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The Grand Good Man

ISSUE:  Autumn 1943

Young Father Egan had just finished saying his office when Mrs. Cassidy, the housekeeper, knocked at the open door. Father Egan recalled with relief that he had put away in his battered bureau the clean shorts and socks which Mrs. Cassidy had left on his bed that morning. He watched her glance around the room, her lips pursed, ready to pounce on a book out of place, a glove on the bare Victorian mantel. Finally, finding nothing else of which to complain, she crossed the room, shaking her head, and drew down the shades at the high, old-fashioned windows. Father Egan said, “But I like the way the sun comes in across the floor. It reminds me of my room at home.”

“Do you want to ruin the carpet? You young ones with no parishes of your own never think of such things, but Father Keating had to pay good money for that carpet.”

“I know. According to the diocesan records, Father Keating served as pastor here from 1897 to 1910. He’s been in his grave a good thirty years.”

Mrs. Cassidy crossed herself as a reproach to Father Egan’s levity. “May God have mercy on his soul.”

“I’m sure He has by now, so Father Keating won’t mind what happens to his carpet.”

Mrs. Cassidy fingered the shades for dust, refusing to raise them. “There’s some one downstairs. That’s what I came to tell you.” Her news of a visitor got the better of her defense of the carpet. “Who do you suppose it is, Father? Ah, but you’d never guess. It’s Mr. Kennedy. John David Kennedy.”

“I’ve heard the name somewhere. He’s a member of the parish, isn’t he?” “A member of the parish? Glory be to God, I should think he was. You’ll see his name down in the annual collection list for three hundred dollars, and that isn’t half of it. There’s not a family in town that hasn’t Mr. Kennedy to thank for something. A job here, a basket of food there, help with the hospital bills for another 1 There’s no telling the good that man does.”

Father Egan stood up. “I’ll be glad to get a look at your paragon. What’s he want to see me about?”

“It wasn’t you he wanted to see, Father.” Mrs. Cassidy wiped her hands in her apron. She distrusted the sound of the word, paragon. “Mr. Kennedy’s as close as two pins with the Bishop, and had a letter last year, so they say, from the old Cardinal himself up in Boston. Naturally, he don’t have much time to waste on curates.” That thrust was worth a hundred paragons, Mrs. Cassidy reflected. “He—Mr. Kennedy, not the Cardinal, what would the Cardinal be doing in my house?—asked for Father Nolan, but I told him he was busy in the church. I hadn’t the heart to say he was down in the basement scraping and repainting Saint Anthony, so mind you don’t let the cat out of the bag.”

Father Egan set a finger on his lips. “Never a word.”

“Mr. Kennedy’s the kind of man, you know, would never think of repainting Saint Anthony. He’d send down to New York for a dozen new Saint Anthony’s. He would that.” Mrs. Cassidy led the way to the stairs. “The grand good man,” she said, in a voice likely to carry to the rooms below, “the angel on earth!” She turned to study Father Egan. “You might have combed your hair, but no matter. Mr. Kennedy’s not the kind of man to notice it twice.”

Father Egan ran his hands through his hair. He felt sure that to notice his unruly hair once would be more than enough for Mr. Kennedy. He swallowed hard as they walked down the stairs. Mrs. Cassidy hesitated at the parlor door, then, with an air of polite apology, announced, “This is Father Egan, Mr. Kennedy.” Father Egan raised his eyes from the carpet to greet the grand good man. Mr. Kennedy was tall, plump, with rosy full cheeks and white hair. He held out a hand that seemed to Father Egan to be smooth and polished like stone. “I’m delighted to meet you, Father,” Mr. Kennedy said. His voice was deep and musical. He cocked his head to one side. “But you’re young,” he said. “Young! Newly ordained? Your first curacy?”


A shadow crossed the handsome face. “Ah, if things had been different, if my father had lived, if I hadn’t been forced to earn a living for the rest of the brood—and there were nine of us, Father, six fine, clean girls, and three boys— I might be standing in your shoes. I might be a happy, humble priest like yourself. Think of it!” Mr. Kennedy extended his hands, palms up, as if to ask pity for the wretched creature Father Egan saw before him. To Father Egan’s astonishment, Mrs. Cassidy, still in the doorway, was wiping her eyes with a corner of her apron. Apparently dissatisfied by Father Egan’s response to this sketch of his life, Mr. Kennedy turned to Mrs. Cassidy. “And how’s your husband, Peg? Behaving himself?”

