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The Bell and the Bride
There was a
time, not too many years ago, when Brooklyn was
known as the city of churches. Particularly
Catholic churches. Those who remember them will
tell you they outnumbered saloons.
The competition between churches was fierce and
it's hard to see how they all stayed in
business. There were no rewards for good attendance
and no apparent penalties for absence; but
Brooklyn Catholics all agreed that Protestants and
Jews got away with murder, while they could not.
God was watching them from every corner. Like a
surveillance camera, He followed every move they
made, and when the bell tolled, it tolled for them.
Every Catholic church had a steeple with a bell or
two in it, some churches could play carols at
Christmas time. Some of them rang every fifteen
minutes day and night with a stubborn and noisy
controversy between them concerning the precise
time -- consequently the bells never stopped
During Easter and Christmas, the Catholic churches
that were lucky enough to have sets of bells, put
aside the quarter hour ringing and played carols
day and night. The cacophony could drive Catholics
and non Catholics to the brink of madness,
particularly when it was accompanied by the vocal
ensemble of cats that sang throughout the night
from tenement backyard fences. To those of the
'true' faith, however, the bells were a constant
reminder that God, as personified by the Bishop of
their local diocese, was keeping His eye on them by
the magic medium of the bells.
Bells in other churches chimed or rang joyously,
but the deep throated tolling of St. Theresa's was
a unique voice. Its raw iron resonance clanged down
the city streets and ricocheted from the graffiti
covered walls of tenement alleys like the voice of
God himself. It summoned every Catholic to prayer
and devotion beginning with the seven o'clock mass.
No one could escape the tolling of the bell.
Roaches in kitchen cabinets would prick up their
antennae and skitter to the safety of cracks and
crevices. Wayward husbands with one hand on the
swinging tavern door would turn white and continue
on their way. Even Catholics with hearing
disabilities would sit up and glance at the clock
on the kitchen wall.
St. Theresa's had only one bell in its belfry, but
it was a beauty, a gift from the Bedford family
when the church was built. A massive iron bell cast
in Akron, Ohio at the turn of the century. It was
intended for the Salt Lake City Tabernacle but it
was finished too late for installation in the
steeple while the church was under construction.
Then it proved too large to fit. The project was
abandoned and the bell sat rusting in the scrap
yard of the foundry at Akron until Mr. Bedford
bought it for cost and donated it to St. Theresa's
church, then in the planning stages.
The steeple was, in effect, built around the giant
bell. It hung seventy feet from the lobby floor and
was rung at every mass by elderly Father Ambrose,
and sometimes by the even more elderly sexton,
Harold Wickes. They both suffered from rheumatoid
arthritis, and like all good Catholics, neither
wore a watch. By the Grace of God, however, one of
them always seemed to know what time it was and
physically fit enough to undo the rope from the
cleats on the lobby wall. He would then pick his
feet up and collapse, frog like, to the floor
holding the rope tightly. The mighty bell would
swing in its cradle and strike the clapper. Many
people think the clapper strikes the bell -- but
no, the bell strikes the clapper.
Father L'Esperance, the third male member of the
parish, a young Jesuit, was so profoundly devout he
could not be trusted to do anything. He wore a
perpetual open-mouthed stare of awe. He would
undergo moments of complete paralysis, both in the
confessional and while celebrating the Mass. The
Monsignor of St. Theresa was convinced it was only
a matter of time before he would witness a miracle,
or walk in the path of the Classon Avenue trolley.
Earthly things, like tying his shoes and buttoning
his fly were out of his depth and he could
certainly not be trusted to ring the great bell of
As the fourth male member of the parish, Monsignor
Moody lay abed of a Sunday morning, savoring
the last sweet moments of warm comfort. He waited
for the tolling of the best and biggest bell
in Brooklyn. It would herald the seven o'clock
mass. Old Father Ambrose would celebrate "that"
mass. Nobody with money came to the early masses --
meager collections. He would handle the High Masses
at nine and eleven, the one that Bishop Babbitt
would attend. He ran over the homily in his head
and it sounded good to him, really good --
sacrifice! That was the theme. He hoped the
congregation would take it to heart when the
collection basket was shaken under their runny
noses. The church had not shown a profit this year
and if he expected to be a Bishop he'd better get
his flock on the ball. "What has happened to the
bell?" he wondered. It seemed as though it must be
seven o'clock. He checked his bedside clock -- good
Heavens! 7:15! He rang for sister Agatha. He should
be eating breakfast by now!
Sister Agatha was already on her way up the back
stairs from the kitchen with two, two and three
quarter minute boiled eggs. Two slices of whole
wheat toast, a carafe of Colombian coffee and a
small pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice.
"Be there in a jiffy Father," she called, "The bell
rope's broken and the cook is late. I had to drag
Father Ambrose out of the tower and get him back
down the belfry stairs." It was actually more
serious than that, the steep ladder-like stairs had
exhausted Father Ambrose, and he had no idea of the
time or why he was up there. But for the moment,
Sister Agatha must concentrate on the rope.
"The rope is rotten Father, it broke off up in the
steeple and came all the way down to the lobby
floor -- a good thing no one was under it." She set
Monsignor Moody's breakfast down on his bedside
table and handed him his robe.
"What do we do now? We can't get through Sunday
without the bell." Of all days -- today! Bishop
Babbitt would be there for High Mass, they were
going to play golf this afternoon, and if he could
persuade him to stay for dinner, he wanted to bring
up his appointment again.
