed congregation.
As the line of robed clergy and servers made their way to the high altar, Davey tried to focus. He didn’t want to trip with everyone watching.