Father Michael was proud of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew, spiritual home to the thousands of Irish Catholics in the Dorchester section of Boston, mostly descendants of the émigrés who escaped the potato blight of the 1840s. Two million Irish died and a million more fled the famine; thousands of those landed in Boston, settling mostly in Dorchester and South Boston. Generations of these brave souls suffered the degrading discrimination of the old money and gradually made their way in society and politics. They built elaborate churches to offer thanks to God for the faith that had sustained them through hard times, and to flaunt their success before the Lodges and Hallowells that had stood in their way at every turn. Father Michael had been guiding his flock at St. Bartholomew's for twenty-seven years, through the Depression and WWII, through decades of births and baptisms, deaths and confirmations. He felt the pride of Ireland and the glory of God in his historical cathedral, with its enormous stained glass rose window and its dozens of carved saints, their fixed downward stares ever reminding the devout of their shame.
But the post-war prosperity of the 1950s stimulated mass migration to the open spaces of suburbs like Brockton and Scituate, and one of the consequences of that urban flight was dwindling attendance at St. Bart's. Father Michael said goodbye to family after family, sincerely wishing them all the best, but as he gazed out at the ever-increasing number of empty pews on Sundays, he feared for his future. Even though the remaining parishioners were generous and loyal, the shepherd of St. Bart's was keenly aware that the declining contributions to the diocese would not go unnoticed. Every time the rectory phone rang he feared it was His Eminence calling to remind him of the bleak possibilities for priests whose parishes couldn't pull their weight. He didn't want to end up like Father Paul across town at St. Luke's, sent to some little iceberg of a town in northern Maine to freeze his holy butt off preaching to old farmers. Father Michael's feeling of inadequacy was compounded by a lack of the youthful energy that had once fueled his popularity with the congregation. His sermons that had once inspired fear and decency in his parishioners had become irrelevant to the modern world that was encroaching on his fiefdom. His middle-aged paunch and an arthritic knee further hampered his ability to administer God's will; lately, he only visited the elderly and infirm when the weather was warmer, less than half the year in New England.
The Sisters of the Poor were making do with fewer recruits as well these days, and bless them, they gave their compassionate best to the charity cases in the parish, bringing bread from the nunnery's ovens and handmade quilts to the neediest. The rotating cast of altar boys did their share, too, cleaning chalices, refilling incense, lighting candles, and cleaning up the rectory. Father Michael truly loved those apple-cheeked boys in all their pubescent innocence and curiosity. There were fewer and fewer volunteers these days as more boys defied their parents and preferred to hang around on street corners after school and play basketball during Sunday masses. The ones that did choose to serve the Lord stood silently still at the end of their service with a little pride and a dose of fear, wondering which one Father Michael would pick to give that extra fondle for a job well done. Many of boys were aware of the glasses of wine and bags of sweets that Father Michael used to seal his secrets between his naïve, powerless victims.
Former altar boy Jimmy Donnelly stopped attending mass at St. Bart's long ago. He preferred to spend his Sundays lounging at home, sprawled in his favorite leather chair, smoking Camels and drinking coffee half, as they call it in Boston, enjoying the chaos swirling about him created by his seven children and the dog. They called him Jimmy the Poet. He had grown up in Dorchester, had an MFA from Boston College, and wrote for the Globe , where he was respected as a gifted wordsmith destined for great things beyond journalism. At age thirty, he had become the neighborhood's favorite son, their artist prince. His greatest pleasure, even greater than crafting The Great Irish Novel in the wee hours seven nights a week, came from sitting in his leather chair on a winter Sunday amidst the bedlam of his family with little seven-year-old Molly on his lap. He read Joyce to her while she smiled and laid her head on Jimmy's bulky shoulder. A stranger seeing them together wouldn't be able to tell who was giving comfort to whom. She was always waiting for him on the stoop, regardless of the weather, when he came home from work. She would empty his ashtrays, refill his coffee and bring him beers from the icebox. In the middle of the night, when he would slam his fist on the typewriter, Molly was the only one who woke up, the only one who approached him without fear. She didn't need to speak to him at these times. Jimmy would always open his arms to her while he held back tears. After a while, Molly would ask him to sing her a lullaby and Jimmy would pick her up, cradle her in his arms and carry her to her room (she didn't have to share as she was the only girl). He would lay her down on her bed and softly sing “Toora Loora Looral” until she fell asleep. He would always stand there for several minutes looking at his little angel before he went back to his typewriter.
When the news got around that Jimmy had gassed himself to death in the family sedan right out in front of their brownstone, his family and friends were thrust into the unwanted realization that the man they had loved and admired turned out to have been an enigma, a frustrated victim of his own buried rage and self-doubt. He had created a long hose out of spare vacuum cleaner parts and made a hole in the floorboards of his car to steer the noxious fumes inside. He sat in the driver's seat out in front of his house while his family slept, looking innocently like a restless writer seeking privacy for his thoughts. The car was still running the next morning when one of his neighbors thought he had passed out and knocked on the car window.
