A Priest’s Tale
This is the tale of a man with two callings. But which one will prevail?
This account of my life as a priest is not intended to be an Apologia. I cannot defend my behaviour, or excuse it. However, despite what happened in those later years, I have never lost sight of a vocation that I believe was from God.
My life as a priest began in 1955, just when a ferment of change was beginning in the Church, one which would lead inexorably to the decrees of the Second Vatican Council (1962-5), considered revolutionary by some and liberating by others.
I do believe in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, and hope that this chronicle of one priest’s life, which is absolutely true, may strengthen the movement for voluntary, rather than mandatory, celibacy for priests. No one can deny the value and importance of celibacy itself, but God’s gifts are varied indeed, and the relief of finding a woman to love was the saving of me.
I found myself living at the end of a large, and ancient rambling house, part of it three or four centuries old. It was half way up a very steep street called Well Street, at the bottom of which was the spring or well that the town was named after. I would come to know and write about it and almost live there when there were large pilgrimages. The house itself was connected to the huge church through a long passage, and was infested with mice. I could not get over the strangeness of it. Bridget, for that was her name, chattered on and showed me my room up a steep stairway. It was spacious, with two gothic, church-like windows and a small gas fire. Bridget was going on about the mice. She seemed to think that was the problem I had come to sort out. There was a strict rule, no poison, only traps. Bridget needed me more than the parish did, she was close to despair, and I began setting traps at her bidding. It was September 1955. I had been ordained a priest in April and had returned from Rome two months before. I was twenty-eight. We caught mice every night, sometimes two at a time, and it became my task to remove the bodies. Bridget was grateful and calmed down. Monsignor, unaware of the problem, was living in another world and I could not even suggest that what he really needed was a cat, not a curate. He assigned me various duties but otherwise expected me to discover the needs of the parish on my own. He himself lived on the other side of the house, the posh side. He seldom came into the servants’ quarters, the kitchen and rooms above, where I now lived. He was the Vicar General of the diocese, concerned with important matters, spending most of his days in the offices of the bishop in Wrexham. He was not, therefore, much concerned with mice but he did disapprove of them dying under his nose, so to speak – hence the ‘no poison’ rule. The parish was Holywell in Flintshire, North Wales, and the diocese at the time was Menevia.
The tension rose when I failed one morning to remove a dead mouse from a trap. It was the first event of the day: remove corpse, reset trap. This particular trap was under the kitchen table but I had been distracted and forgot to remove the large and very dead contents. It was not there the next day, both mouse and trap had gone. This was highly mysterious and rather worrying. Bridget swore she had not touched it. The idea that Monsignor might have come in and removed them was unthinkable. Bridget and I were still conjecturing about what might have happened when suddenly an enormous rat crossed the floor immediately in front of us. Bridget screamed. The rat lumbered away and climbed over the high step at the bottom of the staircase to my room, disappearing through a doorway on the other side. It had a hole behind a bookcase and the bookcase backed on to the bathroom wall. I followed its path and eventually discovered another hole inside the bathroom cupboard which went through the wall and clearly linked up with the back of the bookcase. The trap was lying on the floor of the cupboard. It was blood stained but empty. The mouse had clearly been eaten whole, head, tail, the lot. Nothing was left but a few hairs. I realised with some misgiving that the enormous creature must be hiding behind the bookcase at that moment. I had no desire to find out. It was also obvious that it had come back into the kitchen looking for another dead mouse. I did not mention that little fact to Bridget but was astonished that the rat had managed to haul mouse and trap across the kitchen floor, up and over a high step, drag it behind the bookshelves, get it through the hole in the wall, and only then settle down to have its supper. Bridget was panic stricken. She was sitting white-faced on a chair, her hair in disarray, fear in her eyes. She was small, a bundle of energy, carelessly dressed, never any sign of make-up, but now she was paralysed and having hysterics. There was poison available. I didn’t think we could cope with the rat without poison.
‘We are not supposed to put down poison, Bridget.’
‘I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it any longer.’
‘OK, we’ll put down poison. But what happens if I’m fired?’
Bridget managed a laugh.
‘You don’t know Monsignor. He won’t do anything about it.’
So we put down poison. I put down poison.
What was I doing disobeying the rules and poisoning a rat? I went out, bought the stuff and put it on a saucer in the cupboard. We did not see the rat again. It preferred to move around at night but it obviously enjoyed its meal. It ate the lot. The next night I put down the same quantity. Only half was eaten this time. All was quiet. I was sure the rat was now dead and I felt a bit like Hamlet after he had killed Polonius. ‘Where is Polonius?’ asked the king, to which Hamlet replied, ‘If you find him not this month you will nose him as you go up the stairs to the lobby.’ I hoped the rat would be sensible and go out of the house to die, but of course it was not at all sensible. The consequences were unfortunate. My career, such as it was, was in jeopardy after only a month in the place.
How interesting it’s been to read through the text of your book. You have written this account with startling honesty, humility – and humour. It is an inspirational story and will, I’m sure be of enormous help to people facing crises in their lives, of emotional turmoil as well as of belief. It also opens a window on to that often mysterious world of religious commitment and all that that entails.
–Joanna Goldsworthy, Writer and Editor