Father James had been awakened this morning by the clamor outside. Just past the park entrance next door, which divided the town green, preparations were underway for the Congregational Church rededication ceremonies. This afternoon dozens of state officials and most everyone in Dorsetville would gather to witness the rededication of this historic building.
The priest opened one eye and stared out the window. The sun was just rising above the mountain ridge that surrounded the town like an embrace. Shards of pink light pierced the predawn darkness. It was going to be a glorious day, he thought, sliding out from under a pile of handmade quilts.
From somewhere outside came a loud thud followed by several rapid Spanish phrases fired off like machine gun bullets. He made his way over to the window and looked down below. A delivery truck was parked on the Congregational side of the town green. Its side panels read "Filbert's Party Rentals." He leaned forward to get a better view. Folding tables and chairs were being delivered. Several had fallen off the back of the truck. Two men worked to untangle the melee as a third man stood on the tailgate, wildly waving his arms and spewing phrases Father James was thankful he did not understand. He closed the window.
Since it was nearly time to get up anyway, he figured there was no sense going back to bed. He grabbed his bathrobe from the foot of his bed and headed down the rectory's back staircase toward the kitchen. Before he showered, he needed his jump-start, a cup of rich, black coffee.
In deference to this need, his housekeeper, Mrs. Norris, had set the coffeepot's automatic timer the night before so it would be ready when he first came downstairs. It was programmed to start the brewing cycle in fifteen minutes. And although all electrical gadgets and appliances were a complete mystery to him (his use of the electric teapot had once resulted in the removal of an entire section of kitchen wallpaper), he just couldn't wait. So he said a quick prayer for protection, both for him and the kitchen, and pushed several buttons. Much to his relief, the grinder began to whine as it ground fresh Colombian beans to a fine powder. The early-morning air was instantly filled with an intoxicating aroma.
"Thank you, Lord, for favors big and small," he intoned, then went in search of his favorite mug, the one that his housekeeper teased was "the size of a small planter." Since coffee was his favorite beverage, its size saved him from making repeated trips for refills.
The smell of coffee had set his stomach rumbling so he popped two slices of stone-ground whole wheat bread in the toaster (one of his few concessions to Doc Hammon's order to increase the fiber in his diet), then went in search of the butter. The refrigerator was filled with dishes Mrs. Norris had prepared for today's function. She had attached Post-it notes on each that read: "For today's luncheon. Keep hands off!"
Not much of a chance of him stealing a bite of that or anything else his housekeeper referred to as health food. He carefully lifted the plastic wrap off a bowl and took a sniff. Dear Lord, it smelled like rotting tree bark! He hastily patted the plastic in place and pushed it aside while yearning for the good old days--German potato salad, Boston baked beans, apple crisps, Yankee pot roast--all of which Mrs. Norris now labeled "death to one's arteries." She wasn't at all amused when he pointed out that everyone had to die of something, so why couldn't she let them die in peace?
He found the butter hidden behind a large bottle of carrot juice. He hoped Mrs. Norris didn't plan to spring that on him this morning. Last week it had been prune juice. His stomach had still not recovered.
He filled his supersize mug to the brim, threw in several teaspoons of sugar, slathered his toast with enough butter to clog several main arteries, and headed toward his study.
The early-morning light rendered the chestnut paneling a soft gold, infusing the room with a sense of warmth and serenity. Father James entered happily, feeling his heart leap once again with praise and thanksgiving. It wasn't too long ago that both the rectory and the church next door were in such disrepair that the archdiocese had ordered it closed. But God had intervened by way of the Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception who, under the leadership of Mother Mary Veronica, had convinced the archbishop to restore St. Cecilia's as part of the nuns' plan to open a retirement home for the religious across the street.
He carefully set down his coffee mug, settled in behind his desk, and moved his well-worn Bible closer. There was still work to be done on the speech he was to give at today's ceremonies. The Bible fell open to one of his favorite psalms.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
Who have set their hearts on pilgrimage . . .
. . . they go from strength to strength . . .
He was quickly lost in thought, absentmindedly munching on his toast, when the phone rang. He picked it up on the second ring.
"St. Cecilia's Rectory. Father James speaking."
"Still getting up with the roosters, are you, Jimmy?" It was his old mentor, Monsignor Casio, calling from New York City.
"You once told me as a young seminarian that no priest worth his salt sleeps past sunup," Father James reminded him.
"So I did," Monsignor answered.
Father James noticed a tired edge to his voice and grew concerned. His mentor was nearing his seventy-fifth birthday and should have retired several years ago. "Is everything all right?"
"It's been a long, hard night," he said. "One of our parishioner's sons was killed in a gang fight. Gunned down in an alleyway. They found his body in a Dumpster. His was only fourteen years old."
"Dear Lord . . . what a waste of such a young life. I'm so sorry. I'll lift him and his family up at Mass this morning."
"I appreciate that, Jim. He was a good boy, just couldn't stand up to peer pressure. Unfortunately, I see far too many of these scenarios."
"I'm glad I pastor in a small country town," Father James confessed. "We may have our share of problems, but at least folks here still hold life dear."
"Which is one of the reasons I'm calling," Monsignor admitted. "I need a favor."
"Anything that's in my power to do, you know I will," Father James assured him.