No one had seen it coming. His fellow scribes at the Globe were especially shocked because they had heard Jimmy was negotiating an offer from the New York Times . His dutiful wife Margaret was too busy wrangling their hectic household to detect signs of Jimmy's hidden heartache. Neither she nor anyone else knew that his gregariousness was a mask covering a trove of deep, unhealed wounds. Although Jimmy had refused to show his face at St. Bart's for many years, his lapsed devotion was not criticized among his neighbors because they always had seen him as the artistic exception to every rule. The mortal sin of taking one's own life, however, divided the Catholics of Dorchester. Even the neighbors who conceded that artists and writers have their own morality, suicide was too much for them to accept, even from Jimmy the Poet. Discussions of Jimmy's death were marked by equal parts of sorrow and scorn. The straight-laced argued he was a spineless excuse for a man who had abandoned his family, while the more generous of spirit pitied him as another tragedy in a long line of ill-fated Irish poets.
One saving grace universally agreed upon was Jimmy's remarkable devotion to little Molly. The brief note he left behind offered no reason for taking his own life, it only asked that his Sunday sweater go to his only daughter. It didn't matter, because the small, fair-haired wonder always got first pick of everything, which now included her doomed father's ragged, Aran memento, with its holey elbows and Jimmy's smell. Every one of her six brothers coveted that ratty old sweater, but no one dared touch Molly's inheritance regardless of its being twelve sizes too big for her. The second oldest, Xavier, tried to cozy up to her, but she saw through his ploy and held tight to her treasure of unraveling wool. She ran behind her mother's legs where she could safely watch Xavier receive a dose of the evil eye from Margaret. He never brought up the subject of the sweater again.
Large Irish families increase the odds of a mutt like Molly coming along. Back in the fifties no one in Dorchester had ever heard the words Montessori or early diagnosis, so Molly was given a pass by her teachers, while her classmates happily collaborated, faking reports and tests to assure her regular promotion from grade to grade. She may have been hopeless when it came to arithmetic, but there was something about her that made people want to help her get along. Those who helped Molly would soon come to know, along with everyone else within shouting distance of Dorchester Avenue, that this remarkable little girl held the wisdom of the universe in her heart and possessed a higher knowledge not found in books.
She never complained, she was intensely curious, and she loved every living thing from ladybugs to Xavier, even though her brother teased her mercilessly every day for no reason (there is always one family member who is unable to benefit spiritually from the presence of the Mollys of the world). Her curls were mysteriously blond, like no one in her family's history. One of her green eyes was a little cloudy and drifted gently like a drop of oil in water. Her left leg was a tiny bit shorter than the right, making her list about five degrees when standing or walking. She never ran. She somehow knew that she didn't need to be anywhere in a hurry. Her physical shortcomings were more than balanced by her extraordinary heart. Imagine a love child of Sir Edmund Hillary and Mother Teresa; Molly had the strength of spirit to conquer Mt. Everest and the capacity to love every earthly soul. After Jimmy's suicide, the breadth and depth and reach of Molly's spiritual power was revealed to the world.
She was always in the company of Mac, the family's Golden Retriever, the only canine anyone had ever heard of that suffered from vertigo. Molly and the dizzy dog were the perfect pair of misfits. They held each other up. With Jimmy's enormous, rank sweater on, Molly and Mac smelled and looked a little alike, musty and shaggy. And it didn't matter that she seemed incapable of comprehending that the garment's original owner would never hug her or sing her to sleep again, because she was equally incapable of feeling anger at the tortured soul who had abandoned his family.
It was the quiet, inner peace of this small spiritual savant that taught her family and neighbors to forgive and move on. At Jimmy's wake, the Guinness that soothed the throats and hearts of the bereaved also opened the doors to feelings deeply held but rarely expressed. An argument over the sinful gravity of suicide incited raised voices, disturbing the somber atmosphere of the gathering. As tempers escalated, and hands clenched into fists, the front door opened, and little Molly and Mac were blown into the entrance hall by a blast of cold air. Together they ambled through the parlor and headed straight for the open coffin. An enchanted silence fell over the house like a wet cloth on a flame, and the mourners' frustrated ire was instantly transformed into empathy and fraternity. They made the sign of the cross and remembered why they were there. Would-be pugilists folded their hands and silently watched as Molly stood next to her father's coffin, stroking Mac's head as she stared at the box. That was the beginning of Molly's quiet influence on her world. Without her benign rectitude, Molly's family and friends might have gone on to mistrust and abandon others as their departed favorite son had done. Instead, everyone quietly rallied around Molly's tranquil spirit and became caretakers and teammates.
