The Mississippi heat is oppressive, the humidity almost palpable, a physical weight that presses down on the inhabitants of Tupelo. Father Patrick Stump runs a finger between his damp neck and thick, starched collar, doing nothing more than granting passage to the beads of sweat gathering below his hairline to his already drenched back.
His suit is thick and heavy, unpleasant enough in the Chicago summer heat but close to unbearable under thick cloud cover in the bustling crush of the train station. His small, leather case sits squat and sure at his feet — he doesn’t own much, his bible, another suit, a couple of battered notebooks and a handful of pencils for scratching out sermons, his underwear, pajamas, toothbrush and razor. Next to it stands a much larger case — matching by some miracle — filled with his vestments of varying functions and purposes, all of them placed inside with gentle reverence, each of them handled with absolute care. It’s not a lot to show for twenty-eight years of existence but it suits him well enough.
As a man of God, his priorities aren’t earthly possessions but rather frugality, humility, and compassion.
As a sinner, his priorities aren’t clothes or wealth but rather remorse, atonement, begging for God’s mercy.
This is his penance, Patrick reminds himself as he watches the faces pass by him, a blur of young and old, male and female but overpoweringly, noticeably white.
The train that brought him here whistles on the track, onward and down into Alabama where it terminates before returning back to Chicago. Back home. It would be simple enough to slip back on board, back into the carriage he so recently vacated, remove his collar and pretend he’s someone else. Someone less weighted by the crushing sense of guilt and shame that’s hovered over him since he realized what a sinful little beast he was at eleven years old, feelings that have only grown heavier and thicker around him — crushing and oppressive as any physical bonds — as the years have continued, as names have been given to his feelings.
Faggot. Fairy. Queer. Sodomite. Sinner.
Humans aren’t born with inherited guilt, but Patrick knows that everyone, including himself, is born prone to sinning. When Adam and Eve chose to eat from the forbidden fruit, they caused human nature to become weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin. Words from the catechism Patrick knows by heart, just like he knows what it’s like to long for forbidden fruits and wicked, dangerous knowledge. It is God’s way of testing him, and until recently, Patrick has always grit his teeth and managed to deny, abstain, resist. Like a good Catholic boy, like a proper priest.
Patrick absentmindedly tugs at his collar again, a nervous habit, before lowering his arms and clutching his hands into tight fists, nails biting into the soft flesh of his palms with burning precision. Years of learning how to be a moral, rightful person, years of studying God’s word, all that time spent praying and begging the Lord for guidance and strength to resist temptation... All for nothing, because in the end, Patrick was just too weak.
It should have been so simple. All Patrick had to do was to stay strong, and stay away from sinning. Patrick was armed with God’s word and the church’s blessing. His wrongful desires were hidden under black robes, tucked away between the battered pages of his bible, prayed away each and every night when silence and solitude made it so much harder to resist all those dark desires infecting his immortal soul.
God had given him every opportunity to be a good man, and he had thrown it all away. God’s mercy and guidance, his colleagues and church community, he failed them all. Patrick’s weak flesh was stronger than his faith’s resolve.
And now Patrick is standing in this unfamiliar city, surrounded by strangers, facing the unknown. Away from home, away from everyone and everything he has ever known. It’s my rightful punishment, he reminds himself, wiping away more sweat from his forehead. It’s the only way to atone for my sins.
He already misses Chicago fiercely with a dull ache in his chest that seems to throb in time with his pulse. He misses kindly Father Iero with his gentle guidance and encouraging words for young priests, misses St Joseph’s with its towering twin belfries and gleaming bells, its ornately carved woodwork and shimmering stained glass. He misses warm brown eyes that always smiled for him until the last time, the time they glowed with rage and hatred. No. No, he won’t think about that. He mustn’t think about sins that felt like prayers, about bodies pressed close and urgent or of lips that tasted of need and immoral desire.
