St. Columbkille Church had some pretty impressive artwork in the form of wood carving, thanks to Mr. McNeeley, who had been one of the first parishioners. Mr. McNeeley had put a lot of time into carving decorative scrolls on the confessionals, the baptismal font, and many other places as the church was being built. For the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the parish, he carved beautiful screens to cover the organ pipes in the rear of the church, as well as the massive pulpit — his crowning glory — from which God’s word was read.
One of the true artistic treasures of the parish, however, was a carved piece that hardly anyone ever noticed. It was tucked into a place of darkness, and you had to know where to look in order to see it. Even then, it was difficult to make out the form in the dim light. The reason I knew about it was because I had helped put it there.
I don’t remember the man’s name. It was a long name, with mostly consonants, that none of us could pronounce. So we always referred to him as “Mr. B.” “Mr. B.” owned one of the most unique shops in the area. It was around the corner from the drug store, on a side street, and it was so tiny you couldn’t even go very far inside when Mr. B. was there. Mama said it was a fix-it shop, and that Mr. B. worked on all sorts of broken items and usually fixed them good as new. There were always odds and ends for sale in the store — cards with fancy buttons, little ceramic figurines, a piece of polished silverware with no mates, things like that.
There was also a little shelf in the store that held several animals on it, each carved from fine, tightgrained wood. It was obvious the carver was as skilled as old McNeeley. One day, as I stood looking in the window, admiring the trinkets displayed there, I learned that it was Mr. B. who carved the wooden animals. He was sitting on a backless kitchen chair in the store, a look of intense concentration on his face as his sharp penknife flicked and bit and jabbed at a flake of wood. From time to time he would hold the block of wood up to the light, examine his progress, then go back to his carving. Once or twice he glanced over in my direction.
Mr. B worked on all sorts of broken items.
He saw me watching, but acted as if I weren’t there. For some reason I didn’t say anything to my friends, or to my brothers or Mama. Mr. B. was a fixture in the neighborhood, and, like all of our fixtures, was someone (or something) whose presence we took for granted and never bothered to question. So it was no surprise, therefore, that I was somewhat taken aback the day I saw Mr. B. sitting in the back of St. Columbkille Church in mid-afternoon, when I had been sent to fetch some holy water to fill the classroom fonts.
At first I didn’t recognize him because the old man usually wore a hat when he was in his shop. He seemed to be staring off into space, not really looking at anything even though he was facing the sanctuary. Nor did he pay me any mind as I clopped down the long aisle with my jug to fetch the holy water from the baptistery. I filled up my jug and came back down the aisle. Mr. B. was still sitting there, looking as if he had not moved a muscle. What surprised me the most was that Mr. B. must be a Catholic. I had never seen him in church at all before that day. It turned out that this would not be the last time I would see him in church.
After that first day, not only me but several of my friends and my brother Danny also noticed Mr. B. in church, sitting in the back where I had first seen him. He never said anything or did anything. We presumed he must be praying because that’s what you did in church. But none of us ever had the gumption to ask. “That man’s life is certainly none of your business!” Mama told us emphatically when Danny and I talked about Mr. B. at supper one evening. Kevin told Mama that Danny and I were just being ourselves, and giggled when that earned another admonition from her about minding our own business. We glared at Kevin, who went on eating, smiling that his point had been taken.
Fr. O’Phelan was of little help when after the early Mass one morning Danny mentioned the mysterious visitor. Father said that he had noticed him, too —always late in the day, and never there for Mass. “Do you think he’s a Catholic, Father?” I asked. “I think so, Sean-o,” Father replied, “but he doesn’t seem to want to talk to anyone. I said hello to him the other day and he nodded, then turned away. It was quite evident he preferred to be left to himself.” Several weeks passed and we began to take Mr. B.’s presence for granted. We still saw him occasionally sitting in the back of the church. At other times we saw him walking either toward the church or back toward his little shop. But he paid us little attention, and we respected his aloofness. Then one day all that changed. On a Friday evening a good two months after I had first observed Mr. B. in his back pew, Danny and I arrived at church to assist with Stations of the Cross and Eucharistic Adoration. It was almost 7 o’clock in the evening.
