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The Bell and the Bride


Harry Buschman

There was a time, not too many years ago, when Brooklyn was known as the city of churches. Particularly Catholic churches. Those who remember them will tell you they outnumbered saloons.

The competition between churches was fierce and it's hard to see how they all  stayed in business. There were no rewards for good attendance and no apparent  penalties for absence; but Brooklyn Catholics all agreed that Protestants and Jews got away with murder, while they could not. God was watching them from every corner. Like a surveillance camera, He followed every move they made, and when the bell tolled, it tolled for them.

Every Catholic church had a steeple with a bell or two in it, some churches could play carols at Christmas time. Some of them rang every fifteen minutes day and night with a stubborn and noisy controversy between them concerning the precise time -- consequently the bells never stopped ringing.

During Easter and Christmas, the Catholic churches that were lucky enough to have sets of bells, put aside the quarter hour ringing and played carols day and night. The cacophony could drive Catholics and non Catholics to the brink of madness, particularly when it was accompanied by the vocal ensemble of cats that sang throughout the night from tenement backyard fences. To those of the 'true' faith, however, the bells were a constant reminder that God, as personified by the Bishop of their local diocese, was keeping His eye on them by the magic medium of the bells.

Bells in other churches chimed or rang joyously, but the deep throated tolling of St. Theresa's was a unique voice. Its raw iron resonance clanged down the city streets and ricocheted from the graffiti covered walls of tenement alleys like the voice of God himself. It summoned every Catholic to prayer and devotion beginning with the seven o'clock mass. No one could escape the tolling of the bell. Roaches in kitchen cabinets would prick up their antennae and skitter to the safety of cracks and crevices. Wayward husbands with one hand on the swinging tavern door would turn white and continue on their way. Even Catholics with hearing disabilities would sit up and glance at the clock on the kitchen wall.

St. Theresa's had only one bell in its belfry, but it was a beauty, a gift from the Bedford family when the church was built. A massive iron bell cast in Akron, Ohio at the turn of the century. It was intended for the Salt Lake City Tabernacle but it was finished too late for installation in the steeple while the church was under construction. Then it proved too large to fit. The project was abandoned and the bell sat rusting in the scrap yard of the foundry at Akron until Mr. Bedford bought it for cost and donated it to St. Theresa's church, then in the planning stages.

The steeple was, in effect, built around the giant bell. It hung seventy feet from the lobby floor and was rung at every mass by elderly Father Ambrose, and sometimes by the even more elderly sexton, Harold Wickes. They both suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and like all good Catholics, neither wore a watch. By the Grace of God, however, one of them always seemed to know what time it was and physically fit enough to undo the rope from the cleats on the lobby wall. He would then pick his feet up and collapse, frog like, to the floor holding the rope tightly. The mighty bell would swing in its cradle and strike the clapper. Many people think the clapper strikes the bell -- but no, the bell strikes the clapper.

Father L'Esperance, the third male member of the parish, a young Jesuit, was so profoundly devout he could not be trusted to do anything. He wore a perpetual open-mouthed stare of awe. He would undergo moments of complete paralysis, both in the confessional and while celebrating the Mass. The Monsignor of St. Theresa was convinced it was only a matter of time before he would witness a miracle, or walk in the path of the Classon Avenue trolley. Earthly things, like tying his shoes and buttoning his fly were out of his depth and he could certainly not be trusted to ring the great bell of St. Theresa.

As the fourth male member of the parish, Monsignor Moody lay abed of a Sunday  morning, savoring the last sweet moments of warm comfort. He waited for the  tolling of the best and biggest bell in Brooklyn. It would herald the seven o'clock mass. Old Father Ambrose would celebrate "that" mass. Nobody with money came to the early masses -- meager collections. He would handle the High Masses at nine and eleven, the one that Bishop Babbitt would attend. He ran over the homily in his head and it sounded good to him, really good -- sacrifice! That was the theme. He hoped the congregation would take it to heart when the collection basket was shaken under their runny noses. The church had not shown a profit this year and if he expected to be a Bishop he'd better get his flock on the ball. "What has happened to the bell?" he wondered. It seemed as though it must be seven o'clock. He checked his bedside clock -- good Heavens! 7:15! He rang for sister Agatha. He should be eating breakfast by now!

Sister Agatha was already on her way up the back stairs from the kitchen with two, two and three quarter minute boiled eggs. Two slices of whole wheat toast, a carafe of Colombian coffee and a small pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice.

"Be there in a jiffy Father," she called, "The bell rope's broken and the cook is late. I had to drag Father Ambrose out of the tower and get him back down the belfry stairs." It was actually more serious than that, the steep ladder-like stairs had exhausted Father Ambrose, and he had no idea of the time or why he was up there. But for the moment, Sister Agatha must concentrate on the rope.

"The rope is rotten Father, it broke off up in the steeple and came all the way down to the lobby floor -- a good thing no one was under it." She set Monsignor Moody's breakfast down on his bedside table and handed him his robe.

"What do we do now? We can't get through Sunday without the bell." Of all days -- today! Bishop Babbitt would be there for High Mass, they were going to play golf this afternoon, and if he could persuade him to stay for dinner, he wanted to bring up his appointment again.

"You know what this means sister, people will be coming in all hours for mass, some of them won't come at all ---" he sniffled, was that a cold coming on? "We must have better organization sister, what will the Bishop think?"

