Chapter 1] . . . [Chapter 2]
Father Jerome Tolton stood outside the shuttered doors of the building which used to be the Archangel Michael Church in Richmond. The diocese still owned the land, but the Bishop decided to close the church when its regular attendance at its one mass a week fell below twenty regular parishioners. Jerome's first job as a priest had been to close this church. That was ten years earlier and whenever he came back to Richmond he visited the old church.
On paper it made sense. Only six blocks away Mary Queen of Heaven had a thriving Catholic community and Archangel Michael was in terrible condition. The roof leaked badly and several of the stained glass windows had holes which were covered by boards. During the winter the church held services in the basement because it cost too much to heat the high ceilinged and drafty worship area.
Jerome was told that the church would be closed in four months and all he would have to do was caretake it until that time. He would say mass once a week, visit sick parishioners, ease his flock through the merger with Marry Queen of Heaven, and get some good experience as a first time parish priest.
It was a disaster. No one told the parishioners that Archangel Michael was closing before he arrived; worse, no one told him of the omission. As well, no one had told the parishioners that their new priest was African-American. When he said his first mass in front of a group of thirty-two people, all but two of whom were elderly and all of whom were White, he felt a sense of dread. It did not help when a third of the attendees did not come forward for communion. Then, at the end of the mass he stood to introduce himself a little better and read a couple announcements.
"Hello. For those of you who might not have figured it out I'm the new priest." He paused for an expected chuckle and got stony silence. He hurried on. "I'm going to be the priest for Archangel Michael until we merge into Mary Queen of Heaven in August . . ."
There was an audible gasp from someone. The parishioners all started talking at once. A man on the third pew turned red in the face before he stood and walked out. A lady on the first row stood and then crumpled back down onto the pew and dissolved into tears. After a couple minutes, two other parishioners walked her out. Jerome was stunned and when things dropped into a lull, he forgot the announcements and just did the closing blessing. He recited the blessing, but no one in the pews replied. Then no one sang the closing hymn. Jerome found himself walking down the aisle to the back of the church alone. There were two doors at the back of the church and Jerome stood next to the one on the right. Two parishioners gave him tepid handshakes as they went out the door. The others all hurried by, walking out the left hand door.
He prayed a lot that week and came back the next Sunday determined to do everything he could to mend fences and get things moving in the right direction. Then he walked into the church and found himself conducting mass for three parishioners. The following Tuesday he was served with a law suit by a group of parishioners who styled themselves the Archangel Michael Church Council. They asked for an injunction against the closing of the church. When Jerome called the Bishop's office he was told in no uncertain terms that the reason they assigned someone who was a lawyer before he became a priest to tend to the closing of Archangel Michael was that he could handle any legal matters that popped up. Thus, he ended up personally fighting a court battle against the parishioners he was supposed to be helping. It had been almost ridiculously easy to win, but it delayed the closing by three months. During the entire last seven months of Archangel Michael's time as a functioning church he never had more than seven parishioners in the pews.
It was a soul crushing experience which almost broke Jerome. He spoke with other priests about it and even approached Bishop Mannion a couple times. They were all full of encouragement, good will, and platitudes. However, no one provided much in the way of actual assistance. In the end, it was his church secretary that got him through it.
Abigail Marie Mahan was a sixty year old woman and if Hollywood was going to cast a stereotypical Irish grandmother it would have looked to her. She was no nonsense, tough as nails, and she more or less adopted Jerome. She was not happy about Archangel Michael closing and she was at least as angry about the way he was being treated. About three months in, when he had been about to fall apart, she marched him into the back office of the church and lectured him for over an hour on his duties as a priest and how he needed to buck up and do his job for both the Church and this church. She was strength from God and stiffened his backbone for the rest of his time there. Years later he found out she had also turned herself into an absolute terror for the Bishop's office over her anger that Bishop Mannion had thrown a young priest like him to the wolves. When Archangel Michael was finally closed she was its only parishioner to come to the mass he held with Father Rios at Mary Queen of Heaven. A lone Irish-Catholic woman, she stood in the middle of pews filled with African-Americans and Mexican-Americans. After the mass she gave him a fierce hug and told him if the "bastards" ever did anything like this to him again that he should call her and she would set them straight. Then she turned and left while both of them were still able to hold their tears in.
