St. Nick's Outlaws
By Jim Colombo
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Copyright 2001 Jim Colombo
The Catholic Church divided San Francisco into parishes that were sovereign, and
each parish had a Monsignor who had absolute authority over the other priests, the nuns,
and the laity. He was a senior priest who had moved up the ranks by demonstrating that
he was a good shepherd of his flock. If he fervently believed in the word of God and what
he was preaching, then so should all. They were men of God appointed by the Pope to
lead the sinners to heaven. They were good motivators during the Offertory. The
Monsignor stood humbly in front of the congregation asking for donations that were
beyond the means of most of the parishioners, while he wore silk gowns, drank from a gold
chalice that was kept in a golden tabernacle, and drove a new car each year.
There was a pharmacist in the neighborhood who everyone respected and
frequented his store. He was an usher at church on Sundays, but on Tuesday nights he
was "Henry the bingo man." Most folks went just to hear Henry announce each call.
Henry would teasingly pronounce the letter, then the number. He was a successful
pharmacist who had a loving wife and three beautiful children. Mr. Perfect, you would
think. Well Mr. Perfect was selling a new product that would revolutionize the world:
birth control. When Henry started selling birth control pills The Monsignor gave Harry a
special lecture on his obligation as a good Catholic to discourage using the pill because it
violated God’s law. This implies that God made a decision and told the Pope who passed
on the information to the faithful that it was sinful to use the pill. Henry had taken an oath
and was licensed by the state. He told the Monsignor that any woman who had a
prescription from a doctor would be served. Henry was a generous man and as the profits
increased, so did his offerings. At first the Monsignor thought that other women, not
Catholic, were violating God’s laws and their bodies with the pill. The Monsignor had no
difficulty accepting Henry’s increased offerings. The nuns needed a station wagon, so the
Monsignor asked Henry for a new Ford station wagon. Henry delivered a Ford station
wagon two days later. The Monsignor was intrigued with the ease and speed Henry
delivered the station wagon.
Two months later the drugstore was painted inside and outside. There was fancy
new merchandise for the ladies, like the kind that was sold at stores such as City of Paris
and The White House on Union Square in the upscale part of San Francisco. Henry did
not forget the church on Sunday. His offerings had increased considerably. Occasionally
when repairs were needed for the church, auditorium or convent, Henry would help pay
part or the entire repair. The Monsignor started asking Henry for special donations, like at
tax time or when the archdioceses would have the general fund. Henry felt squeezed.
The Monsignor started giving sermons that warned of the danger of deformed children and
health problems for women who took the pill. He ended his sermon by reassuring the
ladies of St. Philip's that they had nothing to worry about. They would never violate God's
law. Henry's sales and profit decreased significantly. Henry could no longer support the
Church as generously as before. The Monsignor asked Henry if it was due to a lack of
sales of the pill? Henry did not reply, but he admitted that business was slow. It was
evident to the Monsignor that the parish ladies were using the pill against his authority.
The Monsignor thought he had Henry in his pocket.
Mrs. Riley was too sick to go to church. Henry asked Father Walsh if he would say
mass for Mrs. Riley at her home. Rose, her daughter, had never married, and would be
glad to cook dinner for him. Father Walsh began saying mass at Mrs. Riley's house every
Sunday at four o'clock and finished about suppertime. Rose was in her mid-thirties. Father
Walsh was about forty. The good Father began visiting Mrs. Riley quite often, and staying
after dinner with Rose. Rose went to visit a sick sister for a week and returned with a
prescription for an infection. She started using Kotex pads instead of inserts. She was
nervous paying for the items. Father Walsh stopped serving mass at Mrs. Riley's house.
Rose started going to St. Paul's Catholic Church.
The Monsignor invited Henry over for a chat. He asked if it was more than a
coincidence that his sermons had reduced Henry's profits. Henry replied, “No comment.”
The Monsignor became upset and accused Henry of selling the pill to the women of the
parish. Then the Monsignor settled down and told Henry, “I could forgive you if a new
Mercury Cougar was given as a gift to the Church.”
Henry shook his head and stared at the Monsignor. The Monsignor asked
Henry if he understood the consequences. Henry said, “Yes, I do. All of the prescriptions
were from doctors. I have done nothing wrong, and I’m tired of being financially squeezed
by the church.”
Henry got up and began to walk out. The Monsignor was shocked because he was
so use to dictating his will. He raised his voice, and asked Henry, “Is it was worth losing
your soul and business?”
Henry raised his voice a bit louder and said, “I have nothing to lose, but you and
Father Walsh have a great deal to lose.”
“How so,” asked the Monsignor?
“The prescription that Rose asked to have filled was a medication that I wasn’t
familiar with. The doctor told me that it was a new medicine used to fight depression. I
asked what would Rose be depressed about? He replied that Rose had had an abortion.