"We are rich in organization, Father, but we are poor in rope -- we need a new one. Father Ambrose said it's been hanging there thirty years .... nothing lasts forever, Father."

"You say he was up in the belfry sister?" Sister Agatha nodded and raised her eyes in resignation. "The old fool, he could have frozen to death up there, then what would I do -- and those narrow stairs, how did he ever get up there? Why can't Father L'Esperance do these things?"

"Head's in the clouds -- waiting for a sign from the Lord I imagine," Agatha answered bluntly, she'd had it with these pampered men of God. Father Ambrose was just about useless and you couldn't trust the Sexton with the collection basket. Both of them should be in a home. Father L'Esperance was obsessed with God and should be in an institution. Monsignor Moody, sitting there in his canopied bed couldn't wait to elbow his way into the Diocese.

"We must think of a way. As soon as I finish breakfast I'll put my mind to it -- the eggs are a bit runny, Sister."

"I've already called the precinct, Father. Sergeant Moynahan is coming over -- he never donated for his daughter's Baptism, I believe he owes us one." Look at him there, she thought to herself -- breakfast in bed and complaining about his runny eggs. Wait 'til they get him in the diocese! He'll be low man on the totem pole over there, nobody will be bringing him his breakfast in bed. It was becoming more and more difficult to keep her temper in check, so she turned away abruptly and walked quickly out of the room.

Sister Agatha was 47 years old. Twenty nine years ago she entered the Convent of the Magdalene in Staten Island. Her most cherished wish was to be a bride of Christ. It was a vision she had carried with her since she was a little girl; a precious dream, and the highest honor a young girl can ever hope for. Now, at 47, she realized the honeymoon never materialized -- she was not a bride, she was a sister, a polite word for a housemaid for the men who ran religion in this poverty stricken corner of Brooklyn. Hiring cooks and cleaning people and running a boarding house for spineless priests, none of whom could fix a bell rope when it needed fixing.

She looked up at the tortured icon of her Savior. Her Savior, not theirs! He hung crucified at the head of the back stairs to the kitchen. She often lingered there and talked to Him during her rare idle moments. She was tempted to do so this morning, just for a moment, before the day began. She looked at His hands -- carpenter's hands. Hands like those -- they could fix a bell rope! "My Lord, why did they choose Barabbas? If they had not -- if You had lived .... " She crossed herself and murmured, "But we shall always choose the sinner -- it's the way we are." She would have stayed in His presence longer but there was too much to do. Patrick Moynahan would be there in a moment and she must coax him into fixing the rope.

"Sissa, Sissa Agatta, they's a pleezman outside da kitchen door." Mrs. Apollinaro, the cook, knew from family experience that the appearance of a policeman at your back door brought bad news.

"It's okay Alicia, it's only Sergeant Moynahan. We're expecting him." She walked quickly to the back door and adjusted her smile to one of piety and firm resolve. "Come in, come in Sergeant Moynahan, won't you have a cup of coffee."

"I have Patrolman Guitterez with me, Sister; is it okay .... I mean, for him to come in?"

"Of course, Patrick. Now that wouldn't be a coil of rope he has with him, would it? How could you answer our prayers so quickly?"

Moynahan basked in the praise. Praise from the church was the sweetest praise of all. "We have keys, Sister. To preserve safety and security we have the keys to every store in this here neighborhood. Me and patrolman Guitterez responded to Feldman's Hardware when we got your call and we borrowed a coil of rope. Feldman will raise the price of rope tomorrow -- nobody loses."

Sister Agatha made a mental note to call Bernie Feldman in the morning and offer to pay, knowing full well that he would not accept the church's money. She wondered if Sergeant Moynahan would have been as quick to respond to a call for help from the Mordecai Synagogue. How strange that Bernie Feldman, a Jewish hardware merchant, must be the one to donate the rope to ring the bell of St. Theresa.

Guiterrez, after a cup of coffee, shouldered the heavy coil of rope and was up into the belfry in less than five minutes. "Below, down there!" he warned, and the rope spilled down to the lobby floor. He clattered down the belfry stairs and fastened the free end to the cleats in the wall. "You in business now, senorita Sister .... A-number-one sisal rope, first class stuff .... never need fixing no more." What could she say to these simple men as they bowed their way out the kitchen door? How could she thank them? How could something so simple, so easily accomplished by ordinary people, be such an insurmountable problem to men of God? She could offer them nothing more than a cup of coffee in return. They were, in fact, thankful that they could contribute the little they did to the glory of the Lord.

She looked up the back stairs again, the stairs that would bring the good news to Monsignor Moody. From her vantage point in the kitchen she could see the tortured figure of the Savior at the top landing looking down at her. "So far away," she thought, "Thousands of miles and thousands of years away. Had I known You then .... "

Mrs. Apollinaro had just put the leg of lamb in the oven for Sunday dinner. It was a gift from Noel Webster, the funeral director on Park Place. It was a lovely leg of lamb, and already the kitchen was smoky with rosemary and garlic and the crisp, crusty smell of it. "Lamb of God," she thought. Soon, her Savior, looking down from his cross at the head of the stair would catch the scent of it too.

"But it's not for You!" she said aloud .... and caught herself before she went any further.

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