Three years later he was in Charlottesville, reorganizing Blessed Sacrament Church for the diocese, when she called. Her wayward daughter, Margeret, had come back from the Army and gone to some law school in Kentucky. Now she was living in sin with some man deep in the mountains of Virginia. Abby was going to go out there and fix that. Would he preside over the wedding? He agreed and once he set the telephone down promptly forgot the call. After all, while he never met Margeret, he had met Abby's other two daughters, Kate and Ann, who were both every bit as willful as their mother. He had no doubt that Margeret would be just as stubborn as the other Mahan women. She would not get married unless she wanted to and she would never let her mother choose the priest for her wedding.
Six months later Father Jerome Tolton found himself in a place most Virginians did not realize existed. When most people thought of Southwest Virginia they thought of Roanoke. Bartlette County was three hours west of Roanoke and he was assured by the local priest, Father Gabe Mullins, that Virginia continued on for at least two more hours of driving until you left Lee County, Virginia and went into Middlesboro, Kentucky. There was a tiny Catholic church right next to a local hospital which had been built by the Church but was now owned by some conglomerate. Saint Berlinda was a rural church with a congregation that was theoretically about seventy and actually worked out to thirty parishioners at the weekly mass. The wedding had been a joyous, if somewhat chaotic, event. The church seated about one hundred. In the church proper there were nowhere near enough seats for the Mahans, who descended on Bartlette County in droves, much less the groom's family. However, Abby and her daughter Maggie made sure that every member of the Dollerby clan who wanted a seat got one. They were Protestants of some sort and the ceremony, celebration, and length of a Catholic wedding all seemed to combine to leave them kind of happily bemused.
The five hour reception dinner and party afterward at the local hotel and bar stunned the entire town. When a town policemen showed up at eleven thirty to calm them down some idiot who married into the family actually threw a punch at him. Before the local officer could get up off the floor three of Abby's nephews had slammed the attacker to the floor and were flashing their own badges. They helped the officer up and asked him to let them take care of the moron their cousin married. The local cop looked around, nodded his head, and left. About thirty minutes later four local officers and three deputies showed up to shut the party down. The Mahans reacted to that mostly with good humor and started to head back to their rooms until one of the local officers decided they were moving too slowly and got mouthy. The confrontation which followed was almost word for word from a movie.
A large Mahan looked down at the officer. "You'd better have the National Guard out there to back you if you think you can make us do anything."
The town officer snapped back, "Hell, we don't need no army. We got us a Bo."
On cue, a deputy walked through the door. He turned sideways as he did so and ducked his head under the door frame, then straightened out. None of the Mahan men were small, but they all looked up at Bo, who seemed to be as large as any three of them put together. The room got very quiet as Bo walked up. He had lieutenant bars on his collar and pointed at one of the other town officers.
"Get Mouse out of here before he gets me in another fight." The town officer who was making trouble gave Bo a sullen look, but went without a fuss. Then Bo pointed at the bartender. "You know that no alcohol can be sold after twelve. It's seven after."
The bartender looked like he was used to this. "Aw Bo, it's an open bar. I ain't selling anything."
Bo looked singularly unimpressed. "Don't care. You can serve these folks one more round and then you shut down if you want to keep your license."
Finally Bo turned to the Mahans. "Gentlemen, we got noise ordinances and drunk in public laws. I got little old ladies who live down the street who think that any drinking is a sin and who will be bugging the living crud out of my Sheriff tomorrow. He's already going to be on me for not shutting you down earlier. I hear some of you are officers and I'm sure you know what that's like." Several of the Mahans nodded as he continued. "Get a last round and break it up by one. I'm certain we'll get a couple more complaints by then and we'll swing by. Anybody who's still in the bar or partying in the halls will get to spend the night in jail on a drunk in public. Have a good night."
