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. Harrison once blessed my aunt’s new VW Bug with holy water. Gert got a “kick out of him,” she said, but Fr. Riley was the one she loved. He was a good-looking Irish guy who made us laugh so hard we doubled over.

Fr. Riley sometimes disappeared for a couple of days, causing Gert to chain-smoke Pall Malls. Usually my aunt said little about these absences, but once she sighed, “He’s off on a bat at a motel. Poor Tom.” Much later, I figured out that Fr. Riley had been sent to my uncle to sober up. But everything was secret then, including my uncle’s ministry to fellow alcoholics.

I should have known. While I was there, people called for him constantly. Fr. Jack was an old-timer in AA, having “gotten in trouble” during the 1950s, when he was a newspaperman. He sobered up relatively quickly; there was a great deal of alcoholism in the extended family and he’d seen its toll. Then my uncle became St. Margaret’s first pastor. There were recovery meetings in the basement parish hall several nights a week. “Nicest people you’d ever want to meet,” Gert remarked. “And a lot of women, too!”

“Jack!” Gert would yell, when she got one of the AA calls. Fr. Jack came down to the kitchen from the front office to take them. They lasted a long time. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but I watched my uncle’s usual reserve soften. He became animated, ending the conversation with a jolly “Buck up now and get to a meeting!”

It would be almost suppertime by then. “All right, Gert, let’s get this show on the road,” Fr. Jack would say, pushing through the swinging door to the dining room, where the curates waited.

Gert and I stayed in the kitchen, which was fine with me. I was a little afraid of my uncle—he was a priest, after all—but not Gert. There were endless crises at home: suicide attempts, cops at the door. I told Gert about these things, not my uncle. She told him. They were always whispering in the hall. I often felt my uncle’s concerned eyes lingering on me.

But what could he do? He and Gert were powerless, too. They were frustrated by my mother, whose drinking was linked to a bad marriage, my brothers’ illnesses, her increasing deafness. According to Gert, my mother had been depressed for years. My father was emotionally abusive; I later learned that Fr. Jack had repeatedly encouraged Ma to leave, to no avail. Perhaps she seemed as unreachable to my aunt and uncle as she did to me. “Think positive!” Fr. Jack told her, but it didn’t work.

Once Fr. Jack caught me sitting at the table alone, red-faced and weeping. “Aw,” he said, patting my shoulder. “That’s all right, my dear.” He patted me again. There was a moment’s silence.

“You’ll grow up,” he said finally. “You’ll get out of there, go away to college.”

Another pause. “You’ll grow up. Are you all set for money?”

I grew up; I got a college scholarship to take me away. I went on to a life that distanced me further from my uncle and aunt, left us speaking different languages.

As I age, I think of them more and more. I wish I could ask them questions, thank them adequately. They were shy people and not without flaws. Sometimes their world seems entirely vanished. But I know what they gave me—my life. My faith.

Published in the 2011-09-23 issue: 

Ann Conway is a sociologist and writer who lives in Maine. Her essay “The Rosary,” originally published in Image, was included in the “Other Notable Spiritual Writing” list of Best Spiritual Writing 2011.

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