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Fr Applejack: Christmas tale

In our annual Christmas short story, the late James Barclay tells the tale of an old priest who loves nothing better than Christmas Midnight Mass.

The snow lay deeply in the grounds of St Mary’s Church. Old Father Jack O’Malley relished it. It reminded him of his young days in County Cork when his mother would warp a warm woollen scarf around his neck, push his mittens on his numb fingers, peck his check and send him off to school. Yes, Fr Jack loved the snow.

He ignored the gust that blew in from the busy street and, pushing his biretta firmly down on his head and smoothing his cassock. Fr Jack O’Malley was one of the old-time priests. He took a step back.

“All right Aggie,” he hollered.

Aggie, inside the chapel house, flicked a switch and outside the Christmas tree burst into magic colour. The fairy lights twinkled. The reds, the blues, greens flashed in a living rainbow. Fr Jack clicked his tongue. Yep, his tree was beautiful. The children would love it.

He shivered slightly as he hurried back into the house.

“The weans’ll be delighted, Father,” Aggie said, smiling broadly.

Faithful Aggie has been Fr Jack’s housekeeper since he arrived at the church 27 years ago. And she knew how the old priest adored the children. The great Christmas tree switch-on was an annual ritual.

She was devoted to the old man who reminded her of Barry Fitzgerald.

The house was attached to the large church and Fr Jack walked through. Just days until Christmas and he had to make sure everything was just right. He proudly strolled around the aisles and was pleased with what he saw.

The crib was there just right next to the altar. The donation box for St Margaret’s Adoption Society placed prominently next to it. Flowers for the altar had been ordered. Aggie had seen to that. There were enough votive candles in their proper place ready to be lit… each one a prayer. There was a holy medal and a Christmas stocking for each of the altar boys and girls. Fr Jack chuckled knowing what each would appreciate the most.

He was too kind… a soft touch. Aggie had always said so. He could never turn away a begging hand.

But Aggie, a canny wee Glasgow wifie, protected him as best she could. She could spot the shifty ones that came to the door… the phoney sob stories. Besides, the old priest had already given most of his personal belongings away. Everything was gone… all except the miraculous medal and chain.

“Me mother gave it to me the day I was ordained,” he told Aggie, adding: “She said our Blessed Mother would look after me all my life as she had a wee soft spot for priests.”

He chuckled and the medal never left him. He wore it around his neck and then, annoyed when the chain broke, kept it in his missal.

Only one thing was missing for his Christmas preparations… his sermon for Midnight Mass. This was the moment Fr Jack eagerly looked forward to. His Midnight Mass sermons came from the heart. They were magnificent and St Mary’s congregration left the Church uplifted and with a smile.

He told them the Christmas story of the shepherds, of the angels, of the baby in the manger who had come down from Heaven to die so that we may be saved. He spoke of the glory of God, and the wonder of his creation… The majestic mountains, the oceans and the most wondrous of all… US. And he always ended with a grin and the immortal phrase: “and He DID make little green apples as well.”

The phrase caught on and it was not long before he was being affectionately called Fr Applejack.

Fr Jack took many hours to prepare his sermon and, after his inspection of the church, Aggie found him sitting at his desk, reams of paper in front of him and a pensive look on his face. He called Aggie and asked her to bring him a ‘wee cuppa tea if ye please.’

Aggie hurried off and poured out a good measure of Bushmills into his favourite glass. Placing the drink on a wooden tray, she hurried along the corridor leading to the old man’s study, genuflecting to the life-sized statue of the Sacred Heart as she passed, making sure she did not spill a drop. Her hand came to her mouth as she opened the door and the tray crashed to the floor.

Fr Jack was slumped across the desk, his pen still clutched in his hand. Aggie didn’t scream. Although, shaking, she bent over his seemingly lifeless body feeling his pulse and sweating brow.

“Thank God,” she muttered, “he is still alive.”

Aggie watched the ambulance tail lights disappear around the street corner, its klaxon screaming hysterically as it raced to an already alerted hospital.

She crossed herself and whispered a silent prayer. Minutes later she was on the telephone to the archbishop.

“He was in the middle of writing his Christmas sermon, Your Grace,” she sniffled. “It was the highlight of his life. He so looked forward to it.”

“Now, now, there,” the archbishop said softly. “I’m sure he will be all right.”

“H-he jist loved saying Midnight Mass,” Aggie repeated, dabbing her eyes. “And the people jist loved his sermons tae.”

The archbishop consoled her as best he could.

“Whit are we gonny dae for Midnight Mass if he’s no’ here?” Aggie wailed even louder.

“Well there IS a shortage of priests in our diocese,” the archbishop said, “but I’ll get on to the other diocese and see what we can do.”

“Naebody could replace Fr Jack,” Aggie whimpered loyally.

“Now, don’t you worry,” the archbishop went on. “I am sure God will not let us down.”

But as far as Aggie was concerned, God had let them down.

“Whit a time tae strike good Fr Jack doon,” she said. “Jist a couple of days before Christmas. Ah’m no’ pleased wi’ ye God. Ye’ll need for tae dae something.”

Aggie gathered up the papers the priest had been working on and did a quick perusal on them. Aw, he was still ‘on the ball,’ she smiled. The sermon was the old priest at his best. She put the papers safely away in his desk drawer.

