SYNOPSIS OF FATHER GIBBON and SISTER MARY MAGDA
Father Gibbon was in the Army Special Forces for 12 years. Two tours of duty, contact with the enemy, killed many of the enemy. He’s tough as nails, and lost spiritually. Father Patrick his parish priest groomed Matt unknowingly from the time he was Altar boy.
Sister Magda was in cahoots with Fr. Patrick and watched him very carefully while he was in school. She eventually helped him into six years of seminary. He was 36 when he became a priest and was assigned to his hometown church.
Sister Magda is in her 50’s, black, big, and tough with a heart of gold. Was born into wretched poverty in the South. Street-wise with a natural spiritual inclination. She’s been a nun most of her adult life.
Sister Magda acts as a catalyst for Father Gibbon’s quick temper when he comes across the bad buys and wants to beat the crap out of them. Sr. Magda steps in and cools Matt’s heels with some spiritual words of wisdom, advising him to pray for the bad guys before turning them over to the authorities. She has a sense of humor and a southern accent and speaks Creole.
The wolf and the hawk working together to help folks in trouble.
I can’t remember ever having had a thought of becoming a priest. Perhaps when Mama died the thought may have passed through my mind when I saw the empty road before me. Papa was long gone and I had no siblings. I never knew what loneliness was until I walked away from her grave and entered our empty house. She had always been there with a ready smile when I came home from school — and that tin in the cupboard, always filled with those home-made chocolate chip cookies. I think it hit me I was on my own when that tin became empty and I knew it would never be filled again.
There was a lot of fussin’ from Aunts and Uncles and Cousins for a few days and then I was on my own. I didn’t even have a dog to come home to. Mama was allergic to everything so we had to be careful.
But there was Sister Magda. Everyone at school was afraid of her. I never had any direct contact with her but had the feeling she was watching me. I didn’t dislike her as the other kids did, but I didn’t necessarily like her either. I saw her from afar and was in awe of this nun. She was big, and black, and tough. No one messed with Sister Magda.
I was convinced she was watching me and it made me uncomfortable. She wasn’t obvious, but I knew. When you get that, hair standing up on the back of your neck kind of thing, you can be pretty sure someone is watching. I imagined she knew something about me and might tell. I hadn’t done anything bad but I still felt guilty for some reason. She just looked and waited. What she was waiting for was beyond me at the time.
I was about to graduate from high school in a few weeks; and the prospect of the future scared me even more than Sister Magda. I certainly didn’t want to hang around this town. I saw what happened to guys and gals who did. I knew that was not going to happen to me.
I thought there was something wrong with me when I came to the realization I didn’t like girls. I panicked when I thought of the alternative. But thankfully, I came to the conclusion I didn’t like boys either. But that was even worse. I was out in left field alone and would probably die way.
When I saw the recruitment ad in the Gazette for the Army, I saw a possible out. I could learn a trade and see the world, at least that’s what the ad said. I joined-up three days after graduation. Two tours in Vietnam taught me more than I ever imagined and a lot more than I wanted to know. I had never seen another human die, especially under wartime conditions. The first time I saw the light fade from the eyes of a comrade, a friend, I went numb inside. I couldn’t feel anything. No sympathy, no remorse. I guess it was an internal defense system that kicked in.
The thing that haunted me more than anything else was whether I had been responsible for another human being’s death. And at the end of the day, what was the point of all the killing and maiming? There wasn’t any. That’s not what I bargained for. The recruitment ad should have read, Join the Army, see the world, meet new people, and then kill them.
I received an honorable discharge and often wondered what was so honorable about it. When I arrived home, I realized how much I had changed. Everything looked familiar but there was something else. There was an emptiness which is the best way I could describe it.
My uncle had rented the home I grew up in to some very nice people who took good care of it. I said ‘no’ when they wanted to know when they should leave. The gratitude on their faces was worth it when I told them they could stay as long as they wanted.
I wasn’t the same person who left eight years earlier. And I certainly did not want to pick up where I had left off. I still didn’t know who I was or what I wanted out of life, but living there was not going to be part of it.