As Bo turned to leave, one of the younger Mahans started forward only to be grabbed by a couple of his elders. One of them whispered loudly enough that everyone in the bar could hear it through the continuing silence. "What the fuck's wrong with you? Don't you have enough sense to recognize a force of nature when you see it?"
People laughed and started to talk again. As he got to the door the big deputy stopped and turned back. "One last thing. Whoever punched Mark here," Bo pointed at the local officer, "had best be out of the county before eight in the morning. Mark doesn't mind letting it go, but he's going to have shiner and that means he has to file an incident report. His boss will get to the office about nine and read that report. He don't take kindly to people attacking his officers. We don't have a name right now and if he's gone from the county I don't expect much follow up. If he's still here, hitting an officer is a felony with a mandatory six months in jail. Make sure he's gone." With that Bo left and the other lawmen went with him.
Jerome was sitting in a back corner with Father Gabe, Abby and the bride. Abby chuckled and looked like she was suppressing a guffaw. "You know, that man just became a legend in Boston, New York, and Richmond. There are at least three officers from each of those cities here and by the time they get back Bo will be nine foot tall and when he walked in the door he bent a steel bar just to get everybody's attention."
Father Gabe turned to Abby with a bit of conspiratorial gleam in his eye. "You know, Abby, the reason he's a deputy is that he was the runt of the litter and his daddy thought he was too small to do real work on the farm."
Abby stood with a smile. "Oh, that's too good. I'm going to go up and get our last rounds at the bar and make sure everybody knows that." She turned to her daughter. "Maggie, you better go round your husband up. You know what they're doing to him."
Maggie stood up too. "I know. Heck, I figure they've already got him so snookered that he'll be worthless in bed tonight." Then she raised her voice as she turned to walk away past a table where some of the young Mahan women were gathered, commiserating on the lack of worthwhile men at the party. "But, you know, if I wanted to marry a man just because he was great in the sack, I'd probably have gone after Bo."
Jerome smiled at the memory and brought himself back to the present. That was the last time he had seen any of the Mahans, much less Abby. Abby stayed in Bartlette County and they kept in touch through phone calls and email, but for the last year Jerome was assigned to merge two monasteries which each had less then fifteen brothers apiece. It should have been easy since both were from the same order. However, like everything else the Bishop sent his troubleshooter to do, it turned out not to be anywhere near as simple as it first seemed. He spent the majority of the last year cloistered with a bunch of men in monasteries which forbade talking, much less phones and internet. He had just finished a meeting with the two abbots when a message arrived from Bishop Mannion. He was to return immediately to Richmond and get briefed about going to Bartlette County. It was a little after seven when he left the monastery and started driving back to Richmond. He stopped at a church on the way back and tried to call Abby, but got her voicemail. He could not think of anything the Bishop would think important enough to send him to Bartlette County. Whatever it was, he was certain that Abby had something to do with it. Why else would the Bishop be sending him? He looked at his watch. It was ten and the appointment with His Excellency was at eleven. He needed to get going so that he could make sure he got there on time. He walked back to the beat up old dodge truck the diocese was kind enough to provide him. On the third try the truck's engine coughed to life and he started driving.
. . . . .
His Excellency Bishop Wayne Mannion waved Jerome into a chair in his office. He was on the phone at the time and Jerome waited patiently while the Bishop finished speaking to some politician about how he should vote in a manner consistent with his faith. He was unable to tell whether the Bishop was going after a Republican for the death penalty or a Democrat for abortion before the conversation ended with the usual meaningless amenities.
