Monsignor Joseph Meany reached out from the tomb in the spring of 1945 to prevent Rosie from planting the May crown on the head of the Virgin Mary. The Monsignor's ghost encountered a grimly determined exorcist — my mother, April Cronin O'Malley.
April Mae Cronin O'Malley.
"Unlike the Mercy sisters," my father would say, looking up from a blue print or a drawing, "old Joe Meany was well named".
"Vangie!" My mother would protest the irreverence and uncharitableness and then laugh, thus honouring with deft economy the obligations o: respect for the pastor, love for her husband, and truth.
Joseph Peter Meany was a tiny man, a shrivelled gnome, not much over five feet three, thin, bald, and like my mother, near sighted and too vain to wear glasses. He compensated for his height, so my father said, by communicating with mere mortals in a deep bass bellow.
He firmly believed, Dad also said, that within the boundaries of St Ursula's he was God.
"Everyone," Mom would sometimes protest with little conviction, "thinks he's done such a splendid job as pastor".
That observation was also true. Meany Meany, as we kids called him, was of that generation of Irish pastors who could have counted on the complete loyalty of the majority of his parishioners even if he had been caught committing fornication with Mother Superior on the high altar during the Solemn Mass of Easter Sunday.
"Sure," Dad would snort, "it was a brilliant financial decision not to build the new church in 1937 because he thought prices were going down even more. Now we won't have the church till after the war is over. If then."
My father had some interest in the topic. He had designed the long awaited new church. For free. In the middle of the Great Depression.
I hated Monsignor, mostly because he had, I thought,
cheated my father out of payment for his work. I did not feel the smallest hint of grief when he went to meet his maker because of a heart attack. He expired consuming his third scotch in celebration of the death of Franklin Roosevelt.
"God knows the old man died happy," John Raven, the young priest, said to my mother, "but if they assign Joe and the President to the same section of purgatory, he'll ask for a transfer to hell."
"Where he belongs," I added piously.
"Chucky!" my mother protested and then laughed.
"Like father, like son," Father Raven noted.
"Look at the way he treated gold star families," I pressed the point. "He won't even come down from his office to tell them that they can't have a priest from outside the parish say the funeral mass. Instead he makes you do it. And he doesn't even show up for the wake or funeral unless it's a rich family!"
"Chucky!" This time my mother's tone said I'd better shut up. Even at 17 I had sense enough not to argue with such a tone in the voice of an Irish woman.
Rarely did any parishioner who was not wealthy speak to the pastor. He innured himself in his suite after mass each day (at the most a 17 minute exercise) and descended only for meals. He would talk to no one in the rectory offices. Rarely did he attend wakes or funerals or weddings and never did he make a hospital visit. His curates had to make an appointment to talk to him, and sometimes they waited weeks.
He kept, locked in a sacristy safe, a special bottle of wine to be used only at his masses, a much more tasty and expensive vintage than the wine assigned to the other priests. I speak as one who had sampled both, with more restraint I hasten to add than certain other altar boys (who depended on me to open the Monsignor's safe).
Monsignor Meany was convinced that John Raven's name was James and called him that as in "James, that car door ought not to be open. Take it off!" So great was the power of the pastor's command that John Raven, as he later admitted, without any hesitation or reflection, drove the Monsignor's sturdy old LaSalle straight into the offending door and continued serenely down Division Street as the door bounced a couple of times on the bricks before it halted at a stop light.
"Serves the damn fool right!" the pastor crowed.
No one ever complained about damage to the car.
The other priests called Father Raven "Jim" at the meals which the Monsignor attended.
The pastor thought that William McKinley was the last American president not to be tainted with Communist sympathies, took the biased news stories in the Tribune as gospel truth, insisted that FDR was a Jew, opposed aid to "Bloody England," became a fan of Father Couglin when the "radio priest" turned antiSemitic (the same time that my father made me stop selling Gouglin's paper Social Justice after mass on Sundays), and firmly believed that Roosevelt had conspired with the Japanese to launch the Pearl Harbour attack. He never spoke against the war, exactly; but whenever someone from the parish was killed in action he would mutter audibly, "another young man murdered by that Jew Roosevelt."
He would have easily won re-election as pastor if such had been required. His fans pointed to the Monsignor's extraordinary personal piety, .as evidenced for example by his pilgrimage to Lourdes in the spring of 1939. They did not add that on the same boat which he favoured with his presence the Monsignor shipped to France both his LaSalle and his housekeeper (I forget her real name, but we kids called her "Mrs Meany Meany'').
