St. Francis Xavier's rectory was haunted, or so it was reported by the last two pastors, who had fled in the middle of the night and refused to return even to pack their belongings.
The first was Father Jack Naves, a pale, shy man who seldom smiled, more from his fear of dentists than from a lack of mirth. He was known in the diocese as a plodder without ambition who could be counted on to do what was required of him but nothing more. In some respects, Archbishop Gerard Kerry welcomed his lack of ardor. He had enough prelates who constantly sought his favor in hopes of gleaning a coveted place on one of his special councils, which were widely considered rungs on the ladder to Rome.
But Father Naves never expressed an interest in church politics or any other diocesan function outside his role as pastor of St. Bridget's, a parish in the northwest quadrant of the state that pretty much ran itself. It was blessed (or cursed, depending on what side of the clerical collar you happened to be speaking from) with a roster of "active" parishioners.
In fact, the bishop was barely aware of Father Naves's presence until a parishioner paid him a visit, complaining about the priest's lackluster homilies and his refusal to entertain any new parish programs or to take part in the community's ecumenical events. This particular parish served an affluent, quintessential New England town along with Congregational and Baptist churches and a bustling synagogue. All were nestled along a town green and took enormous pride in a religious esprit de corps. The synagogue shared Passover with Christians, and the Christians lit a menorah each December--functions that previous St. Bridget pastors had openly embraced. Father Naves, however, had no such leanings, and his continued absence from these affairs was proving to be an embarrassment to the parish.
Normally, the bishop would have ignored the complaints. Lord knows, he received dozens each month. Ever since Vatican II, and the inclusion of parishioners in areas that had once been dictated solely by priests, the complaints had been coming in a steady flow. As far as the bishop was concerned, many practicing Catholics overstepped their boundaries. They felt that their opinions mattered far more than they should.
Much to his chagrin, however, they sometimes did.
Take this case, for instance. The man from Father Naves's parish who had paid the bishop a visit was a heavy contributor to the Bishop's Annual Appeal, a fund whose coffers had drastically declined with the recent sex scandals in the Church. Without those funds, the many programs provided throughout the archdiocese would be severely restricted. More important, the cutbacks would be seen as an act of failure by Rome. There was only one thing to do. As a matter of survival, the bishop decided that it would be prudent to move Naves to another, less visible parish. Arrangements were hastily made for Father Naves to pastor St. Francis Xavier, whose predecessor, Father Stephens, had recently died from heart failure. Father Stephens had been seventy-five at the time.
The bishop considered the matter settled and completely forgot about the appointment until he received a strange phone call from Father Naves complaining about an infestation of rodents in the rectory. He couldn't imagine why the priest was troubling him about such mundane matters.
"Call an exterminator," he snapped.
"It's kind of curious . . ."
"Can we move this along?"
Naves's voice took on a nervous edge. "The exterminator found nothing, but I had an electrician come in to check out things because the lights keep going on and off. I figured whatever had been gnawing inside the walls had shorted some wires. This morning the electrician took down a portion of wall."
"Is there a point to this? I have a meeting in a few minutes."
"Behind the wall were hundreds of black snakes."
"Did you say snakes?"
"I called the exterminator back in, and he says we have to rip apart all the Sheetrock throughout the rectory and make certain they didn't breed, which is the reason for my call. As you can imagine, this is something of an emergency which our church finances cannot handle. We'll need your assistance."
The bishop approved the funds (although he would later concede that this was the beginning of an even stranger course of events), and he dismissed the matter until one night, at three in the morning, he was awakened by his bleary-eyed assistant.
"Father Naves is downstairs," he said. "I think you'd better go down and take a look at him."
The bishop tightened his robe as he clamored down the stairs, not at all pleased to have been awakened in the middle of the night. At the sight of Father Naves, he came to a dead halt.
"Good heavens, Naves . . ." the bishop exclaimed, not believing his eyes.
Father Naves stood in the middle of the Italian marble entryway, clad in a tattered pair of pajamas. His face was covered with deep gouges that resembled claw marks, and his eyes were filled with a sense of madness.