Then Bishop Mannion looked at him with an unpleasant scowl. "Father Tolton, ever since the incident in Bartlette County, we have not been able to keep that Irish attack dog of yours at bay. She keeps insisting that you come out there to investigate. She won't leave us alone. She even called Rome." He glared at Jerome. "Do you know how much I hate getting calls from Rome questioning me about whether I have been lax in investigating attacks on the Church? And we're also getting calls from a Monsignor Reilly out of the Archdiocese of Newark who wants to know how one of their priests got killed. She called the Archbishop's office too."
Bishop Mannion's rant ground to a halt, but he continued to glare across his desk at Jerome. Jerome sat there in shock for a few seconds before he began to speak very carefully. "Your, Excellency, I have been either at Sacred Trinity Monastery or Christ the Savior Monastery. I've not had contact with the secular world at large."
The Bishop sat back for a second. "Then you don't know?" When Jerome shook his head, Mannion leaned forward again. "Well, that explains why she kept accusing us of hiding you or ordering you not to talk to her."
Jerome stayed silent and after a couple seconds Bishop Mannion sat up. "All right. I guess I can't blame you for something you didn't even know about. And I never can stay angry at you too long anyway. I don't know how you do it, but every time I send you out to do something which should make everyone hate you, you do it and make friends along the way. Of course, none of the others are quite as fierce as that Mahan woman. Next time you talk to her find out how she got the personal assistant of the Prefect of the Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei to call me at five in the morning." He grinned crookedly. "Let me tell you, it's quite a shock to be woken up and told the Inquisition is holding for you on line three."
"Anyway, you need to know what's going on. A week ago in Bartlette County a bunch of people were ambushed at the back door of the courthouse. During the gunfight, someone shot a big propane tank and it exploded. The explosion destroyed a building and sent about a dozen people to the hospital. The only one to die was a Father Ted Pahl - a priest from the Archdiocese of Newark."
"And now you know about as much as I do. For all I know it was some sort of Hatfield-McCoy thing and the Father Pahl just got in the way. I don't know. You need to find out."
Jerome took it all in and sending him to poke around Bartlette County seemed like a spectacularly bad idea. "Your Excellency . . . "
The Bishop waved his hand. "You're out of the doghouse. Stop with all the formality."
"Yes sir." The Bishop rolled his eyes as Jerome went on. "It may not be a good idea to send an outsider to look into this. My understanding is that they don't like it when outsiders poke their noses into local business. Also, this is a part of Virginia where people openly fly Confederate flags. I may not be the person who can handle this most effectively."
"Because you're Black?" Jerome cringed inwardly as Bishop Mannion's voice rose. He had heard that tone before. "Part of the Church's job is to combat moral ignorance. If they are too stupid to make use of your considerable skills because you have more melanin than they have, then they are idiots. But, we're going to make sure that they know they're idiots because if they don't accept your help you'll figure it out anyway - won't you?"
Jerome nodded. What else could he do? The Bishop had already made up his mind and now he had fastened a moral imperative on top of the need to investigate. To get there, he had badly misinterperated what Jerome meant. Local officials would cooperate. It was the guys out in the mountains who unabashedly flew Confederate flags who bothered him. He was fairly certain that he would not be welcome there. He was now equally certain that Bishop Mannion was not going to let him out of this.
Two hours later Jerome found himself back at his truck with instructions to drive immediately to Bartlette County. After meeting with the Bishop, he waited for another ninety minutes while the Bishop's aide de camp scared up a cell phone and portable computer for him. His clothes, New Jerusalem Bible, and rosaries were already packed in the old army duffelbag sitting on the passenger seat of the truck. He coaxed the truck back into life and started the five hour drive. This morning the Brothers at Christ the Savior woke him up at two thirty so he could participate in Lauds and then help with morning chores. He would be dead tired soon and no one in Barlette County even knew he was coming. It would be best if he found a place to bunk down tonight in Roanoke and then finished the part of the drive through winding mountain roads tomorrow.
He called directory assistance and asked for the number of one of the Catholic churches in Roanoke.