My father lamented that he got out of Europe before the war started in September. "Hitler probably would have given him an Iron Cross."
"With oak leaf cluster!"
"They don't have oak leaves . . . " I began.
"Enough from both of you." Wisely we both lapsed into devout silence.
In Joseph Meany's religion there was only one sin — "impurity". It was denounced with great vigour on every possible occasion — with, need I add, not the slightest indication of what it consisted.
Hence his stern injunction to Sister Mary Admirabilis ("Mary Admiral" to us kids and then "Mary War Admiral," after the Kentucky Derby winner) that only "a young woman who is a paragon of purity may crown the Blessed Mother. We must not permit Our Lady to be profaned by the touch of an immoral young woman."
"One with breasts," my older sister Jane snorted. "If Rosie didn't have boobs . . .
"That's enough, young lady." Mom didn't laugh, but she kind of smiled, proud of Rosie's emerging figure as though she were in her own daughter's place.
It was the middle of May, a week after VE day and the end of the war in Europe. Monsignor Meany was in his grave — and whatever realm of
the hereafter to which the Divine Mercy had assigned him — and Monsignor Martin Frances "Mugsy" Branigan had replaced him. In his middle forties then, Mugsy was already a legend: shortstop for the White Sox in 1916, superintendent of Catholic schools, devastating golfer, ardent Notre Dame fan, genial, charming, witty. The red-faced, silver-haired Mugsy had been assigned to St Ursula's with indecent haste.
"Old Joe is hardly cold in the ground," Dad commented as he toasted in absentia the new pastor. "There was always something to toast when he came home after the long ride from Fort Sheridan where he was posted. "I guess the Cardinal knows that he has a problem out here."
So Monsignor Mugsy was ensconced in the great twostoried room in the front of the second floor of the rectory, the part which was covered with white stone. But Mary War Admiral had not yet extended diplomatic recognition to him. In the school the word of the late pastor was still law.
Even though, as John Raven remarked, there is no one deader than a dead priest.
So Mary War Admiral voided Rosemarie Helen Clancy's nearly unanimous election as May Queen by the eighth grade, in solemn conclave assembled, because she was not the "kind of young woman who ought to be crowning the Holy Mother of God".
She then appointed my sister Peg as Rosie's replacement. Peg would have won on her own — she never lost an election that I can remember — but she had determined that her inseparable friend Rosie was going to crown Mary and that, Peg being her mother's daughter, was that.
When informed by Sister Mary War Admiral that she was to replace Rosie, Peg replied with characteristic quiet modesty, "I'd kill myself first!"
My mother's reaction was that (a) she would go over to the convent and "settle this problem" with Sister Mary Admirabilis and that (b) I would accompany her.
"I will not visit the parish" she insisted, "unless I am accompanied by a man from my family."
"I'm a short, red-haired high school junior," I pleaded.
"Your father's in Washington this week at some meeting with the War Department, young man, and you will come come with me."
"You don't need a man to ride the Central bus with you up to the Douglas Plant," I countered.
"That's different. Besides, you're as bad as your father. You're dying to get into a fight. Now go wash your face and comb your hair."
"My hair doesn't comb. Wire brush. Good for scraping paint. Bad for combing.
I kept my opinions on the May crowning to myself. Sister Mary War Admiral, I thought, might have a point. The word from Lake Delevan (alias Sin Lake) the previous summer was that for someone just entering eighth grade, Rosie Clancy was terribly "fast". Admittedly, "fast" in those days was pretty slow by contemporary standards. But that was those days, not now.
At that time she and Peg were slipping quickly and gracefully — and disturbingly as far as I was concerned — into womanhood.
"They had their first periods the same week," I heard Mom whisper to Dad one night after the Bing Crosby "Kraft Music Hall" while I was supposed to be sleeping in the enclosed front porch I shared with my little brother.
I still didn't know exactly what a period was, but I suspected that it meant more trouble for me.
Standing together, whispering plots, schemes, tricks and God knows what else, they seemed almost like twins — same height, same slim, fascinating shapes, same dancing eyes, same piquant, impish faces. Like Mom, Peg was brown-tinged, eyes, hair, skin, an elegant countess emerging from Chrysalis. Rosie was more classically Irish, milky skin that coloured quickly, jet black hair, scorching blue eyes.