"Good. I thought you'd say that." He cleared his throat. "If you have a few minutes, I'd like to tell you the story about a young man I've known since he was a boy."
Father James grabbed his mug and settled in. "I've got the time. Go ahead."
"His name is Stephen Richter, and he's just gotten out of prison."
"What was he in for?" Father James asked.
"Manslaughter, but . . . let me tell you the whole story before I get into that."
"I've known Stephen since he was six years old. His family lived in the neighborhood back in my old parish. He was a good kid but came from a troubled background. His father was in and out of jail. His mother used to turn tricks in their living room to keep up her heroin habit. He also has two brothers, but they were just as messed up as the parents.
"I took a liking to him right away. Great smile. Great enthusiasm for life, which you had to admire considering the circumstances he lived in.
"Stephen was a very talented artist from an early age. I still have a couple of drawings he did when he was only eight, nine years old. He had a rare gift that I knew if nurtured would someday get him out of this place. So, one summer, a couple of us priests pooled our money and sent Stephen to an art program that was being sponsored by the Whitney Museum. Well, the kid took to it like a duck to water. You should have seen some of the things he produced. What an imagination! He was especially adept at portraits.
"One of the curators saw his potential and helped him get accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design. Stephen did exceptionally well there. In fact, one of the instructors went out of his way to get him a summer internship in the advertising department of the Boston Globe. We all were thrilled for him. It seemed that our prayers and support was paying off.
"Much to Stephen's credit, he never forgot us, not even with his busy schedule. He called every week, filling us in on all the great things that were happening in his life. He even managed to find himself a nice Catholic girlfriend. We couldn't have been more pleased."
"So, what happened to land him in jail?" Father James asked, placing his empty mug on the desk.
"I was just about to get to that," the monsignor said. "It was during his sophomore year that things began to fall apart. First, his father died in a prison fight. Stabbed to death. Then his mother was diagnosed with AIDS. She'd abused her body for so many years that she had no resistance left to fight the disease and in a couple of months was dying.
"Around Christmastime, she decided she wanted to see him. Only God knows why. She had been stoned most of his life. I would have doubted if she even knew she had a son named Stephen. Anyway, she sent his two older brothers up to Rhode Island with instructions to bring him back to New York for the holidays; and like a dutiful son, Stephen agreed to come home.
"On the way back, the brothers held up a liquor store near Greenwich. Stephen, who was asleep in the backseat of the car, never knew a thing until the cops showed up.
"In the interim, the robbery hadn't gone as smoothly as the brothers had planned. The cashier resisted turning over the money and was shot. He died a few days later."
"Dear Lord! Were the brothers caught?"
"One got away scot-free. The other one was eventually caught and charged with murder."
"Charged as an accessory. He served eight years. Just got out last week."
"Poor kid. He sure got the worse end of the stick," Father James said, shaking his head. Sometimes life just didn't seem fair.
"I agree. The brother Amos, who actually pulled the trigger, is still out on the streets making trouble, which is why I'm so concerned. I'm afraid that it's only a matter of time before he pulls Stephen into another mess."
"So, how can I help?" Father James asked without hesitation.
"I was wondering if he could stay with you. He needs to get out of the city."
"Any chance the brother might follow him up here and make trouble?" As much as Father James wished to help this young man, he had Father Dennis and his parishioners' safety to consider.
"No, I can make sure he doesn't find out," Monsignor assured him. "I'll have one of my parishioners, a detective friend, pick Amos up and hold him for a few days. That way Stephen will be free to take off undetected."
"And what does Stephen think about leaving New York to come and live in the country? There aren't many diversions here."
"There weren't many diversions in prison either, but he managed to survive that," Monsignor parried. "Listen, Jim, he's eager to start over again. And if you ask me, he has a far better chance of doing that in a place where nobody knows him, and away from the city streets than staying here. . . . Excuse me, Jim."
A muffled conversation took place on the other end of the phone.
"Sorry, I have to go. That was my housekeeper. The police have caught the murderer of the young boy that I was telling you about. They want me to go with them to tell the boy's parents. But before I hang up, I just want to add that Stephen is an exceptional young man. You shouldn't have any qualms about taking him in. Even with all the stuff that he's been through, he's somehow managed to maintain a sense of hope."
"Sounds like God's grace and your prayers have been actively at work in his life."
"Reminds me of what Basil King once wrote about grace." The monsignor quoted, "'Grace is an inflowing of spiritual power which gives a man strength beyond anything he himself can generate.' It's the only explanation. How else could he have made it through such a tragic life intact?"
"Send him up," Father James said. "He can stay here at the rectory. Father Dennis and I would welcome the company. Meanwhile, I'll ask around. See if I can line him up a job."
"Thanks, Jim. I appreciate your help. I'd just like to see him make it."
"With you as his prayer partner, I'm sure he will."
"Let's hope so. And don't be too picky about finding him a job. He'll be happy to do anything."
"Can you give me about a week to get things prepared here? Send him up say . . . next Tuesday."
"That will be fine. And, Jim . . ."
"Thanks again. This young man means alot to me."
"And even more to the Lord," Father James reminded him.
Excerpted from Grace Will Lead Me Home by Katherine Valentine. Copyright © 2004 by Katherine Valentine. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.