“Father Stump?” A richly accented voice, thick and sweet as molasses, curls into his ear from just behind his left shoulder. He pivots sharply, smooths his expression from anguished guilt to welcoming smile as he takes in immaculately slicked auburn hair and twinkling eyes, extends his hands to clasp the offered palm in a firm, warm handshake. He’s been doing this for a decade, deacon and then priest, it’s a gesture borne of familiarity and muscle memory. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Father. I’m Andrew Hurley, your new deacon.”
“Wonderful to meet you, Father Hurley,” he begins, pausing as the deacon cuts him off with a wave of his hand.
“Please, outside of church just Andy would be fine.” A worried frown creases Patrick’s forehead — that isn’t right, isn’t proper. He can’t atone if the rules aren’t followed, if everything isn’t just so. Panic blooms bright and burning in the centre of his chest, points of heat sparking across his skin as his lungs constrict, his windpipe narrowing. He forces himself to breathe deeply, he won’t embarrass himself, won’t drag his belongings across the station floor in front of eyes that blaze with judgement whilst he hunts for his bulky nebulizer, he needs to breathe. “Hey, it’s okay, you can still be Father Stump.”
God bless the man for realising the issue without Patrick needing to explain, without needing to recount half stories and semi truths. He presumes no one has told Father Hurley the real reason he’s been sent here from so far away, the reason he’s in disgrace. No, surely His Eminence Bishop Way is more discrete than that, after all, this isn’t just Patrick’s shame. Oh no, this is shame for Father Urie — not Brendon, he reminds himself, Father Urie, a messenger of the Lord — for Father Iero as their mentor, for the diocese of Chicago and the whole Catholic faith. Oh, but a shame so great is a heavy burden to bear.
“Father Stump, yes,” he wheezes slightly, feels his pulse slow from a thundering gallop to a buzzing thrum, relaxes as the tightness in his chest recedes slightly. He feels ridiculous, burns with embarrassment but… It's important. It needs to be proper. Andy claps his shoulder comfortingly, brown eyes alight with understanding behind his glasses as he gestures to the cases at Patrick’s feet.
“I can take those.”
“No,” Patrick stoops and fumbles for the handles, hauling them up against himself. “No, that’s okay. I can do it. Thank you, though.”
He follows behind as Andy leads the way through the station, struggling to match his pace weighed down with the suitcases. Everything is wrong, the low, wooden buildings and wide, sweeping boulevard. He misses the way the city always seemed to close in around him, rising up and over him like a beautiful cathedral, like the pictures he’s seen of the Vatican, domed and splendorous. There’s nowhere to take cover here, nothing but endless streets and towering grey skies. It’s so quiet compared to the always busy streets back home in Chicago.
Well, my former home, Patrick reminds himself. This is where he belongs now. It’s a chance for a fresh start, a chance to redeem himself, to be forgiven.
It's a long drive along quiet highways, the grey ribbon of road winding its way between lush green fields, towering forests and, smudged against the skyline to their east, the blue grey bruise of the Appalachian mountains. It's beautiful, breathtaking and completely at odds with the endless flatness of the Midwest. He can be at peace here, he's sure of it. Andy makes conversation as he drives, points out landmarks with the reverence of someone that truly loves the area where he's grown up. Patrick smiles and pretends to take it in, nodding with enthusiasm when the pauses seem appropriate. It's not that he's not interested it's just… he doesn't trust the hard knot in his chest to hold back the tears if he tries to speak.
A simple sign greets them on their way into the modestly sized town that he's sure — in time — he will come to think of as home. Welcome to Clark. Well. It's always nice to be welcomed.
“I was… surprised, to be sent here,” Patrick admits softly as he looks out of the window, the lump in his throat large enough to choke him. In truth, “surprise” was probably one of the last emotions he felt but it'll suffice for descriptive purposes. “Is there… Much call for Catholicism in the south?”
“Oh, we don't have the draw of the Baptists,” Andy smiles in a way that makes Patrick suspect that he really rather enjoys being part of a minority. “But Clark has a huge population that just… Came for work. First it was farm work, then things got a shade more industrial.”