Matt saw Sister Magda for the first time since his return when he went to Mass. She looked the same only happier for some reason. Perhaps she looked different because he was different. When she saw him, her face lit up which surprised him.
“Matt Gibbon. I’m so happy to see you again.”
“Sister Magda. I can hardly believe you remember me. It’s been a long time.”
“It has, indeed. A lot of water under our bridges.”
“Yeah, that’s for sure. More than I anticipated.”
“So, what are you plans now that you’re back?”
“I don’t know that I’m back. I just came to visit. Not sure what’s next.”
“Father Patrick passed away.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. When?”
“Over a year ago.”
“I always liked him even when he’d come down on me like a ton of bricks.”
Sister Magda smile, “Yes, he did. He left something for you.”
“A letter. He gave it to me and asked that I give it to you if I ever saw you again.”
“I can’t imagine what it would be about.”
They met the following afternoon. Sister Magda smiled when she handed him the letter.
“You know what’s in here don’t you?” Matt smiled as he opened the envelope. Sister Magda said nothing, she just smiled.
As Matt opened the letter, he noticed it had been written five years earlier. Seeing Father Pat’s handwriting brought back memories of when he was altar boy. He remembered how Father Pat always had time to talk with him. As he read the letter he began to realize Father Pat had been grooming him for the priesthood.
Matt looked up, “He obviously knew me better than I knew myself. He wants me to consider going to seminary and becoming a priest. Were you aware of this?”
“Yes, I was.”
“He says that I would be the perfect celibate. I never considered becoming a priest. What did he mean about being the perfect celibate?"
"Having no desires of this world — being in this world but not of it."
What Sister Magda said made sense and answered so many questions he had struggled with about himself, "And you, Sister Magda, I often got the feeling you were watching me.”
She laughed, “I was.”
“Why didn’t you or he say something?”
“We decided to let it unfold naturally. You weren’t ready to hear what he had in mind back then.”
“No, I guess I wasn’t. Not sure I am now.”
“Yes, of course. But I’ve fulfilled my end of the promise, the rest is up to you. If you decide to go forward with his suggestion, let me know. I can help.”
“Thank you, Sister. I’ll give it some thought.”
Matt researched all of the references Father Pat indicated in his letter. Three months later he called Sister Magda and asked her what was the next step.
Six years later he graduated with a divinity degree. He was 36 years old
Sister Magda was present at his ordination. Matt caught a glimpse of her as he moved forward in the Cathedral. She was beaming which gave him a sense of comfort in knowing she was there for him. Her strength, and encouragement in a way made the moment possible. He thought of Father Patrick and hoped he was also aware.
The years of seminary discipline during formation were awe inspiring for Matt, but it was that moment during ordination when the Bishop laid his hands on Matt’s head that the point of no return for him had been reached. Though only symbolic of the Holy Spirit descending the sacred character upon him, setting him aside for the path ahead, he experienced a euphoric sense of selflessness which left him breathless and helpless.
The Bishop must have been alarmed when Matt did not move away as rehearsed. He whispered, “Father Gibbon?” Matt had never been addressed in that manner. Those two words seemed to be the trigger that sent his new life surging through him. He retreated from the Bishop, overwhelmed with a sense of humility he could never have imagined.
Earlier, he had asked if he could be assigned to his home town church, Saint Ignatius of Antioch after he was ordained. He was told not to have high hopes of that happening and promptly forgot about it. He could not have been more surprised when he was notified of his assignment, after all, to St. Ignatius. It wasn’t until several years later that Sister Magda’s influence became evident. She was like a guardian angel, always there, seldom seen.
After Father Patrick passed away, Father Giovani Ciabatino assumed Father Pat’s responsibilities, however, there remained a need. Sister Magna was a born diplomat. She knew everyone and had connections in high places one would never think possible for a nun. But here he was, on his way back home, an ordained priest of the Catholic Church.
When he stepped off of the train, there she was.
“Father Gibbon, I’m so happy to see you.”
“Sister Magda, how did you know I was coming on this train? It was a last minute decision.”
She ignored his question, picked up his suitcase and escorted him to a waiting car.
