by Sean Patrick
Eating out was something one just didn’t do in our world. “Why waste good money on food that you can prepare better yourself?” Mama often complained when she looked at the streams of people going toward Leah’s Home Cooking across Hardin Street from St. Columbkille.
We felt the same way. Our fare was simple, but Mama had a way of preparing the most basic foods so that they would taste like treats we could tell our own children about. Besides, we reasoned, meals were personal and — like our laundry — not something you let just anybody see or share.
Our meals were predictable. We knew that Wednesday would bring cod and boiled potatoes to our table. Friday was cold salmon from cans, with slices of onion and a dash of vinegar. We had chicken on Sunday because one of us worked for the live poultry store and was paid in kind, as well as in cash.
The few occasions when I ate out were usually with groups, Communion breakfasts, and times such as that. We gathered in the Colonial Kitchen and sat at long tables but did not get to order our fare from a menu. Everyone ate the same thing.
Monsignor was a bug on home cooking
Monsignor was a bug on home cooking. He seldom ventured away from the rectory, where Mrs. O’Laughlin ruled with an iron skillet. Her cooking was legendary, and the only thing that would even chance to draw him away was an invitation for soda bread and a dish of colcannon at one of the homes where he trusted the cooking.
So, when Mrs. O’Laughlin fell ill and was confined to the hospital for a week or so, Monsignor began telling everyone he met about his plight.
“How can I be a good pastor when I’m starvin’ at the gates of heaven,” the powerful man moaned on Monday morning when Danny and I served his Mass.
It was a big change from his usual behavior, when at about Communion time each day, he would begin thinking about savory sausages, done-to-perfection eggs, and golden toast with gobs of homemade preserves. He became more hungry with each passing prayer.
Fr. O’Phelan was equally miffed about the lack of a cook, although Fr. O’Toole and Fr. Smith didn’t seem to mind fending for themselves.
“Spoiled they are!” Fr. O’Toole laughed when Monsignor and Fr. O’Phelan wandered over toward the rectory, muttering together about their great hardship.
“A few minutes to cook an egg and that’s all one needs to start the day!” Fr. Smith grinned as he and Fr. O’Toole put on a good show of bravery in the face of adversity.
Now, Monsignor had made his own bed, in a matter of speaking. Although he occasionally accepted invitations for Sunday repasts, he let it be known that he and the priests in his domain frowned on being too familiar with families and taking advantage of their kind offers of meals.
“We are well taken care of at our humble rectory, Mrs. Patrick,” I heard him say more than one time, “but I do thank you for your kind invitation. Perhaps I might stop for a coffee or a cup of tea.
Because of this oft-stated maxim, parishioners seldom offered meals anymore, and so their practice sort of backfired on the pastor and his priests in their time of actual need.
Mrs. O’Laughlin went to the hospital on Sunday morning. By Tuesday morning the rectory kitchen resembled a burial ground for dirty dishes and cups. To their credit, no garbage was in evidence, but we later learned that nothing had really been cooked. Sandwiches had been the most culinary of their attempts at self-feeding and they ate them down to the plate surface in order to keep body and soul together!
On Tuesday evening an edict was made. Danny, Regan O’Farrell, Ritchie and Noam Saperstein, and I were just finishing our basketball game out on the playground when Monsignor came out and bellowed for Fr. O’Toole, who had been watching us.
“Daniel!!!!!” Monsignor hollered, “We’re goin’ to Leah’s for some dinner tonight!”
Fr. O’Toole shrugged and grinned. “I guess hunger got the best of our sainted pastor!” he laughed, causing us to giggle as we watched Monsignor sail off in a billow of cassock.
Now, I knew exactly what was in that restaurant because a menu was taped prominently on the front window. Often, while waiting for Danny or Bloke, I would read the entrees over and over, wondering if they tasted as good as they sounded.
“Savory chicken: Spring chicken, roasted to perfection, served with mashed potatoes and a choice of vegetables, $1.25.”
“Roast round of beef: Served as you like it! Mashed potatoes and a choice of vegetable, $1.00.”
“Traditional corned beef and cabbage: Lean and tasty. With boiled potatoes and cabbage. A traditional delight, $1.00.”
I also knew that every meal included a roll, butter, and a “wide selection of desserts.”
I caught myself in the throes of genuine envy, and I resolved to ask Fr. O’Phelan what each priest ordered when I served Mass the next morning.