Mrs. Cassidy shook her head. “You know his failin’, Mr. Kennedy. Nobody hires him for long.”

“Send him down to the sheriff’s office tomorrow. We may be able to find something for him.”

“Ah, thank you, sir, God bless you, sir.” Mrs. Cassidy blinked at Father Egan to make sure that he had noted this latest evidence of Mr, Kennedy’s goodness; then, sobbing vocally, she walked down the hall to the kitchen. Mr. Kennedy rubbed his hands. “Her husband’s the hardest drinker in the second ward,” he said, his voice reverential, “but he comes of a big family. We like to keep big families happy, don’t we? Lots of influence in these fine big families. Did I tell you that I was one of nine, myself?”

Uncomfortably, wondering whether to sit down, Father Egan said, “I’m sorry that Father Nolan happens to be busy in the church. Is there anything I can do?”

Mr. Kennedy took a cigar from his pocket, bit off its end, and began to work the tobacco from cheek to cheek. “A nasty habit,” he said. “Picked it up in the shops as a boy, Hard times, hard men!” He sat down in a chair under the Bishop’s portrait. He smiled gently. “Why, it’s nothing important. Just a matter of routine. I was going to speak to Father Nolan, but I can trust you to pass the word along to him. You won’t mind doing that, will you?”

“Why, no.” Father Egan was aware that his voice was high and uncertain in his throat. It was liable to break at any moment. “If you could give me some idea of what you—”

“Naturally. Naturally.” Mr. Kennedy rolled the broken cigar up and down the plump, polished surface of his fingers. “The party has scheduled a primary for next month. It’s fairly important to us—I guess you know how important these things can seem to us worldly outsiders. We’re nominating a candidate for representative. This year, with the way the money has been pouring in, it looks like the nomination will be as good as election. The other side hasn’t a prayer. Not a prayer.”

Father Egan said doubtfully, “Yes. I see.”

“Well, now, there are a couple of fellows out for the nomination. One of them, John Hayes, is a fine boy, a member of the next parish. He’s had to fight his way up from pretty low beginnings, but he’s not ashamed of them. No, sir, and neither are we. He’s managed to do pretty well for himself in the last few years. Got into the contracting business. I won’t deny that I’ve helped him as much as I could. A boy like that—well, it makes me think of my own past, one of a family of nine, working from morning to night—who wouldn’t help him? And his home life, Father: I know you’ll be interested in that. All I need to tell you is that he’s the father of six handsome kids. Fine, strong, scrappy kids. His wife died having the last one, as a matter of fact. Can you imagine the cross that man has had to bear? But his sisters have been taking care of the children, and sooner or later God will put another fine young girl in his path. Well, that’s the background of one of them.”

Father Egan said, “Yes. I don’t quite understand why you’re telling me all this—”

Mr. Kennedy raised a hand for silence. “And the other fellow? You ask me about him? Well, I’m a charitable man. You won’t expect me to go out of my way to fling mud. ‘Anybody who hasn’t got a sin on him,’ as the Bible says, ‘let him throw the first stone.’ This other fellow, this O’Connor, started out with all the advantages. No one’s ever been able to show me how his family could afford to do it, but they sent him first to a private school and then to Yale. I suppose Fordham or Catholic U. wasn’t good enough for him. He’s been practising law here in town for the last seven or eight years. Handling, they say, a lot of divorce cases for the wild young Protestant bunch. Married a Protestant himself.” Mr. Kennedy lowered his voice delicately. “They’ve been married for two years now, but no kids. Maybe she can’t have kids, maybe she doesn’t want any, I don’t know. But somehow I don’t think he’s the kind of man we want to send down to Washington, do we, Father? Even if he was with the organization, instead of against it?”

Father Egan rested his shoulders against the frame of the door. He said, “Well, but that’s what the primary’s for, isn’t it?”

Mr. Kennedy threw back his handsome head and laughed. “Ah, that’s good, Father. That’s marvelous! That’s one of the best. I’m sure Father Nolan gets a big kick out of having you around.”

Father Egan felt himself trembling. “What was it you wanted me to tell Father Nolan?”

“Why, I’ve just explained it to you. I want you and him to say a few words, nothing direct, you know, nothing out loud, in favor of our candidate. All I want is a hint or two from the pulpit—that’ll be enough to finish off O’Connor.”