Peg was the more consistent and careful of the two. She worked at her grades and her violin with sombre determination. Her grace was languid and sinuous, a cougar slipping through the trees. She rarely charged into a situation — a snowball attack on an isolated boy (like me) — without first checking for an escape hatch or an avenue of retreat. Rosie was more the rushing timber wolf, attacking with wild fury, mocking laughter shattering the air. If Peg was a countess in the making, Rosie was a bomb thrower or revolutionary or wild bar-room dancer.
She might also have been, to give her fair credit, a musical comedy singer; she had a clear, appealing voice, which I was told to my disgust when I was constrained to sing with her at family celebrations, blended "beautifully with yours, Chucky Ducky.
Yuck, as my grandchildren would say.
I must give her due credit. If she and Peg tormented me by, for example, putting lingerie ads from Life in my religion text
book and stealing my football uniform the morning of a game, they also came to my aid when I was or was thought to be in trouble.
Once when I was in eighth grade, two of the more rowdy of my classmates made some comments which indicated that Dad was a "slacker" because he was stationed at Fort Sheridan. In fact, he was the oldest service man from the parish. Moreover neither of their fathers were in the service.
Instead of pointing out these two truths I made some more generalised comments on their ancestry and on their relationship with their mothers. And thus found myself on my back in the school yard gravel being pounded, not skillfully perhaps, but vigorously.
Even one of them would have out-numbered me.
Suddenly two tiny fifth grade she-demons charged to my rescue, kicking, clawing, screaming. My two assailants were then outnumbered — not counting me.
"Where did you guys learn those words?" I demanded.
"From listening to boys," answered Peg, breathless but triumphant.
"Boys like you, Chucky Ducky," Rosie added, her face crimson with the light of battle.
They then, without my knowledge, went to the Rectory and enlisted John Raven's support. The two rowdies were put to work sweeping the parish hall, as Father Raven put it, "till the day before the Last Judgment".
Rosie was or at least claimed to be broken hearted at her demotion by the War Admiral, much to my surprise since I would scarcely have thought of her as devout. "I feel so sorry for Peg," she told me. "It's not fair to her."
"It's not fair to you," Peg snapped, "is it Chucky?"
"My position on Sister Mary War Admiral," I observed, "is well known".
"Stop talking to the girls," Mom intervened. "We must settle this silly business tonight."
So we sallied forth into the gentle May night, an ill-matched pair of warriors if there ever were such.
"Now please don't try to be funny." Mom tried to sound severe, always a difficult task with her husband or her firstborn son.
"I'll be just like Dad." "That's what I'm afraid of."
The war in ' Europe was over. Churchill's "long night of barbarism" in Europe had ended. Some men were being released from the service. Dad expected an early discharge. We were destroying Japanese cities with fire bomb raids. They were working havoc on our ships with their Kamikaze attacks. We had lost 13,000 men in the battle for Okinawa Jima. Mom was worried that I would be drafted when 1 graduated next year and would have to fight in the invasion of Japan, despite my plans to be a jet pilot. (A legitimate worry as it turned out. If it had not been for the atomic bomb I would surely have ended up in the infantry. They didn't need pilots.) The cruiser Indianapolis was about to sail for Tinian (and its own eventual destruction) with the first atomic bomb. Bing Crosby was singing that he wanted to "ride to the ridge where the West commences and gaze at the moon till I lose my senses," so long as we undertook not to attempt to fence him in. A battle over a May crowning surely did not compare to the major events which were about to shape the new, more affluent, and more dangerous world.
But it was our battle.
The O'Malleys were "active" Catholics as naturally as they breathed the air or played their musical instruments. Mom had been president of the altar guild. Dad was an usher, even in uniform. Jane had been vice president of the High Club. I was sometime photographer in residence, and the always available altar boy to "take" sudden funerals, unexpected war-time weddings, periods of adoration during "40 hours," and six o'clock mass on Sundays. When our finances improved — Dad's military pay and Mom's wages from the factory — we discussed together increasing our Sunday contribution.
We voted, over my objections, to quadruple the amount we gave. Dad insisted that the Sunday gift be anonymous because he didn't believe in the envelope system or the published list of contributions.
"Why give if we don't get credit?" I demanded, at least partially serious.
"Chucky!" the other five responded in dismay.
Despite the anonymity of our gifts we were still prominent members of the parish. Even Monsignor Meany almost came to our house for supper one night. So Sister Mary War Admiral must have known she was in for a fight.
I whistled "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" as we walked up the steps to the convent.
"Hush," Mom whispered/ and then joined in with "All aboard, we're not a going fishin".