"You know what this means sister, people will be
coming in all hours for mass, some of them won't
come at all ---" he sniffled, was that a cold
coming on? "We must have better organization
sister, what will the Bishop think?"
"We are rich in organization, Father, but we are
poor in rope -- we need a new one. Father Ambrose
said it's been hanging there thirty years ....
nothing lasts forever, Father."
"You say he was up in the belfry sister?" Sister
Agatha nodded and raised her eyes in resignation.
"The old fool, he could have frozen to death up
there, then what would I do -- and those narrow
stairs, how did he ever get up there? Why can't
Father L'Esperance do these things?"
"Head's in the clouds -- waiting for a sign from
the Lord I imagine," Agatha answered bluntly, she'd
had it with these pampered men of God. Father
Ambrose was just about useless and you couldn't
trust the Sexton with the collection basket. Both
of them should be in a home. Father L'Esperance was
obsessed with God and should be in an institution.
Monsignor Moody, sitting there in his canopied bed
couldn't wait to elbow his way into the Diocese.
"We must think of a way. As soon as I finish
breakfast I'll put my mind to it -- the eggs are a
bit runny, Sister."
"I've already called the precinct, Father. Sergeant
Moynahan is coming over -- he never donated for his
daughter's Baptism, I believe he owes us one." Look
at him there, she thought to herself -- breakfast
in bed and complaining about his runny eggs. Wait
'til they get him in the diocese! He'll be low man
on the totem pole over there, nobody will be
bringing him his breakfast in bed. It was becoming
more and more difficult to keep her temper in
check, so she turned away abruptly and walked
quickly out of the room.
Sister Agatha was 47 years old. Twenty nine years
ago she entered the Convent of the Magdalene in
Staten Island. Her most cherished wish was to be a
bride of Christ. It was a vision she had carried
with her since she was a little girl; a precious
dream, and the highest honor a young girl can ever
hope for. Now, at 47, she realized the honeymoon
never materialized -- she was not a bride, she was
a sister, a polite word for a housemaid for the men
who ran religion in this poverty stricken corner of
Brooklyn. Hiring cooks and cleaning people and
running a boarding house for spineless priests,
none of whom could fix a bell rope when it needed
She looked up at the tortured icon of her Savior.
Her Savior, not theirs! He hung crucified at the
head of the back stairs to the kitchen. She often
lingered there and talked to Him during her rare
idle moments. She was tempted to do so this
morning, just for a moment, before the day began.
She looked at His hands -- carpenter's hands. Hands
like those -- they could fix a bell rope! "My Lord,
why did they choose Barabbas? If they had not -- if
You had lived .... " She crossed herself and
murmured, "But we shall always choose the sinner --
it's the way we are." She would have stayed in His
presence longer but there was too much to do.
Patrick Moynahan would be there in a moment and she
must coax him into fixing the rope.
"Sissa, Sissa Agatta, they's a pleezman outside da
kitchen door." Mrs. Apollinaro, the cook, knew from
family experience that the appearance of a
policeman at your back door brought bad news.
"It's okay Alicia, it's only Sergeant Moynahan.
We're expecting him." She walked quickly to the
back door and adjusted her smile to one of piety
and firm resolve. "Come in, come in Sergeant
Moynahan, won't you have a cup of coffee."
"I have Patrolman Guitterez with me, Sister; is it
okay .... I mean, for him to come in?"
"Of course, Patrick. Now that wouldn't be a coil of
rope he has with him, would it? How could you
answer our prayers so quickly?"
Moynahan basked in the praise. Praise from the
church was the sweetest praise of all. "We have
keys, Sister. To preserve safety and security we
have the keys to every store in this here
neighborhood. Me and patrolman Guitterez responded
to Feldman's Hardware when we got your call and we
borrowed a coil of rope. Feldman will raise the
price of rope tomorrow -- nobody loses."
Sister Agatha made a mental note to call Bernie
Feldman in the morning and offer to pay, knowing
full well that he would not accept the church's
money. She wondered if Sergeant Moynahan would have
been as quick to respond to a call for help from
the Mordecai Synagogue. How strange that Bernie
Feldman, a Jewish hardware merchant, must be the
one to donate the rope to ring the bell of St.
Guiterrez, after a cup of coffee, shouldered the
heavy coil of rope and was up into the belfry in
less than five minutes. "Below, down there!" he
warned, and the rope spilled down to the lobby
floor. He clattered down the belfry stairs and
fastened the free end to the cleats in the wall.
"You in business now, senorita Sister ....
A-number-one sisal rope, first class stuff ....
never need fixing no more." What could she say to
these simple men as they bowed their way out the
kitchen door? How could she thank them? How could
something so simple, so easily accomplished by
ordinary people, be such an insurmountable problem
to men of God? She could offer them nothing more
than a cup of coffee in return. They were, in fact,
thankful that they could contribute the little they
did to the glory of the Lord.
She looked up the back stairs again, the stairs
that would bring the good news to Monsignor Moody.
From her vantage point in the kitchen she could see
the tortured figure of the Savior at the top
landing looking down at her. "So far away," she
thought, "Thousands of miles and thousands of years
away. Had I known You then .... "
Mrs. Apollinaro had just put the leg of lamb in the
oven for Sunday dinner. It was a gift from Noel
Webster, the funeral director on Park Place. It was
a lovely leg of lamb, and already the kitchen was
smoky with rosemary and garlic and the crisp,
crusty smell of it. "Lamb of God," she thought.
Soon, her Savior, looking down from his cross at
the head of the stair would catch the scent of it
"But it's not for You!" she said aloud .... and
caught herself before she went any further.
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