"What's that he's mumbling?"
The assistant leaned closer.
"Well . . . what is it?"
"He's saying, 'Please, don't make me go back there.' "
The next appointee was Father David St. Martin. This was to be his first assignment as pastor. He had arrived at St. Francis at 3 pm and spent the afternoon unpacking his clothes and books before sitting down in front of the television set in the library to eat his dinner, which had been brought over earlier by one of the church ladies.
The noises began at around 9 pm. Just as Father St. Martin was headed upstairs to bed, he heard the sound of something moving behind the walls. Having been brought up in an old farmhouse in upstate New York, he was accustomed to the creaks and groans associated with aging buildings, and he figured it was probably the sound of the water coursing through the heating system. Without giving it a second thought, he ignored the rumblings, took a shower, then dressed for bed before settling in with a book. Father St. Martin was partial to mysteries, and the one he was reading kept him guessing right to the end.
It was nearing midnight, and he had finally arrived at the point in the story where the killer was about to be revealed when the temperature in the room plummeted. Within seconds, the room grew as cold as a crypt. Teeth chattering, he threw back the covers and reached for his robe, figuring that the furnace must have conked out--not an unusual problem with old homes. He got as far as the downstairs hall when he noticed a black mist rising near the foot of the basement stairs. He rubbed his eyes, thinking he must be experiencing a combination of overtiredness and eye strain. Perhaps the light fixture needed a brighter bulb. The mist began to take shape.
He felt something quicken inside his chest. His heartrate increased as fear surged through his system, sending him warning signals to run. This was not a product of reading too late in bed. Whatever this thing was, it had shape and form and substance. He paused for just a moment, his feet refusing to obey, his eyes fixated on the shape that was morphing into a creature that would haunt his dreams for years.
Father St. Martin spent the rest of the night huddled in the backseat of his car and left the next morning after eliciting the help of Marvin Woodruff, the groundskeeper, who accompanied him back inside so that he could pack.
The Church is a small community, and as in any small town, gossip travels quickly. Within weeks, rumors that St. Francis Xavier's rectory was haunted reached the Hartford archdiocese.
Being a practical man, Archbishop Kerry knew these allegations must be quashed before the situation got out of hand and found its way to Rome. After giving it considerable thought, he decided to call on the one priest who he was certain could make this all go away--his old friend Father William Braxton.
Braxton had recently retired to Florida, but the bishop knew that it wouldn't take much to persuade him to return to active priesthood. Father Braxton was a man of action, and from the tone of his past few letters it was obvious that retirement fit his friend like a poorly made suit.
Braxton began his career as an army chaplain during the Korean War and quickly became a legend. His exploits eventually earned him a Purple Heart. A skilled marksman, he had picked up a rifle and fired blindly into advancing enemy forces as he dashed to rescue a wounded comrade. Although he managed to save the boy, he took a piece of mortar in the calf--a wound that continued to give him trouble throughout his life whenever the weather was damp or cold.
After the war, he returned to the States and passed on what was considered by others to be the most favored parish in the archdiocese. It was nestled in an affluent community, filled with wealthy parishioners who were eager to share their lavish lifestyle with the parish priest. The rectory came complete with a retinue of servants, a generous expense account, a new BMW each year, and a six-week vacation often spent at one of the parishioners' luxurious vacation homes. It also provided a 401(k) that was supplemented each Christmas and birthday with blue-chip stocks.
But none of this interested Father Braxton. Instead, he elected to take on one of New Haven's most crime-infested parishes. Before his arrival, gang members that proliferated along the streets outside the church had gathered before Mass every day to terrorize parish members. Women repeatedly had their purses snatched. Old men were robbed of their wallets and their Timex watches. Parents refused to allow their children to attend any of the church functions unless security guards were present, and by the time Father Braxton arrived there were fewer than a handful of parishioners either brave or foolish enough to attend morning Mass.
Father Braxton stood six feet four, had arms like ham shanks, and was afraid of no one. His nose had been broken so many times over the years that it gave him repeated sinus trouble, yet he refused to have it repaired. He felt that it added to his rough-and-tumble image.