It's then that Patrick notices it. On the outskirts of town, its presence huge and looming, stands the most enormous factory Patrick has ever seen and he gestures to it with a frown, “What's that?”
“The reason Clark didn't die with the war,” Andy grins. “It was a munitions factory back during the Great War — my daddy was a foreman — but the Government repurposed it, it makes parts for Army vehicles now. Quite a draw. Everyone sort of rubs along but sometimes… Well. It doesn't matter.”
He trails off with a deep sigh and Patrick is about to question him further, to ascertain just what he means but he's interrupted as Andy points to the small, red brick church ahead of them with an affectionate smile, “And this, Father Stump, is what you've been waiting for, Saint Sebastian’s. I'll take you up to the rectory and get you settled in before we go any place else.”
The rectory looks small and modest but comfortable enough, a neat wooden building with a low porch to the rear that, Patrick is sure, will offer beautiful views over the surrounding countryside. This time, Patrick doesn’t decline when Andy offers to help him with his suitcases. Hauling them through town in the sweltering heat has exhausted him already, and the heavy breathing from his weak lungs sounds even more pathetic in the silence of the rectory. Thankfully, the deacon is kind enough to ignore it.
Patrick follows him to what he assumes is now his bed chamber. He takes a quick look around – its furnished simply, as he expected. A bed, a desk and a wardrobe made of matching dark wood, a small crucifix on the wall above the bed being the only nod to any kind of decoration. He hasn’t had much chance to look at the rest of the house, but Patrick suspects the rest of it isn’t lavishly furnished either.
“I can unpack myself, thanks,” Patrick declines when Andy offers further help. He prefers to have a bit of privacy, and desperately doesn’t want to come off as dependent and weak.
“Would you like to take a look at the church now, Father? I can show you around. Or would you prefer some rest first?” Andy tilts his head to the side, and Patrick considers both options. He still feels exhausted, but the prospect of being alone with his thoughts again leaves him unnerved and disquieted. Silence is so impenetrable, so easy for thoughts to turn down dark paths fraught with dangerous things that he shouldn't dwell on. So, Patrick forces a smile, and shakes his head. “I have plenty of time to rest later. Let me take you up on your offer.”
Saint Sebastian is much smaller than the churches in Chicago. Patrick steps inside, his right hand automatically reaching for the holy water font next to the entrance. His fingertips dip into the lukewarm liquid inside, before Patrick makes the sign of the cross. The familiar gesture helps him calm down, and the holy water on his skin grants him some momentary relief.
Patrick straightens his back, and takes a closer look at his surroundings. The interior is modest, almost sad compared to the opulent decorations of St Joseph’s. Everything is much smaller in scale, less elaborate, the colors look duller, and everything just feels so strange and unfamiliar. Another wave of homesickness makes Patrick’s heart ache, before he forces himself to push that feeling aside. He scolds himself for allowing these thoughts in the first place. This is how he is thanking God for giving a sinner like him a second chance? He should be on his knees praising the Lord for having been granted a chance for redemption.
With a small sigh, Patrick tries to calm his thoughts, and focus on something else. It’s quiet in here too, but it has the familiar peaceful atmosphere he is used to in God’s house. It’s also cooler than outside, a nice change of climate that Patrick is more than glad of. He takes a deep breath, then walks towards the altar. It’s three steps, then Patrick feels cold stone under his hands. The altar isn’t as beautiful and imposing as the one in his former church, yet standing in front of it, where he belongs, makes Patrick forget his doubts, all other sorts of emotions like the pesky homesickness, the always-present guilt, and resurfacing shame. He closes his eyes, momentarily forgetting that Andy is still there watching him. The smooth surface of the hard stone, the cool air surrounding him, and the dignified silence – yes, this can be his new home. He can be a good man again, serve God the way he promised Him, rescue his immortal soul from the fiery pits of hell as long as he resists heated breath, hot flesh, warm eyes –
A small cough brings Patrick back to reality. He opens his eyes, uncomfortably aware of the heat crawling up from his collar and across his cheeks, no doubt an embarrassing shade of red. The first day, and he keeps making a fool of himself.
