I hadn’t given so much as a passing thought to Patty McCourt in fifty years; but the memory of a particular incident, which came to mind as I read her obituary in today’s online Star Gazette, caused me to burn with shame, as though the scene in which we both played a part so many decades ago — I willfully and she unwittingly — had only just taken place. True, I had felt deep and bitter regret as the drama unfolded; but the feeling had been fleeting. In retrospect, it’s clear I was a thoughtless, selfish child; and though my sense of empathy was by that time highly developed, self-preservation instincts had, in the end, prevailed. It would appear, from the newspaper article, that my last chance at repentance and redemption had come and gone.
The story I’m about to tell may seem trivial to anyone not directly involved, but should the context in which the incident occurred be taken into account, it assumes an altogether deeper significance. Even then I lent little credence to the anonymity of the confessional; and I sometimes wonder whether my failure to come clean to the formidable Father Burns may have merited the annulment of absolution and plenary indulgences granted to me during my time at Saint John’s.
Patty McCourt and I were in Sister Bartholomew’s second-grade class at Saint John’s Roman Catholic Parochial School in the spring of 1958. She was an awkward, timid girl with a slight stutter and a mole on the tip of her copiously freckled nose. An average student, she was a silent watcher who would stand on the schoolyard sidelines at recess, staring as the rest of us jumped rope, or played hopscotch and The Farmer-in-the-Dell, refusing all invitations to join in. She was an only child whose parents were much older than mine. I know these latter details because I had I attended her birthday party only a few weeks prior to the incident.
The nine classrooms for grades Kindergarten through eight at Saint John’s were situated on two floors above the church, an imposing pile of red brick and cut stone, built in 1929 and dedicated To God and Country. To the right of the building stood the rectory and the higher grades’ large sloping play area; to the left, the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and the much smaller K-3 yard.
One of the school’s customs at the time (which also included the rather dubious practice of the on-site sale of penny candy) was the lost-and-found policy, which dictated that, should a pupil come across a lost item, such as a glove or a copybook, either inside the church or on the schoolyard grounds, he or she was entitled to carry it from classroom to classroom seeking the owner. If no one claimed the item it went into a “lost and found” box near the statue of Saint Anthony of Padua on the second-floor landing.
To a seven-year-old girl, this privilege seemed like a great adventure, full of endless opportunity, one that would not only offer the chance of visiting every classroom, but also (I imagined) would confer upon me a higher status among the popular older pupils. Moreover, it would give me something to brag about at the supper table, perhaps attracting and holding the attention of my harried mother, taciturn father, and five younger siblings. I decided I would actively pursue this mission.
During afternoon recess on the early spring afternoon when the incident occurred, I kept my eyes peeled as usual for anything in the schoolyard that might be construed as lost; but the pickings were less than slim that day. A muddy, bedraggled hair ribbon caught in the schoolyard fence definitely would not be eligible for the classroom tour. Nor would a soggy Hank Aaron baseball card or a stray Atomic Fireball.
And so it was I decided to make a quick visit to the church. I requested and received permission from Sister Mary Peter, on outdoor duty that day, who smiled and nodded in approval at my apparent devotion.
I moseyed up and down the aisles of the hushed church, sunlight streaming through its stained glass windows, traces of the frankincense burned at a morning funeral Mass still heavy on the air. When I had almost given up hope of executing my plan, I discovered a Saint Joseph’s Daily Missal lying in the last pew on the far side of the church between the 8th and 9th Stations of the Cross. I slid in beside it, knelt down for a few seconds, grabbed up my prize and walked swiftly towards the exit.
Then a woman screamed, “Hey, there, little girl, come back here!”
The woman, who I later found out was my friend Noreen Finn’s grandmother, had seen me, and was rushing down the aisle from the votive candle area near the baptismal font. It didn’t take me long to figure out the missal was hers. In a panic, I ran back out onto the schoolyard, dropping the prayer book near the church doors. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mrs. Finn pick it up and brush it off, all the while feverishly scanning the schoolyard in search of the culprit.
Luckily, the afternoon bell rang. As we lined up in twos and marched into the school to the strains of “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, I noticed that Mrs. Finn had re-entered the building. I tried to remain calm, hoping I was as invisible as the Holy Ghost.
Thinking I had evaded disaster, I gratefully looked forward to an uneventful afternoon of arithmetic and geography, since most of the morning and early afternoon had been dedicated, as usual, to Catechism, spelling, English grammar and penmanship.
Then came a knock on the door.
In stomped tall, black-habited, stone-faced Sister Cornelius, who not only taught 8th grade but was also the school principal; a livid, panting Mrs. Finn; and to my utter horror, Father Burns with his dreaded paddle. Mrs. Finn exclaimed to all and sundry that she had simply gone to light a candle for the dearly-departed soul of Mr. Finn, and had left her missal temporarily in the pew, when it was stolen by a naughty little girl in a blue-and-gray-checkered coat. The delegation had already made the rounds of the other lower grades, without having discovered the thief.
Sister Cornelius directed the girls to retrieve their coats from the cloakroom. Two blue-and-gray-checkered coats appeared: mine, a hand-me-down from my cousin Maureen in Philadelphia, and another, identical coat belonging to the now-whimpering Patty McCourt.
This was my moment of truth, of bearing true, rather than false, witness; but I was being accused of disobeying both the seventh and eighth commandments, and committing what Father Burns had sermonized, via James, Matthew, and most certainly Proverbs, to be a nefarious sin of omission. And yet, I could not, would not, admit to stealing. All I had really wanted to do was go around the classrooms with my “find” and maybe have the rest of the school—Sisters of Mercy and students alike—overlook the fact that I was a charity enrollee from a run-down duplex on Laufer Lane.
A stern, scowling Father Burns demanded an immediate confession. The class of 48 pupils held its breath. Mrs. Finn glared back and forth from Patty to me. But in the end she could not say for certain which of us had taken the missal. As the prosecution conferred in the hallway as to what to do next, the boys at the back of the room began snickering. Then laughing. Then pointing.
Patty McCourt, too tongue-tied to defend herself, was standing in a puddle of pee, a look of absolute terror on her beet-red, tear-stained face. I stood by in stubborn silence, knowing I could not, would not be blamed. The previous year, as one of a group of first-graders who had chattered during Sunday Mass, I had been on the receiving end of Father Burns’ paddle, and I stood in holy terror of a similar episode of pain and humiliation.
As we returned our coats to the cloakroom, Mr. Sweeney the janitor, came in with his mop and bucket. Patty was sent home for the day, and life at Saint John’s went on as before.
Patricia McCourt’s obituary stated she had never married, that she had been an office clerk, a cashier at the local A&P, and later had been active in volunteer work. She had cared for her aged parents until their deaths. She would be sadly missed by her aunts and cousins. She is survived by her beloved dog.
It is now the custom of some newspapers, in conjunction with local funeral homes, to offer readers of the obituary column the opportunity to sign an online Guest Book with condolences and notes of sympathy. No one but myself, you, and perhaps Patty will understand the true meaning behind my message’s two small words.
And, of course, the one who weighs our hearts and holds our souls.
Catherine Chandler, an American-born writer living in Canada, is the author of Pointing Home (Kelsay Books, 2019); The Frangible Hour, winner of the 2016 Richard Wilbur Award (University of Evansville Press); Glad and Sorry Seasons (Biblioasis, 2014); and Lines of Flight (Able Muse Press, 2011), shortlisted for the Poets’ Prize. Her complete bio, podcasts, audio recordings, reviews, a list of awards, and other information are available online at The Wonderful Boat.