“The rectory is all prepared. Mrs. Mueller is your housekeeper and cook. She will help you get settled. Father Ciabatino is around somewhere. You’ll probably see him at dinner. By the way, Mrs. Mueller is an excellent cook so, no need to think you’ll be on rations with her around.”
Matt found Mrs. Mueller to be well chosen for the position. She was efficient but managed to stay in the background and mind her own business. Father Ciabatino showed up for dinner and informed Matt unceremoniously that he preferred to be called Father Gio. That set the tone for a somewhat distance relationship. Matt got the impression he was protecting his territory as parish priest which was fine with him. He had no intentions of usurping anyone’s territory least of all Father Gio.
The dinner and meeting with Father Gio were pleasant enough — mostly there were questions about the new kid on the block. Matt did his best to make sure Father Gio understood that he was there to fill a void and assist wherever he was needed. Father Gio seemed more relaxed over coffee at the end of the meal. Matt yawned and excused himself, pleading exhaustion after a full day and bid Father Geo a good night.
Matt fell asleep almost immediately as the whistle of the 10:30 express train passing through town. It reminded him of the time he asked his Mother what was the purpose of the tall poll with the arm that extended toward the railroad tracks. She explained that as the train came through town, a hook on the side of the mail car grabbed a prepare mail bag placed on the pole thereby eliminating the need for the train to stop.
Dawn was on the verge of breaking when Matt opened my eyes for the first time in his new old home. Since he had no immediate duties, he decided to have breakfast, then go to the Cathedral and have an in-depth look around. He knew it well enough having been an altar boy but now he felt privy to go anywhere he choose to go.
Six o’clock mass was finished when Matt arrived. There were still some folks waiting near the confessional when he was approached from behind. “Good morning, Father Gibbon.”
Matt laughed and turned around, “No, no, Sister. I’m thinking Brother Gibbon for the time being. I need a lot more experience before I’ll feel comfortable with that title.”
“That day will come soon enough.”
“Your confidence is encouraging and reassuring. Thank you.”
They walked together while exploring the Cathedral. It was an unexpected opportunity for Matt to become friends as well a colleague of Sister Magda. Her intelligence and sense of humor would sustain him as their lives unfolded together in ways he could never have imagined.
Matt’s initial goal as priest was a life of prayer and meditation in his effort to enhance his communication with the Absolute. Of course, he would be available to those who wished counseling on matters of their concern. He was surprised at the number of requests he received almost immediately from a variety of parishioners, most of whom he did not know personally. Some had been friends of his mother which formed an immediate bond. As for the others, he began to wonder why they came to him and not Father Geo.
He casually mentioned this to Sister Magda one afternoon and was struck by her silence; she suggested he create a confessional schedule for those in need. He followed her suggestion and was somewhat overwhelmed with folks seeking confession at the appointed times. Something was going on and he wasn’t able to decipher what it was. He extended his confessional schedule to alleviate the waiting time folks had to endure. Father Geo also had a confessional schedule which Matt worked around, but still the concern lingered.
Finally, he took Sister Magda aside one afternoon and point blank asked her. He was met with silence and pinched lips.
“Okay, Sister. Come with me.” he lead her to the confessional and opened the parishioner’s door. He held the door and pointed. She was hesitant but finally entered. He closed her door and took his place on the other side of the screen.
They sat in silence for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, “Okay, Sister — let’s have it. What’s going on?”
She remained silent. “Sister, I thought we were friends. I’m asking you as a friend, not as your priest.”
She whispered, “I am so ashamed.”
“Ashamed of what?”
“They don’t like Father Geo.”
“What?” He could hardly believe what he had heard. “Why not, for heaven’s sake?”
More silence. It was obvious she was having a tough time talking about whatever it was. “Sister, I’m not about to force you to do something against your will. But we can’t sit here forever. Perhaps we should end this conversation until another time.” He got up and opened the door.
He closed his door and sat down. The tension was almost unbearable. Here was this no nonsense person he had grown to admire, falling to pieces in front of him. He took a deep breath and waited.
“Father Geo — and Johnathan.”