Later that night she turned down Fr Jack’s bed as usual. By force of habit she left a glass of Bushmills on the bedside table, along with his missal. She took a quick scan of the room quietly before closing the bedroom door. Sighing deeply, she retired to her own room, knelt by her bed and gazed up at her wall picture of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and silently said her night prayers.

“Holy Mother,” she began earnestly, “ask yer son no’ to take Fr Jack, just yet. Let him get ower Christmas and dae his Midnight Mass sermon please. Adding a couple o’ days widnae make any difference.”

Aggie found it hard to sleep that night and the morning shriek of the phone made her leap from her bed and rush to answer it.

Shaking, she lifted the receiver.

“Your Grace…” she gushed. “…Oh, naw…” and she burst into tears.

Fr Applejack has passed peacefully away during the night.

“He has gone home,” the archbishop told her, adding that he had arranged for a priest from a north of Scotland diocese to come down in time for Midnight Mass.

“It’ll no be the same,” Aggie muttered.

Christmas Eve arrived and all of Scotland lay under a heavy blanket of snow. The doorbell echoed loudly through the chapel house and Aggie, wiping her hands on her ‘peeny’, hurried from the kitchen to answer it. A young priest smiled broadly.

“Hello,” he said. “I’ve been sent down…”

“Ah know, ah know,” Aggie interrupted. “Ah knew you were comin’. His Grace telt me.”

“Nice tree,” the young priest said, nodding towards the gaily lit Christmas tree.”

“Oh, aye, auld Fr Jack, God rest his soul,” she said crossing herself, “put it up every year for the weans.”

The priest smiled… “Er…er… come in, come in,” Aggie stuttered. “Ah’ll show ye tae your bedroom and make you a wee cuppa tea.”

Aggie led the way up the stairs and saw the young priest settle in. Soon they were sitting in the kitchen chatting over a cup of steaming hot tea. “It was that sudden,” Aggie said sadly. “He was such a kind man… a lovely auld man and well loved by everyone.”

She dabbed her eyes.

“Ye wonder whit God’s thinking aboot when he knew full well that Fr Jack loved saying Midnight Mass.”

“Yes, well, our ways are not God’s ways. There is a time to live and a time to die,” the young man said.

“Aye, but tae die at Christmas, Aggie said bitterly. “It’s no’ right so it’s no.”

“God has a plan for us all,” the priest said, stretching over and squeezing her hand.

“It’s no’ fair,” Aggie said, shaking her head.

The young priest laughed.“Besides,” he said. Maybe they were short of a comedian for the celebrations up there,” he said, jabbing a finger skywards. “I believe that Fr Jack was quite a wit.”

Aggie giggled. She liked this young priest. There was something about him.

“Aye, he could be right funny,” Aggie twittered.

“So you see, there’s a purpose for everything,” the priest said.

“Ah suppose ye’re right,” Aggie said. “And, who knows, maybe it was jist tae gie YOU the experience o’ comin’ doon tae a busy parish tae see how you dae.” The priest laughed.

“Mind ye,” Aggie went on, “ye’ll need tae dae good wi’ yer sermon. Fr Jack’s shoes were big. It is an impossible task if ye ask me.”

The priest smiled. “We’ll see,” he said with a twinkle.

The snow was falling heavily as midnight approached. St Mary’s choir began singing Silent Night. The lovely carol echoed through the chill of the night. Aggie sobbed quietly, it was Fr Jack’s favourite.

The Christmas tree’s coloured fairly lights reflected and danced on the white soft ground. Well wrapped-up parishioners began to arrive and stream into the warmth of the church lit up with the votive candles.

The young priest put his holy vestments on and was about to go out into the night and make his way round to the church.

“Ye don’t have tae go out, Father,” Aggie said. “Jist walk through the sacristy and intae the chapel… ye don’t hiv tae go outside.”

The priest thanked her. “No,” he said, “I’ll walk round. I want to see the tree in the dark.”

He paused for a moment by the statue of the Sacred Heart, blessed himself and whispered ‘thank you.’

The Church was bursting at the seams and everyone anxiously waited to hear the young priest’s sermon… no one more so than Aggie. He told the Christmas story and went on to deliver a brilliant sermon.

Aggie, standing at the back, grimaced.

“The fly wee rascal,” she thought. “He’s had a sneaky peek at Fr Jack’s papers. Ah’ll see him efter.”

Leaving the lectern, he suddenly turned and, grinning, said “…and God DID make little green apples.”

Aggie gasped. “Somebody must’ve telt him that,” she exclaimed.

Afterwards, back at the house, she thought she would quiz him later. He’d had a busy night.

“I’ll just retire, Aggie,” he said wearily and made his way up to his room.

Aggie had a sip… or two… of sherry and slept like a log. Her new young priest had not disgraced himself and even Fr Applejack would have been proud of him.

She made breakfast in the morning and was just about to climb the stairs to rouse her new charge when she turned back to answer a persistent ringing of the doorbell. A young priest, suitcase in hand, stood outside.

“Hello,” he said. “I’m Fr Stephen. I’ve been sent down temporarily. I’m sorry I was held up. Had a bump in the car on the way down and just came to earlier in a hospital in Oban. I got here as fast as I could…

Sorry about Midnight Mass.”

Aggie said nothing. She left the young priest standing at the door and hurried up the stairs.

The priest’s room was empty.

The bed had not been slept in and, on the bedside table, was a miraculous medal with a broken chain and, at its side, a little green apple with a bite taken out.

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