"Praise the Lord and pass the Ammunition and we'll all stay free," we sang in presentable harmony as the light turned on above the convent steps.
"You're worse than your father," she informed me when she managed to stop laughing.
There was a long delay before the door opened — it is an unwritten rule of the Catholic Church (as yet unrepealed) that no convent or rectory door can be opened without a maddening wait being imposed on the one who has disturbed ecclesiastical peace by ringing the bell.
Sister Mary Admiral did not answer the door of course. Mothers Superior did not do that sort of thing. The nun who did answer, new since my day in grammar school, kept her eyes averted as she showed us into the parlour, furnished in the heavy green style of pre-World War 1 with three Popes, looking appallingly feminine, watching us with pious simpers.
The nameless nun scurried back with a platter on which she had arrayed butter cookies, fudge, two small tumblers and a pitcher of lemonade.
"Don't eat them all, Chucky," Mom warned me as we waited for Mother Superior to descend upon us.
"I won't," I lied.
The convent cookies and fudge — reserved for visitors of special importance — were beyond reproach. I will confess, however, that I was the one responsible for the story that when the lemonade had been sent to a chemist for analysis, he had reported with great regret that our poor horse was dying of incurable kidney disease.
"April dear, how wonderful to see you!" the War Admiral came in swinging. "You look wonderful. Painting airplanes certainly agrees with you." She hugged Mom. "And Charles . . . my how you've grown!"
I hadn't. But I did not reply because the last bit of fudge had followed the final cookie into, my digestive tract.
The War Admiral hated my guts. She resented my endless presence with camera and flash bulb. She suspected, quite correctly, that I had coined her nickname. She also suspected, again correctly, that I had been responsible for pouring the curate's wine into the Monsignor's wine bottle. Finally she suspected, with monumental unfairness (and inaccuracy) that I had consumed most of the monsignor's wine and thus was responsible for the necessity of filling the bottle with lesser. wine.
"You look wonderful too, Sister," although Mom had blushed at the compliment, she was too cagey to be taken in by it. "My husband is at the War Department this week, so my son has come with me."
Actually Sister Mary Admirabilis looked terrible, as she always did. Like the late pastor, she was tiny and seemed deceptively frail. Her eyes darted nervously and her fingers twisted back and forth, perhaps because she did not bring to the parlour the little hand bell which she always carried "on duty" — the kind of bell you used to ring on the counter of a hotel reception desk.
Most of the other nuns also carried little hand bells, ors which they pounded anxiously when the natives became restless.
War Admiral launched her campaign quickly, hook nose almost bouncing against jutting chin as she spat out her carefully prepared lines. "I'm so sorry about this little misunderstanding. Your precious Margaret Mary should be the one to crown the Blessed Mother. She is such a darling, so good and virtuous and popular. I often worry about her friendship with the Clancy child. I'm afraid that she's a bad influence. I hope you don't regret their friendship some day."
You praise the daughter, you hint at the danger of the friend, you stir up a little guilt — classical Mother Superior manoeuvres. And how did my mother, soft, gentle, kindly April Cronin O'Malley react?
April Mae Cronin O'Malley.
"Oh, Sister, I would be so unhappy if Peg did not graduate from St Ursula's next month, just as Jane and Chuck . . . uh Charles here did."
"But there's no question of that . . ."
Mom ignored her. "The sisters out at Trinity did tell me that they'll accept her as a freshman with a music scholarship even if she doesn't graduate."
"But . . ."
"And, as sad as it would be break my husband's heart," Mom seemed close to tears, "I'll have to withdraw Peg from St Ursula, if she is put in this impossible situation."
"She wouldn't come back to school anyway," I added helpfully, licking the last trace of fudge from my lips. ' "Shush, darling," Mom murmured.
"Please yourself," the Admiral took off her velvet gloves. "If Margaret does not choose to accept the honour to which she has been appointed, we simply won't have a May crowning."
"Please yourself, sister," Morn smiled. sadly. "My family will have no part of this unjust humiliation of Rosemarie."
I began to hum mentally "Let's Remember Pearl Harbour as we did the Alamo . . ." This was a preliminary scrimmage. Mom was touching a base before cornering Monsignor Mugsey.
"My dear," the Admiral's voice was sweet and oily, "we really can't let the Clancy girl crown Our Blessed Lady. Her father is a criminal and her mother . . . well as I'm sure you know," her voice sunk to a 'whisper, "she drinks!"
"Al] the more reason to be .Charitable to Rosemarie."