He had never been afraid of confrontation, and as soon as he arrived he dressed in sweatpants and a shirt that said, "If you don't like the way I swagger, get off my sidewalk," marched right up to the gang leaders, and made it clear that he wouldn't tolerate anyone harassing his people, adding that if he found out otherwise he would personally see to it that it never happened again.
One evening, a couple of the gang members took him up on the threat. No one knew exactly what happened that night, but three of the youths spent several months in the hospital. Father Braxton required twenty-one stitches to sew up the knife wound on his arm, but that didn't stop him from saying Mass the next morning.
So when Archbishop Kerry called, Father Braxton eagerly accepted the challenge. In fact, he saw it as an answer to his prayer. For a man accustomed to action, a Florida retirement community offered few challenges. He packed a suitcase, made arrangements to have his belongings stored and his condo rented out, then hopped on a plane--all within twenty-four hours. A few days later, he was snugly ensconced within the walls of St. Francis Xavier's rectory and enjoying a late-night glass of brandy.
The fire blazing in the living-room fireplace snapped and hissed in concert with Andrea Bocelli's Arie Sacre
, which wafted from the double speakers that he had carefully positioned for maximum listening pleasure. Eyes closed, he allowed the music to underline his thoughts, which centered on the recent talk of hauntings here at the rectory.
He found it impossible to fathom that anyone in this day and age, let alone a priest, still believed in ghosts and goblins and who knows what else that went bump in the night. Why, it was laughable! These were the ravings of religious fanatics, priests who saw evil hiding behind every vice of man. Bah! Humbug! As far as he was concerned, these clerics should be cloistered, locked away with their archaic superstitions, instead of being allowed to infect parishes with their lunacy.
A sudden chill snaked through the room, curling around his slippered feet. "Darn drafty place," he swore, casting about for an open window, a loosened floorboard, anything that might account for the cold air funneling in.
He didn't try to temper his annoyance, which showed in his stiffened shoulders, and the way his lips had unfurled into a straight, pencil-thin line. Feeling every bit the martyr at having his evening disturbed, he threw himself off the chair and marched heavily across the room in search of the thermostat. He found it hidden behind a potted palm in the hallway. The thermometer read seventy-two degrees but was clearly incorrect. The house had grown as cold as a tomb.
He found the basement door, switched on the light, and headed downstairs to investigate. As he descended, the air grew heavy with mold, instantly triggering an allergy attack. His eyes began to water, blurring his vision. What this place needed was a decent dehumidifier, he thought. He certainly hoped that nothing of importance was stored down here. It would be ruined for sure.
This was just one more thing he planned to add to his growing list of improvements. He'd present these to the bishop at next week's lunch. They included a whirlpool for the upstairs bathroom (New England winters played havoc with his arthritis), a satellite dish, thus ensuring access to all future sporting events, and a new groundskeeper. He had just fired the old one. The fellow's name was Marvin Woodruff, and for some reason the locals called him Marvin-in-the-Corner. He refused to speak. Instead, whenever Father Braxton asked him a question he whistled and made hand motions. A real nutcase.
Something dashed across the foot of the stairs.
"Who's there?" Father Braxton called out.
Faint voices whispered in the shadows.
"I said . . . who's down there?" he shouted again.
The wooden door to the left of the furnace slowly creaked open.
Something slithered across the floor and began to take shape at the foot of the stairs. He leaned forward, straining to make it out.
He screamed like a man whose heart has been ripped from his chest, frantically retracing his steps.
The top of the stairs meant safety.
He crashed through the basement door, falling face-first onto the marble floor. He heard the familiar sound of cartilage breaking inside his nose. Blood dripped from both nostrils, but he didn't feel any physical pain, only terror. He resisted the urge to look back, scrambling to right himself for fear that at any moment a hand would reach out through the open door and drag him back into darkness.
Excerpted from The Haunted Rectory by Katherine Valentine. Copyright © 2006 by Katherine Valentine. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.