Fr. McKenzie did not look like a priest. He was too young. He had also never been to Liverpool, having grown up in the States. But with clergy shortages everywhere, especially in England, this was where Holy Mother Church had decided to drop him. God only knows why, but such are the mysteries of the Eternal.
The parish was barely alive, if you could even say that. Fresh out of seminary, he had dreams of working in some place exotic – with the homeless in a bustling city or perhaps a rural Indian village. Instead, he landed here.
At first, the locals took to him like a pet squirrel. He was interesting because he was from somewhere other than England. But if his homilies reached anyone, it was only because his mic was turned up too loud on a Sunday and spilled over into the streets in the summertime.
Well, that’s a bit of a lie. There were two who came faithfully every Sunday. One was the old lady, Ms. Rigby, who came in just before Mass began and would leave just when Mass let out. Her cane and scarf were her two constant accessories. She would mumble to herself as she gently took her seat and then again as she gently left it. “I am Ms. Rigby, thank you.. Thank you.. Ms. Rigby.. I am.. I am Ms. Rigby.. pleased I’m sure.. Ms. Rigby.”
The other was a homeless man who stayed in the back pew either lying down or, if he had a little more energy, sitting up with his eyes closed. He always perked up when Communion was being served, though, and finished off the wine cup every time.
Fr. McKenzie, the idealist he was, pressed on, but as the weeks turned into months, and the months years, the seeming meaningless of it all wore on him.
One night, though, late into the evening, he was patching up one of his socks with thread and needle, when he got a phone call.
“Excuse me, is this Fr. McKenzie?” said a young woman’s voice.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“I am a nurse at Broadgreen Hospital. There is a woman here, Eleanor Rigby, asking for you.”
“Ms. Rigby? The old lady?”
“Yes, sir. She is here asking for you.”
“Oh… Thank you for letting me know. Is she all right?”
“Well, I’m sorry, sir, but she is rather close to dying.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry. Has she asked for Last Rites? Is that why you called?”
“No, Father. Not exactly. She asked for you.”
“I’m sure. I mean, she is asking for Last Rites.”
“No, she’s not.”
Fr. McKenzie was silent for awhile. “I don’t think I understand.”
“She keeps saying your name.”
For all Fr. McKenzie could tell on Sundays, all Ms. Rigby knew was her own name and a few other surface greetings. But on her bed, his name came out quickly, urgently.
“I’ll come right over,” he said.
Fr. McKenzie put on his holy socks and shoes, ran down the stairs as best and awkwardly as he could, and rushed himself to Broadgreen. But before he had gotten there, Ms. Rigby had already passed away.
The nurse and Father stood somberly at her side.
“Did she say why she wanted me to come?”
“No, Father,” said the nurse. “Just your name. I don’t think she was all there, if you know what I mean.”
Father sighed and looked at the corpse.
“Does she have any children? Grandchildren you could contact?”
“I was hoping you would be able to answer that.”
“I can’t. I wish I could. What do you do in a situation like this?” he asked.
“Well, we’ll cremate her body and lay her to rest in a public cemetery.”
It didn’t seem right. Fr. McKenzie could hardly do anything for his parishioners. Even when he visited Ms. Rigby, she was a mumble of words as she was before and after Mass. He assumed someone took care of her, but now he wondered if that was the case. Perhaps everyone who saw her thought, “Someone else takes care of her.” And no one did.
Shame welled up inside him.
“No, please, I will have her buried in the church cemetery. I’ll pay for everything and have it all arranged. Is that possible?”
The nurse nodded.
Back at the rectory, he looked through the record of baptisms and found Ms. Rigby’s. In calligraphy, it said, “Daughter of Anne and William Rigby. Baptized 6 September 1939, Claimed as Christ’s Own, a Daughter of God” with the stamp of the local bishop.
“She must have been a baby,” Father said to himself.
He said with resolve, “It will be a proper Mass.”
The funeral Mass itself was short. Fr. McKenzie chose the readings, and the homeless man reliably attended. After this, her body was taken to the grave site. Alone, he prayed the common prayers for burial and commended Ms. Rigby to God in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And when the grave digger came to fill the hole, he stayed while the dirt elevated bit by bit.
He sat watching the man do his work, and when the digger left, he sat longer still.
“Who are the sermons for?” he thought. “Who am I here for? How can I minister if there is no one to minister to? She lies there right below me. What can I do for her now?”
The chill Fall wind blew and ruffled his hair. He looked off into nothing, and then vaguely down at his book. A few pages had turned, and he saw a passage from 2 Maccabees.
…if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.2 Maccabees 12:44-45 (NRSCV)
“Purgatory,” he said to himself.
“You are not really gone, are you, Ms. Rigby?” he said.
He lifted his eyes to see now all the gravestones, all the many souls of parishioners past.
“None of you are really gone, either.”
Standing slowly up, he looked once again at Eleanor’s name on the tomb.
“If I cannot minister to the living, I will minister to the dead.” And he began to pray at one tombstone, then another, then another.
The sun started to set, and still he was out there, going from grave to grave. A teenage boy with a bowl hair cut walked by with his bike and gawked at him for a time, then went home and wrote a song about a lonely, stupid priest.
But another walked by, a middle-aged woman, taking her groceries home. She recognized him as the American priest, and his action struck her as beautiful in it’s own way.
“He cares so much about his parish, he even prays for the dead in it,” she thought. “I should come by Sunday.”
And that Sunday, she did come – and also the nurse from the hospital. The following week, another came, and then another. The homeless man began to take notice and started to sit with his eyes open during Mass. And slowly, week by week, month by month, and year by year, the parish came to life.
For when Fr. McKenzie began praying for Ms. Rigby, and all the other parishioners, though he didn’t know it, they all began praying for him as well. And so they all did for the remainder of his time there, helping each other to that final home where no one ever dies, no one’s work is found to be in vain, and no one is ever alone.
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