She and Mac began roaming the streets of Dorchester. Every day she was invited into one home or another and given hot chocolate or deviled eggs along with bones and table scraps for the pooch. She never wanted for shoes or mittens. Her shock of flaxen ringlets was a garden of bows and barrettes presented to her by grateful neighbors who had been transformed by her gentle innocence. She'd been given so many crosses and medals that they overflowed her Grandma Ryan's hand-carved jewelry box. This outpouring of generosity began out of sympathy for Molly's loss and soon evolved into gratitude for the grace her presence invoked. She was a walking four-leaf clover. She made her neighbors feel lucky and proud to be human beings. A lot of people who hadn't been to Mass in quite a while began going to St. Bartholomew's again.
Molly intuitively discerned who was in need of her silent ministrations. She never spoke to her neighbors about their troubles or fears, she simply spent time with them. She silently and mysteriously eased their suffering and gave them a breath of hope. Her childish omniscience mollified peoples' troubled spirits and invariably achieved their unintended purpose—unintended because Molly seemed naively unaware of the power or effects of her gift. When Xavier asked her what she was doing when she went visiting around the neighborhood, she matter-of-factly said, “Talking to people.”
Such was the story of young Patrick Moriarity, who caught a fever and could hardly breathe. His widow mother was so anxious about her frail only child, she had completely forgotten about Molly's remarkable successes. As Patrick's temperature climbed into the 100s, his mother prayed around the clock and even considered calling in the doctor, which she could hardly afford on her meager pension. Then Molly arrived at her door. Mrs. Moriarity burst into tearful prayers at the sight of her. Leaving Mac to ‘guard' the front stoop, Molly came inside and sat silently with the mother and her ailing son near the front window. Patrick had asked his mom to move the couch so he could look outside. Molly's guileless presence in their home pierced the fractured spirit of this worried woman and began to soothe her fears. The three of them sipped hot cocoa and held hands now and then, but mostly they just sat together, breathing in the Vick's vapors and gazing out at the bare trees, while the mid-winter sun tried to reflect off the sooty snowdrifts and dirty cars on Dorchester Avenue. As the three of them looked out the window at the neighborhood that had reared them all, Mrs. Moriarity's heart slowed and Patrick's breathing returned to normal. The neighbors started calling her Saint Molly.
Then, one day, she disappeared.
For a while, nobody realized she was missing. Molly had stopped going to school and everyone on the avenue had become accustomed to seeing her and Mac wandering the streets, greeting other kids on the stoops, waving to grandmothers in first floor windows, and randomly visiting one home or another. Her family had gotten used to the idea of her staying overnight now and then with neighbors or friends. She was just there, like the cold winter air and the lace window curtains along the avenue. Her meandering had neither route nor schedule, so her absence for a day or two was not cause for immediate alarm; it was accepted by her neighbors as a normal tangent to the unpredictable flow of Molly's angelic life. And then Sean McLaughlin came down with pneumonia.
The realization hit everyone at once, like a power failure. Even in this wickedly frigid February, windows and doors flew open up and down the streets, neighbors asking one another, “Where's Molly?” Schultz the milkman hadn't seen her. Neither had Nagy the coal truck driver. Groups of people spontaneously gathered and made searches of the local alleys and basements and backyard sheds, all to no avail. When a few concerned folks knocked on Margaret Donnelly's door, she politely accepted their prayers and good wishes but turned down their kind offers of company. No one had seen Molly or Mac for over two days. Old Mr. Quinn, the retired policeman with rheumatism, was the last person Molly had visited, but he remembers that she and her dog had left his place on Thursday afternoon, while it was still light. Here it was Saturday evening and not a single pair of eyes had seen Saint Molly since. Mind you, this was long before faces on milk cartons, back when child abductions were not part of everyday conversation, so folks just didn't know what to think.
Meanwhile, in the modest rectory tucked behind St. Bartholemew's, Father Michael was finding great difficulty in composing his sermon for the following morning. He was aware that every Catholic in Dorchester would attend, hoping he would have some esoteric insight into their dilemma. Father Michael was overcome with fear that he wasn't up to the task. How ironic, he thought, that a seven-year-old girl had set the bar so high for him. He remembered the day he'd baptized the little blonde baby and had wondered at the time if this imperfect child would even survive, never mind flourish. Who knew she would grow up to become the spiritual center of their community, fairly usurping his own position in the parish? Now she had gone missing and they were once again turning to him, returning to him, praying he had answers, praying he could give them hope and direction. They wanted to hear him say that God would restore Molly to the faithful who had come to rely on her to ease their physical and spiritual aches and fears. Her disappearance had put Father Michael back in the position he had lost, but under what conditions of duress? They hadn't come back to him for the simple things they had needed from him in the past. They weren't interested in his avuncular comfort, his kind words, his quoted reassurances from the Bible. They wanted Molly back.
