HONORABLE MENTION MICHELE M. FEENEY
window. Nothing and no one inside. I turned back and saw Sister
Maria Alphonse standing beside the car, staring off in the direction
the dog appeared to have fled. I was relieved—no awkward conver-
sation for us that day.
“Not much to do here,” I said, then walked down the short
drive to the mailbox and peered inside. I pulled out a stack of mail
and saw that the postmarks went back nearly two weeks.
“No,” Sister Marie Alphonse answered, and got back into the
car, then rolled down the window. “Seems they’ve moved on.”
“Almost nothing,” she answered.
“Where were his parents?”
“His father is in the service, somewhere overseas. I don’t know
where his mother is.”
“Was he living with the mother’s or the father’s parents?” I
“Not sure.” She sighed. “It’s my first year teaching and well…”
Her voice trailed off. A couple of tears rolled down her cheek, which
she quickly wiped away.
“You’re overwhelmed?” I asked.
“To put it mildly,” she answered.
“That makes two of us,” I said. I knew I wasn’t supposed to acknowledge the slightest hesitation, but I often wondered how anyone could expect someone right out of the seminary to manage a
parish on his own, even a small parish, even temporarily. Just because
it was a small parish didn’t mean people’s problems were small.
“Want to stop for a cup of coffee?” I asked, as we approached
Weddleville. I was in the mood to commiserate. Maybe even celebrate, given that we didn’t have to confront Alan Burlington’s
grandparents, and I didn’t have to be reminded for years to come,
every time I saw Alan Burlington’s face, that I’d lost a child on my
very first field trip. Didn’t have to think about the fact that Alan
Burlington would probably never feel quite safe around me again.
Sister Maria Alphonse shot me a sidelong look of horror, and I
realized what I’d just suggested. How could the two of us, clearly a
priest and nun, stop in a diner for a cup of coffee? Never mind that
she looked at least five years older than me—though she wasn’t—
and was as plain as the side of a barn. Anyone who saw us would
assume the worst.
“Wouldn’t do, I guess,” I stammered, and felt myself go hot and
red from my white collar all the way up into my hairline. We spent
the rest of the ride home in silence.
The letter arrived several weeks later, just before Christmas break.
It was a plain white envelope, like one you’d buy in bulk at the
Five-and-Ten, marked ‘Personal and Confidential.’ There was no
return address. I tried to make out the postmark, but could only
decipher that the state began with an “M.” Maybe Missouri or
maybe Michigan. Perhaps Minnesota. “Mi” something.
I opened the envelope, thinking I’d love to catch up with any one
of the guys from seminary. I felt my heart sink as I read the words.
Dear Father Thomas,
I’m Alan Burlington’s grandfather. By now, you know we’ve picked
up and left the parish. Alan won’t be coming back to St. Sebastian’s.
That old Father Kowalski was diddling my son’s boy. We’ve moved on.
Alan deserves a fresh start. No reason Alan he should pay the price for
that old guy’s sins. Somebody needs to do something about him.
Father Kowalski, an elderly man, lived in a room in the large rectory
three doors down from me for just a couple of weeks when I’d first
arrived in the parish the summer before. We’d shared a bathroom.
Two weeks later he was gone. I couldn’t call up a distinct memory
of his face—it was a blur along with all the parishioners I’d met in
those early weeks. I thought I remembered he’d left due to health
problems, but couldn’t even be sure of that.
I folded the letter into quarters and slipped it into my shirt pock-
et, leaving it there as I pondered what in the world it meant and
what to do.
Before Christmas, just after the children were released for the holi-
day, I casually asked the church secretary, “Do you know where
Father Kowalski is now?”
“Holy Cross House,” she answered, chin raised, eyes narrowed
just a bit. “Up near Lake Oracle. He’s been there ever since he
moved.” She didn’t speak the question in her eyes, which was,
I travelled nearly four hours over two-lane highways on a rainy
Tuesday to see Father Kowalski and confront him with what Jim
Burlington had written. On the drive, I nearly turned back—con-
fronting an elderly priest was not my nature and either a very fool-
ish, or a bold and brave thing, for a brand new priest to do, depend-
ing on how one looked at it. As I drove, I debated all the while what
I’d say. The letter was, as my grandmother would have said, burning
a hole in my shirt pocket.
I found Father Kowalski reading at a quiet library table.
Sister Maria Alphonse shot
He raised his head as I walked up to him, and looked puzzled as
he tried to place my face and remember my name. Finally, he asked,
“Do I know you?”
me a sidelong look of horror,
and I realized what I’d