My monsignor uncle, Fr. Jack, and Aunt Gert, his sister, were something of a cliché in the Irish-Catholic universe in which I grew up: the unmarried sister who serves the priest brother, in this case as his live-in cook.
The reality of their relationship was, however, complex, and its impact on me was life-changing. During a pivotal time, Fr. Jack, Aunt Gert, and the others who lived and worked at St. Margaret’s rectory became my loved ones.
I desperately needed their help. My immediate family was very troubled—my mother (Gert and Fr. Jack’s sister) was incapacitated by depression and drinking. My two brothers, diagnosed in their early teens as schizophrenic, were in and out of the state mental hospital.
By the time I reached adolescence, I found it almost impossible to go home after school. Luckily, the rectory was just down the street from the girls’ academy I attended. I ended up spending most late afternoons and evenings in Gert’s avocado-colored 1970s kitchen. There she ruled in tandem with Jessica, her spoiled collie-shepherd mix, who wore a rhinestone collar and sat in an armchair, accepting tributes.
Fr. Harrison and Fr. Riley were my uncle’s curates. They hovered over us as I helped Gert prepare supper, joking and asking me about school. Fr....