“Well, I hope he’s satisfied with it,” Mama said when we relayed this vital information to her that evening at our own supper table. I looked at the platter of scrambled eggs and the pitcher of warm tomato sauce we liked to pour over the eggs and wondered why we didn’t have savory chicken, roasted to perfection, more often.
That night Danny and l speculated about the priests and their gourmet meal eaten in the restaurant.
When the 5:45 a.m. Mass was over the next morning, we hustled back into the sacristy for a blessing and to find out how things had gone. There we saw Fr. O’Phelan leafing through the Ordo.
“Morning, Monsignor,” Fr. O’Phelan said softly, not looking up from the Ordo.
“Harrumph’ … morning, Francis,” Monsignor huffed.
Mrs. O’Leary stood at the sacristy doorway and smiled at Monsignor.
“I know you don’t accept invitations, Monsignor, but me and Tom are going to have a nice plate of cod tonight and we thought you and your priests might want to sit with us and share it.”
Monsignor literally glowed.
“Why, thank you, Mrs. O’Leary!” We usually eat our meal about six o’clock. Can we be over there at that time? Are you sure you want the whole pack of us? Cod, you say? One of my favorite dishes. Do you cream it, like Mrs. Patrick? l dearly love soda bread with that.”
Danny told me to close my mouth because my jaw was just about on the floor.
Fr. O’Phelan was giggling as he continued to read the Ordo.
Mrs. O’Leary traipsed off and Mrs. Casey moved in to invite Monsignor and the rest for Thursday night pot roast. Once again the invitation was accepted — along with a dozen suggestions for making the meal a gourmet delight.
“Do you roast onions and carrots with it? My mother did that but only for a great feast day such as St. Brendan or St. Caitlin.”
And, of course … . “We ate it with huge chunks of soda; we did.”
Suddenly, the morose, somewhat cold demeanor of the great shepherd of St. Columbkille began to thaw. A spring returned to his heavy tread and the iron jaw creased in a half-smile. It was wonderful to see what effect a hot meal could have on the most demanding of men.
When Monsignor was gone, Father O’Phelan filled us in on the previous evening’s meal.
“Didn’t you like Leah’s?” I asked. Father looked out the window to make certain he could see that Monsignor had gone into the rectory. “It was fine there,” he told us, “but I guess Monsignor felt he could do better for the money.”
With that, Father told us that Monsignor had ordered the savory chicken and ate two buttered rolls while he waited for it to arrive.
When the waitress brought out the food, she put the plate bearing his meal down in front of the pastor and watched as he poked at a piece of parsley decorating his small scoop of potatoes. The “seasoned garden peas” and the “buttered fresh carrots” lay helplessly on the plate trying to hide under half of a roasted chicken with its skin still on.
“Mrs. O’Laughlin always removes the skin from my chicken,” Monsignor muttered as he frowned and looked at the plate.
Frs. O’Toole and Smith did not fare much better. Fr. Smith said his roast beef was tough and Fr. O’Toole did not touch his “tender spinach” or “peppery fried cabbage.” Fr. O’Phelan’s “ground beef patty” hamburger and french fried potatoes seemed to please him, but he seldom complained about anything anyway.
The homily on the following Sunday morning was interesting, indeed. As was customary in those days, one priest preached at all the Masses. This Sunday Monsignor had the homily and we watched as he mounted the high pulpit with a heavy tread. He began by reading the epistle and Gospel in English, since they had been said in Latin during the Mass. Then, closing the book, he leaned out over the congregation and gave a touching homily on the “milk of human kindness.”
He began by telling us that Mrs. O’Laughlin was back from the hospital and was in “fine fettle” for returning to her own private world of the rectory kitchen.
Then, launching in on a memorable homily about the corporal works of mercy, focusing on the “feed the hungry” part, Monsignor sent official word that invitations to dinner would now be considered acceptable, and that he felt obligated to become part of the family woodwork in order to “better serve you, my loving flock.”
“I was so glad to be out of there!” Father told us.
Leah’s continued to survive. I myself enjoyed a meal there on one or two occasions. But I did not order the savory chicken, roasted to perfection, the roast round of beef, or even the traditional corned beef and cabbage.
Fr. O’Phelan had had a hamburger and enjoyed it. That was good enough for me!
– From the archives at Catholic Digest