He wanted so badly to save the day. He wanted to look out from his pulpit and see gratitude in every face for his wise revelations. He wanted them to wait in line around the block to shake his hand. He prayed for a miracle, even though he knew there was no such thing. He was begging God for the impossible chance that this time things will be different, that the unexpected might occur. He reasoned, if somebody wins the Irish Sweepstakes every year, why couldn't a wonder of that magnitude occur in Dorchester just this once?
Father Michael briefly considered telling a story he'd once heard about another unlucky child from years ago who was now sitting on the right hand of God Almighty, happier than in her earthly life, but stopped that idea in its tracks. His prayers remained unanswered. He heard no voices from the heavens and finally decided to rely on old standards, pouring over his concordance of the Bible for references to lost children and miraculous recoveries. He prayed to Saint Christopher. He researched fables of faith and trust and acceptance. Self-doubt stooped his shoulders.
He wondered silently if this paralyzing dilemma might be God's punishment for his prurient thoughts, his minor discretions. Was God wreaking His vengeance on Father Michael for having taken minor liberties with those sweet-cheeked lads who helped him with the Mass? He had spent decades in the service of the church, preaching, advising, comforting, studying, praying, and yet he still had volumes to learn of the inscrutable ways of the Almighty. He wondered if his struggle would ever end. In one corner of his mind he felt a little envy for the late Jimmy Donnelly, whose earthly troubles vexed him no more. This memory led him to recall that Jimmy had been one of those fair-haired altar boys with whom he'd had a few private moments. Now Father Michael was certain he was being singled out for punishment of the most severe kind. He prayed to God for a fair deal. He promised to repent every day of his life from then on. He swore he would never touch young flesh for the rest of his life if only the Heavenly Father would inspire him with words for tomorrow's Mass.
Father Michael was swirling in this eddy of sinful conjecture when he heard a knock on the rectory door. Who could be bothering him at such a time? He had to be brilliant in the morning. He couldn't spare a single moment for another selfish supplicant at this grave hour. He remained silent, hoping whoever it was would go away. He held a page from the bible in mid-turn and didn't breathe. The faint knock sounded again. Suddenly, a new idea entered his mind: Could this be a message, a signal? If God was calling him, perhaps he had better answer. Maybe God would forgive him sooner if he answered the door and forgot about himself for a few minutes. He thoughtfully walked across the small, book-lined room, torn between fear and faith, heading toward the unknown in a state of abject terror, in fear for his soul. When he opened the door he didn't see anything. He immediately thought it was that troublemaker Mikey Sullivan pulling another prank, knocking, then running and hiding—but what was that odd smell? The priest flicked the outdoor light switch, looked down, and there they were, leaning against each other—Molly and Mac. It was a miracle.
The sight of the little explosion of blond curls and that goofy, tilted dog was too much for Father Michael to bear. He forgot to breathe for a few seconds. Molly was looking up at him in that cock-eyed way of hers, like she was seeing inside his thoughts with her good eye while her other one was watching over the rest of the neighborhood or maybe just looking for a place to sit down. Mac barked at the priest. Molly patted his head to quiet him. Father Michael involuntarily dropped to his knees right there in the doorway, his hands clasped in front of him and looked into the peaceful face of the little blond miracle worker. She smiled that Molly smile of guileless purity and the priest wept. He squeezed his eyes closed over his tears, bent his head forward, and silently renewed his vow of piety. Molly reached out and gently patted his shoulder.
“It's okay, Father.”
His eyes remained shut, his head nodded. He felt those feelings once again that he felt in high school when he first committed to serve the Lord. He promised himself never to scoff at miracles again.
“Do you have any biscuits? Mac's hungry.”
The priest stood up, happy to have something to do, and went into his small bachelor kitchen to fetch a dog biscuit (everybody in the neighborhood kept a supply of dog biscuits on hand these days). As he reached into the cabinet, he thought about this miraculous turn of events. He now understood first hand what his flock had been buzzing about in these months since Jimmy Donnelly's passing. What was it about this child? The improbable confluence of her physical and mental deficiencies and her father's suicide had created this flawless force of heart, transforming the populace of St. Bartholomew's into believers once again. He proffered the dog treat to Mac, but Molly took it from his hand and broke it in two, feeding Mac one piece and putting the other half in her skirt pocket.
“Mac and I have to go over to see Sean McLaughlin now.” She smiled. “G'night, Father. See you at mass tomorrow.” The priest bent down and patted her head. Mac licked his hand. Father Michael stood speechless as the two of them turned and ambled down the flagstone path toward the rectory gate, on the way to their next errand of mercy.