“The altar boy?” Matt’s stomach tightened. He already knew what she was about to answer.
“Are you certain?”
“A number of small things that don’t amount to anything in themselves, but when you begin putting them together… they don’t add up.”
“Little things, like what?”
“Late for class, his grades are slipping. And he avoids eye contact which is the telltale thing with me. He’s involved with something and is conflicted about it.”
“Do you want me to have a talk with him?”
“No, I’ve tried that.”
“He told one lie after another.”
“Have you talked to his parents?”
“He doesn’t have any — lives with an elderly aunt.”
“Which means he’s unsupervised and on his own.”
“Well, we can’t sit back and wait. Perhaps I should discuss this with Father Geo.”
“I tried that.”
“Do you think he’s having a sexual relationship with Johnathan?”
“I don’t know. They’ve been seen together more often than would be considered routine. I just don’t know.”
‘It sounds like Phillip. He’s one of our bell ringers”
Matt opened the confessional door and stood outside. “Phillip?”
“Yes, Brother Gibbon.”
“What’s the trouble? You look exhausted?”
“It’s my turn to ring the 6 PM prayer bell.”
“The rope won’t budge. I looked for Charlie but he’s not around. What do I do?”
Matt looked at Sister Magda, “Whose Charlie?”
“He’s our janitor and grounds keeper. Phillip, did you give the rope a good yank. Sometimes it sticks.”
“Yes, Sister, but it won’t give.”
“Did you go to the tower?”
“No, Sister, the gate is locked.”
“It is? That’s strange. It should be open.”
“Okay, we better have a look. Come on Brother Gibbon, I don’t think you’ve been to the tower yet? Phillip, you too. Come on.” They walked to the tower stairs.”
Half way up the stairway to the tower they encountered the gate. Sister Magda looked at Phillip. “The gate’s not locked, But it is odd that it’s closed.” She opened the gate and pushed it against the wall. The three continued up the stairway.
Matt was the first to enter the bell tower. He stopped suddenly and turned. “Phillip, you can go, I’ll fix the rope and ring the bell. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. You get on home before it gets dark. Thanks again.”
Phillip gratefully turned and ran down the stairs. Sister Magda look questioningly at Matt. When Phillip was out of sight, he turned to Sister Magda. Come on.” He turned and led the way into the chamber. As they entered, Brother Gibbon stepped aside clearing the view for Sister Magda. She stopped and put her hand to her mouth, “Oh, dear God, no.”
Brother Gibbon, moved close to the figure of Johnathan hanging by his neck from the bell rope.
“Yes, he’s gone.
“That’s what we’re going to find out.”
“No, we need to notify the police first. Let’s go down and close the gate without touching it. Fingerprints will be vital.”
“Sister Magda told me Johnathan lives with his elderly aunt.”
“That’s correct. We had our officers go over to her home to advise her of Johnathan’s death.”
“How did she take it.”
“She’s dead. They found her tied to a kitchen chair with a plastic bag over her head. Did you have any contact with her?”
“No, I just recently joined the congregation. Sister Magda may be able to help you. She’s been with the school for many years.”
“Thank you, Father Gibbon. You’ve been very helpful.”
“If there’s nothing else, I need to advise our Bishop O’Neil of this tragedy.”
“You’re free to go. We may need to speak with you later.”
“Yes, of course, anytime.”
“You did what?”
“I thought it best to contact the police first.”
“Well, you were wrong. This congregation is my responsibility, not yours.”
“We would have been under suspicion if we had delayed contacting the authorities.”
“Jesus, I can’t believe you did this. We need to contain this mess before the media gets ahold of it.”
“Contain what mess? We’ve got a twelve year old boy dead in our bell tower and you want to contain this mess?”
“How dare you talk to me in that manner.”
“I will talk to you in that manner. If you think you’re going to cover this up, you’ve got another think coming.”
“Who said anything about a cover up?”
“You did, just now.”
“Where’s Sister Magda?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, find her and send her to me. Now. I’ll deal with you later.”
Matt left Bishop O’Neil’s office in search of Sister Magda.
TO BE CONTINUED.