“Is everything to your liking, Father Stump?” Andy inquires.
Patrick tries to regain his composure as he forces himself to turn around. Andy looks at him curiously, and Patrick takes another look around. Upon second glance, he can’t deny the tiny little flaws everywhere: Wilted flowers in front of the altar, dusty windows and candles being the only source of light, and some of the benches look as if they are about to collapse as soon as someone dares to sit on them. Patrick looks up to the ceiling, and before he can ask, Andy speaks up with a gusting sigh. “The lights don’t work,” he says apologetically. “Forgive us, Father. Our simple little church can't possibly match the standards you're used to.”
“No need to ask for forgiveness,” Patrick says with a gentle smile. The last thing he needs is to leave a bad impression. Sure, his former church was bigger and brighter and more beautiful, but this is still God’s house, and Patrick is determined to restore the church to its former glory. Well, maybe not glory, but the place could look more appropriate for a house of worship. “I'm sure this can be fixed.” Patrick hesitates, a thoughtful look on his face. He is an educated man, but ultimately, he is a priest, not a handyman. And while the deacon looks young and healthy, he also doesn’t seem to have much experience with worldly work. Some help might be needed here.
“I’m afraid the lights aren't the only thing that needs repairing. We also have some troubles with the roof, the guttering, woodworm as well as other things,” Andy says with a small sigh. “Your predecessor – may God rest his soul – was very ill in his last months on earth, and… well, he couldn't care appropriately for our poor old church.”
Patrick furrows his brow. The deacon’s face reveals nothing, but Patrick can sense that this isn’t the whole truth, not even close to it. Judging by his first impression, this place has been neglected for a lot longer. Years, maybe. And while Andy’s words express proper respect, there’s something in his voice that makes Patrick suspect that the deacon may have had his disagreements with the preceding priest. Whatever happened, it’s none of my business, Patrick decides. He’s here for a fresh start, and neither interested in his predecessor’s mistakes, nor dragging the wrongdoings from his own past into the light.
“Doesn't the congregation employ a sacristan?” Patrick asks; it doesn’t come as a surprise when the deacon shakes his head. Even a superficial glance at the state of the building makes it more than obvious that the answer is no.
“We could use, at the very least, a helping hand for repairs. A handyman, perhaps.” He muses as he brushes his fingertips against the cool stone of the altar once more.
Andy seems surprised at these words. He looks like he came prepared for a lengthy discussion — perhaps even an argument — and didn’t expect Patrick to give in so easily or even make the proposal himself. It further underlines Patrick’s suspicions that the deacon and the old priest had their differences. He’s glad to see though that he and Andy are on the same page regarding the church’s state and its obvious need for maintenance.
With newfound confidence, Patrick continues: “I’m afraid we can’t offer a decent salary, but the rectory is big enough to offer accommodation. I’ll write an ad as soon as I’ve unpacked.” Andy nods, visibly pleased with that idea.
“Would you be so kind as to set everything up? Forgive me for demanding something that may be out of your usual responsibilities, but I believe a local such as yourself might have some ideas about where to advertise.”
“Of course, Father Stump,” Andy says with another nod. “I may even already know someone who might be interested. I’ll make sure to let him know about the job offering.”
“Thank you, Andy.” For the first time, a genuine smile spreads over Patrick’s face. This is going better than expected. God has had mercy with him. Patrick may be a sinner, but salvation is still possible. This time, Patrick will do everything right. He will serve the Lord, serve the people of the congregation he has been entrusted with, and find solace in his devotions to God. One day, his prayers will be full of hope and joy again, and not the tearful begging to be granted strength to resist sinning. His weak flesh will not overpower his spirit again.
Patrick will be a good man.