He was concerned because she had deep feelings of guilt.”
The Monsignor was startled by Henry’s knowledge. What else did he know?
Henry continued, “Why had Father Walsh stopped saying mass at Mrs. Riley's
house? Why was Rose attending St. Paul's Church? Did you know that Father Walsh had
stayed late with Rose? Were you aware that Rose had had an abortion, and could not
afford to paid for one?”
“Stop! There are lies. All lies,” said the Monsignor shocked that Henry knew so much.
Henry continued the assault, “ And finally, why was St. Philip's revenue lower each
year for the past four years? How will you explain the special collection next month?
The Monsignor sat back, deep into the leather couch. Each question lashed at him
had taken its tool on his psyche. The painful look of defeat on the Monsignor's face
confirmed Henry's suspicions. Henry stood by the doorway and gazed at an ordinary man
dressed in black who once dictated God’s will. “I hope you do what’s right for Rose, Father
Walsh, and the Church. Think of it as redemption.” Henry walked out of the rectory and
felt the wind swirl around him.
Henry had sold the pill to his CPA's wife, Nancy, who worked for the archdiocese
of San Francisco in the accounting department. She trusted Henry's discretion, and told
him that there would be a special collection at St. Philip's in a month because the parish
revenue had missed its target the last four years. "How can that be considering the
generosity of the parish?" he asked. She didn’t know. Henry had a good idea.
Two weeks later, Rose could no longer live with the guilt of killing her child and the
shame that the father of her unborn son was a priest. Rose lay on her bed in her favorite
pajamas, and took a bottle of sleeping pills. She left a note asking her mother for
forgiveness. Rose, with tears in her eyes, slowly waited for death to take her away.
The police questioned Father Walsh about Rose's death, and her reference to
forgiveness. He began to cry, and he admitted that he was the father. He had paid for the
abortion. Father Walsh asked the policeman if he had any idea how guilty he felt knowing
about the abortion, and now Rose's death. He also admitted that he co-signed the revenue
reports knowing that they were not accurate. He never took any of the money, but he knew
that the Monsignor had.
Henry was angry that the Monsignor had ignored Rose. He called the police and
told them all that he knew. When the police arrived the Monsignor confessed to skimming
money for his dying mother. He said he had not thought about Father Walsh and Rose,
and never thought she would take her life. One of the policemen was Catholic and asked,
“How can a priest steal from the Church?”
The Monsignor folded his hands as if to pray. He stared at the floor, never looking
at the Policeman, and replied, “My mother was dying of cancer and her insurance paid
only part of her expenses. I had asked the Archdiocese if they would help, but they refused
me. I wasn’t going to let my mother die a beggar while I had devoted my life to God and
the Church. I believed I was owed something for thirty-one years of faithful service.”
The policemen took Father Walsh and the Monsignor’s statements, and reminded
them that they under investigation. An auditor from the Archdiocese entered the rectory
and introduced himself as the policemen were leaving. The auditor asked to see the
Parish financial records. The Monsignor led the auditor to the study. Father Walsh went
to the kitchen to get a stiff drink of courage.
Rose was buried, and her mother moved to Oregon to live with her younger sister
who had recently become a widow. Father Walsh started drinking again and was sent to a
Catholic hospital for Priests who were alcoholics. The Monsignor was reassigned to a
remote parish in Montana as a missionary to help the local native Indians. The auditor
estimated that $22,000 had been skimmed from the revenue. The Church didn’t want any
bad publicity and adjusted the records. The special collection was canceled. Henry's drug
store prospered and he continued being Henry the bingo man on Tuesday nights.
Bob had worked for Henry after school during this period, and told Jim the story
when they spent their last summer together in Yosemite. Bob was a good student, and
Henry said he would help Bob financially if he wanted to go to college and become a
pharmacist. Henry knew many things about many people, but always maintained
discretion and ethics. He would lend money to several folks in the parish when they
were in need, and didn’t charge any interest. Henry paid for Rose’s funeral. He would not
accept repayment from Mrs. Riley, and he would return the checks torn in half. Henry was
a true Catholic, not like the ones who dressed in robes and hid behind the Bible.
Some of the parishioners were surprised when Monsignor De Marco replaced the
Monsignor. St Philip’s always had Irish priests and Monsignors. Monsignor De Marco tried
to put fun and hope back into the parish. He was a good humanitarian and helped anyone.
The previous priests preached of sin, damnation, and a constant need for money.
Monsignor De Marco spoke of love for one another, helping one another, and the spiritual
community that they belonged to. Attendance at Church increased. The folks that the
faithful saw only at Christmas and Easter services were starting to become regular
parishioners. The new folks discovered Mr. Bingo on Tuesday nights. Sunday services
were more caring, with fellowship, not damnation and fear. The faithful were a community,
no longer an island.
More next week...