November 3 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


Our parish housekeepers are saints

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS praises the women who are far from the Mrs Doyle caricature —By FR JOHN BOLLAN

This morning I entered the Church from the sacristy to witness Margaret, my senior PA (pastoral assistant), traversing the sanctuary carpet on her knees. At first, I made no sound, lest I disturb what might have been a private devotion, akin to ascending the Holy Stairs in Rome in a similar manner. Curiosity got the better of me, however, and I had to ask just what was going on.

A little flustered from her genuflections, Margaret informed me that she was conducting a fingertip search for a tiny ‘ball bearing’ which had pinged off during a wardrobe malfunction which befell me during Saturday’s Vigil Mass.

Blithely disregarding the warning about wearing ‘broader phylacteries and longer tassels’ (Matthew 23:5), I had stepped on my stole as I rose to say the opening prayer, snapping off one of said tassels in the process. Margaret was trying to reattach the tassel, but first she had to find the bearing which held it in place. As I had the hospital phone to attend to, I excused myself from the search.

That is just one of myriad instances of folk lending a hand, especially to keep Father looking presentable. Of these, the most obvious helpers are the housekeepers.

Housekeepers are frequently stereotyped as Mrs Doyle characters, foisting tea on the clergy, or as dragons, breathing fiery disapproval over anyone who dares ring the doorbell.

Like dragons, they are becoming something of a vanishing breed these days (I’m sure there’s a few dragons lurking somewhere): many priests prefer to look after themselves, and some feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘domestic help’ on the parish dollar.

I must say that I really do need the support of my housekeepers, for without them, my diet would consist entirely of Pringles and I would have to be airlifted on a monthly basis from the accumulation of laundry and coffee cups which would build up around me.

I have also been blessed to have been looked after by wonderful housekeepers. I know there have been horror stories from the past, whereby the housekeeper ran the rectory with an iron fist and curates were subjected to brutal curfews and deprived of milk rations and access to the canon’s telephone. But those days are in the past, I hope.

On Friday of this week, I will be attending the funeral of a former housekeeper in the cathedral in Paisley. I would like to tell you a bit about Maureen, if that’s OK with you? She worked there for many years and she looked after me for a total of six, albeit spread over two stints in the cathedral precincts.

Some housekeepers see their job as fattening the priest up (honestly, no help required), but Maureen never claimed to be a cordon bleu chef. On the contrary, she would always joke about cremating the steaks on a Saturday (Fr Brennan loved a steak on a Saturday, even when it was ‘very well done indeed’).

Others, as I mentioned above, consider it their duty to be gatekeepers as well as housekeepers, keeping the world at bay. This is because, according to their lights, the world is out to annoy Father or, worse still, to run away with him. So, some can be a little forbidding until your motives have been scrutinised and ‘green lit.’

Maureen was not one of those housekeepers. In fact, she was one of the most welcoming and gracious people you could hope to meet. She was particularly kind to those whom the world might consider a nuisance: the poor, the addicted, the homeless. Given its location, the cathedral was a regular port of call for those looking for a wee hand-out. There were fixed times of the day when soup and a sandwich would be available (a big ask for the hard-pressed housekeepers), but folk invariably turned up whenever they felt like it. Maureen never lost the rag.

She knew all these visitors by name and she knew all their stories: not the stories they would sometimes make up to elicit sympathy (and cash) from the clergy, but their real tragedies. She was compassionate and non-judgemental to her core. Even on the rare occasion when a new face would appear at the door and she didn’t know their name, more than once I heard Maureen address them as ‘sir.’ It was a wholly unaffected courtesy. Indeed, I never heard her say a bad word about anyone, which is remarkable given the fact that chapel houses tend to bring out the worst as well as the best in people.

Back in the day when, prior to its recent gentrification, Paisley High Street at night was not a place you’d wander up without body armour and a truncheon, Maureen could happily come and go without hassle.

This was because she spent her time giving food and other help to the homeless who sheltered in the shop fronts and other nooks and crannies.

I suspect she was able to do that because she herself was so unworldly. A fiercely private person, none of the priests had actually been in her house, until I had cause to go to her door one night. Having no phone, the only way to get an urgent message to her was to go in person.

She was very embarrassed as she ushered me into her flat which was, to all intents and purposes, unfurnished and empty. In that moment, I realised that the reason she was so generous was because she gave everything away. And she did it with a smile and a laugh.

I feel I should apologise to Maureen for sharing this with you, as she herself would be mortified by it. Although deeply devout and a tireless member of the Legion of Mary, she was as unstuffy as you could get. But I feel compelled, especially in view of the twin feasts we have celebrated this week, All Saints and All Souls, to witness to someone who showed me what love of God and neighbour actually looks like.

Although I hate the presumption of canonising people during funerals, Maureen is the person who comes closest to a saint that I have ever met (if you discount Pope John Paul II that is).

Indeed, the only reason we have canonised saints is because people told the stories of the ‘saints’ they had encountered in their lives and how they revealed something of the face of Christ to them. ‘The lives of the saints’ are not solely to be found pressed between the pages of books but in the encounters we continue to have with people who really do live the Gospel—and who do so joyfully.

The first two days of November account for a busier than average week in the parish, both in terms of the Holyday of Obligation and the emotional pull of the commemorating of the Faithful Departed.

Having the hospital phone adds to the activity, and this week I have two trips to Paisley and a lecturing commitment at Glasgow University, all of which pose something of a challenge in the event of a call. Please God, let it be a quiet week!

On Wednesday, in between All Saints Masses, I’ll be dropping off 1,024 pairs of pants to the Rotary Club, which I’m sure will put be a cause of joy to them (as well as liberating the dining room).

Finally, on Friday, I’m hoping for a better performance at this month’s quiz night. Last month witnessed an embarrassing collapse, so things can only get better, quite frankly.

This is billed as a ‘fancy dress’ spectacular and I’ve gone so far as to offer a prize for the best costume. What they don’t know yet is that the prize is a meal with the parish priest, and I’m secretly hoping to emerge the winner. That way, I can get the whole tube of Pringles and the entire bag of Maltesers to myself. As I usually do.


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