Father Egan felt suddenly shaken by terror, as if he were wrestling with the devil himself. It was hard for him to speak. “But, Mr. Kennedy, of course you know that Father Nolan and I could never do anything like that.”

Mr. Kennedy got to his feet. “You’re kidding.”

Then, as Father Egan had known it would, his voice broke. “No, I’m not kidding. Why, you’re asking us to use the pulpit to do you a personal favor, to help your man—”

“You’re damned right I am.”

The side door of the rectory opened. Father Egan and Mr. Kennedy listened to the sound of footsteps shuffling up the hall to the parlor. Mr. Kennedy’s voice was no longer deep and musical in his throat. “We’ll see about this,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I’ve never had any trouble with Father Nolan before.”

Father Egan stammered, “Before? But I know he hasn’t —I know Father Nolan hasn’t—”

Father Nolan entered the room, ducking his head between his bent shoulders, wiping his paint-smeared hands. “Well, Father? Well, Mr. Kennedy?”

Mr. Kennedy said, “Your young associate and I have been enjoying a friendly little political discussion.”

Father Nolan’s old sharp face darkened. He turned away from Father Egan. “Yes?”

“I’ve been explaining our situation downtown. We’re going to need a little help from you two in the pulpit. Just a word or two for our boy, a hint against the other. Just enough to show the people where the Church stands.”

Father Egan said, “And I’ve tried to tell him, Father, that the Church can’t take a stand against some one as a personal favor to some one else. That—that it can’t be bribed.”

Mr. Kennedy laughed, the cigar between his straight white teeth. “Young,” he said. “His first curacy. Bees and flowers! How does he think the Church exists, Father, in a vacuum? Who does he think pays its bills? What does bethink it crawls on, an empty belly?”

Father Nolan stiffened his old shoulders. “All right, Mr. Kennedy. That’ll be enough.”

“You’ll say the usual word, then, for young Hayes?”

Father Nolan turned his eyes to Father Egan. “No,” he said, slowly. “No, we won’t do it.”

Mr. Kennedy broke off another piece of his cigar. The quid thrust itself back and forth under his tongue. “Listen, Father, you’ve done it before, and you’ll do it again. What about my three hundred bucks a year, and twenty other contributions just as big? What about the dances the organization throws for you every year? What about the bazaar we run? All I got to do is to say the word, and you’ll have no heat in your church next winter. No heat, no light, and no attendance. And the Bishop will be down on you like a ton of bricks.”

Father Nolan kept his eyes on Father Egan’s face. “No.”

“Like a ton of bricks. In fact, the Bishop may decide to transfer you to another parish. That may just happen to suit him. He may decide to make you a chaplain, say, at the old people’s home. After all, you’re getting pretty old, yourself, Father. You’d like that, wouldn’t you, sitting around all day with a lot of old men and women who didn’t know where they were, or what they were doing? As for this young arch-angel Michael, the Bishop will be able to find a place for him, too. A nice, safe place in the country.”

“Get out of here, Kennedy.”

“That’s all you want to say to me?”

“Yes. Get out of here.”

“That suits me.” Kennedy walked from the room, slamming the door behind him, and then, more faintly, the hall door also. Father Nolan walked uncertainly to the window and stood looking out across the green lawn to the church. Father Egan saw, without surprise, that the old priest was crying. He crossed the room and touched Father Nolan’s shoulder. He said, “I knew you wouldn’t help him. I knew you hadn’t.”

Father Nolan drew in his breath. “But I’ve always helped him, boy, I’ve always given in to him, the biggest man in the parish, the biggest man in the city. He’s made me jump through hoops. He’s made me crawl like a pet dog.” Father Nolan raised his head. Plaster dust from the statue of Saint Anthony glittered in his hair. “But today I told him. To-day you and I told him to get out.” He touched Father Egan’s hand. “It’s going to take a while to get used to-to being free like this. But maybe, if we work hard, if we work harder than ever, the Bishop will let us stay on here. Maybe everything will turn out all right.”

Father Egan said, “Why, of course it will.” He smiled, wiping his lips. The terror had left him. He had faced the devil, the grand good man, and traded him blow for blow. Only afterwards, when he had gone upstairs to the sunny room that was so like his room at home, did it occur to him that the old priest had spoken without hope.


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