• "Like Jesiis to Mary Magdalen," I added helpfully. , "Shush, darling." "Monsignor Meany established very firm rules for this honour."
"Monsignor Meany is dead, `God be good to him."
"Cold in his grave," I observed.
"His rules will remain in force as long as I am superior."
"Time for a change I guess," I murmured.
"You give me no choice but to visit Monsignor Branigan." "Please yourself."
, The warm night had turned frigid.
. "I shall."
"Don't say anything, dear," Mom said as we walked down Menard Avenue to the front door of the rectory. "Not a word."
After the routine wait for the bell to be answered, we were admitted to a tiny office littered with baptismal books. Monsignor Branigan, in black clerical suit, appeared almost at once, medium height, thick glasses, red face, and broad smile.
"April Cronin!" he exclaimed, embracing her; unheard of behaviour from a priest in those days. "Greetings and salutations! You look more beautiful than ever!"
"April Mae Cronin," I observed.
They knew each other, did they? Sure they did. All South Side Irish knew one another.
I considered my mother, whom I had always thought of as pretty — a tall, thin, nearsighted refugee countess. Monsignor Mugsy was right. Without my having noticed it, she had, as she passed her fortieth birthday, become beautiful. The worry and the poverty of the Depression were over. She no longer had to send me to Liska's meat market to purchase 28 cents of beef stew ground from which to make supper for six of us. Her husband was safe at Fort Sheridan. The war would soon be over. Her children were growing up. She was earning more money she would have ever dreamed possible. She had put on enough weight so that curves had appeared under her grey suit. A distinguished countess now.
I glance at pictures I took of her at that time. Yes indeed, Monsignor Mugsy was right.
"Is this galoot yours?" he podded at me.
"Sometimes she's not sure," I responded.
"Vangie, uh, John is in Washington," Morn explained.
"What grade are you in, son?"
"I'm a junior at Fenwick." , "Do you play football?" "Quarterback."
"I thought there were only three strings." Monsignor Mugsy and I were hitting it off just fine.
"For me they made an exception." I was not about to tell him that I was more mascot than player.
"Where are you going to college?"
"I've seen `Knute Rockne All-American.' Win one for the Gipper!"
"Great," the monsignor exclaimed. "Now, April, what's on your mind?"
Mom told him.
"Dear God," he breathed out and reclined in his swivel chair, "how can we do things like this to people? Some day we're going to have to pay a terrible price."
"Mary Magdalen . . . " I began.
"I hear that Old Man Clancy is something of a crook," the monsignor drummed his stubby fingers on the desk.
"A big crook," I said.
"You two are willing to vouch for the poor little tyke?"
"Certainly," Mom nodded vigorously. "She's a lovely child."
"You bet," I perjured myself because I thought my life might depend on it.
"Well, that settles that . . . ah Jack . . . don't try to sneak by. I suppose you know the O'Malieys?"
"I think so," John Raven, golf clubs on his shoulder, grinned. "The kid has a reputation for switching wine bottles; watch him."
"I hear," the pastor said, peering shrewdly over his thick bifocals, "we have some trouble with the May crowning. Why don't you talk to Sister, Jack and. . ."
Father Raven leaned against the door jamb. "The smallest first grader has more clout with the War Admiral than a curate has." He chuckled. "It's your fight, Mugsy."
"And your parish," I said. Everyone ignored me.
The monsignor threw up his hands. "See what's happening to the Church, April? Curates won't do the pastor's dirty work for him any more. Well, go home and tell Peggy — I know which one she is, she looks like you did when you crowned the Blessed Mother at St Gabe's — that her friend will do the honours next week."
hen we arrived back at our tiny 'apartment three blocks south of the Rectory on Menard, Peg hugged me enthusiastically, "Oh Chucky Ducky, you're wonderful".
Rosie, her face crimson, considered doing the same thing but wisely judged from the expression on my face not to try. Instead, tears in her vast eyes, she said, "thank you".
"It was all the good April," I replied modestly. "I just carried her bowling shoes."
Parish reaction to Monsignor Branigan's intervention was mostly positive. The Clancy kid was too pretty for her own good and a little fast besides. However, it was time someone put Sister Mary Admirabilis in her place.
Was there any complaint that April O'Malley had gone to the new pastor to over rule Mother Superior?
Certainly not. If you are April O'Malley, by definition, you can do no wrong.
The Sunday afternoon of the May crowning, in the basement gym which had been Meany Meany's bequest to the parish, the blue and white plaster statue (pseudo Italian Renaissance ugly) of the Mother of Jesus was