Mr. B. must be a Catholic.
It turned out we were not alone in there, as we heard someone laughing and talking rapidly with a heavy foreign accent. Danny and I turned at the same time and saw Fr. O’Phelan standing with old Mr. B. over in the shadow of the pamphlet rack. Father had a large smile on his face, and Mr. B. was talking a mile a minute. It turned out we were not alone in there, as we heard someone laughing and talking rapidly with a heavy foreign accent. Danny and I turned at the same time and saw Fr. O’Phelan standing with old Mr. B. over in the shadow of the pamphlet rack. Father had a large smile on his face, and Mr. B. was talking a mile a minute. “We’re about to have the Stations of the Cross and Adoration,” Father said. “Why don’t you stay for that, too?” The old man nodded, and, grinning, entered the church and took his customary place in the last pew.
Our puzzlement was more than evident as we went back to the sacristy with Fr. O’Phelan but he acted as if nothing had happened. Several times Danny or I attempted to ask him what had happened, but we didn’t. And since he had not volunteered a single word to ease our mystification, we felt somewhat left out. We plodded home after the service, feeling insulted and put-upon. After that day, when I looked in the window of the tiny fix-it shop, it appeared that nothing had really changed. The buttons, the ribbons, and the doodads were still in their places. The tiny carved animals were still on their shelf. And the proprietor still sat on his backless kitchen chair, carving with a concentration that marked a true artisan.
Only now there was one tiny difference. Occasionally when I looked in, Mr. B. would glance up from his work, smile, and nod his head. Then, as if nothing had happened, he would turn back to his carving and continue his work. One day, as summer approached, Danny and I finished cleaning up after the 5:45 a.m. Mass and were heading out to Kaiser’s Bakery for a piece of gingerbread. Fr. O’Phelan had taken his vestments off, and we went over to tell him we were leaving. “Wait a second, boys,” Father said. “If you don’t mind, I’d like you to help me for a moment.”
It was unthinkable to say no to Fr. O’Phelan, so we followed him to the back of the church and over to his confessional. “There are times when the hand of God reaches out and touches one in his distress,” the sandy-haired senior assistant pastor told us as he picked up a hammer and nail from the pew. He must have put them there before Mass. “At those times God allows not only the recipient of his healing to feel his hand, but those of us who stand in the shadows, as well. Such a healing has taken place and, in thanksgiving for that, we are about to put a new crucifix in the confessional on the penitent’s side.”
Father picked up a small object that had been with the hammer and nail. It was a carved wooden crucifix that had been polished to a glass-like sheen. The cross was roughhewn but the body on it was smooth and showed the perfection sought by the carver. “His hand …” Danny said as he pointed to the crucifix. The right hand of the carved Savior seemed to have come free from its nail. Although the arm was still somewhat straight against the wood, the wrist and hand were turned toward us, reaching out, asking us to take it in our own hand. I had never seen such a crucifix before — or since. Danny held the flashlight and I held the crucifix until Father had the nail in just the right place. Then, taking the crucifix that he lovingly referred to as “the healing Savior,” he hung it directly above the screen where the penitent knelt.
As we left the church, I started to ask Fr. O’Phelan if Mr. B. had been the one who had carved the crucifix, but Danny’s poke stopped me cold. I didn’t really need to ask, though. Without a single word, a lot of questions had been answered. The confessionals are seldom used nowadays back in the old church. People confess “face to face,” in Penance and Reconciliation rooms. Perhaps the old confessional boxes are a thing of the past. But I am sure if I ever want to go to confession when I visit St. Columbkille, I will ask to be heard in Fr. O’Phelan’s old box, the one on the left side of the vestibule. Because I know — even if I can’t see it in the darkness — that there is a hand held out to me, beckoning me to follow him home.