- The Tongues of Angels
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[End Page 170]
Monsignor Victor Baran runs his eyes once more over the register of the First Communion class of 1947 and decides that it’s time to light up a cigar, even though it isn’t noon yet. A small transgression, maybe, but he feels a keen delight as he draws in the tobacco and sends a rich cloud of smoke tumbling over the list of names. There are so many of them! “Victor,” his friend, Father Joe Smutek, said, “you’re going to have to install turnstiles pretty soon.” Baran knows he’s lucky to be pastor of St. Conrad’s, one of the most important Polish American parishes in Detroit. [End Page 171]
“Pietrzyk, Pilarski, Szymanski . . .” The names roll on. These third graders about to receive their First Communion, where will they be twenty years from now? The boys will be good honest factory workers for the most part, and the girls will be mothers of children, St. Conrad’s parish of the next generation. Of course there will be priests and nuns among them, but the monsignor hopes that some will be doctors, too, and lawyers—could one even be a mayor of the city of Detroit? Nineteen sixty-seven: the date has a futuristic sound; he himself will be close to retirement then. That sobering thought returns him to the present, where there’s still so much to accomplish.
Glancing up, he meets the steely eyes of his legendary predecessor, Father Zelazny, whose portrait hangs on the office wall. The old pastor stands with his hands folded before him. He has a thick, powerful body, a head of gray, close-cropped hair, and a challenging expression. “I founded this parish,” he seems to be saying. “I molded it with my own rough hands in the days when the Poles who came here were poor and ignorant. I created this church, and now a soft creature like you is sitting behind a huge desk in a large, comfortable office that wasn’t dreamed of in my time. What does a priest need an office for? He should be out among his flock.” Baran has often wished he could take the picture down, but the older parishioners venerate the memory of their former leader. Who knows, though? Maybe as part of his upcoming anniversary celebration he’ll have his own portrait painted.
He bolts upright when he hears a cough and sees his housekeeper standing in the doorway. “Yes, Mrs. Chlebek?” he says. “Come in.”
The woman advances furtively. “Is Father Malinski,” she says after a while. “He leave water running again.”
Baran sighs. Is it going to be one of those days? “Father Malinski’s an old man,” he tells her. “He doesn’t always have the strength to shut the water off.”
He lowers his head, a signal that the discussion is over, but Mrs. Chlebek isn’t finished. “He is so old, he should be no more priest.”
The monsignor looks up at her again. “Father Malinski wants to serve, he wants to be useful.”
“I see him . . .” She makes a wavy motion with her large red hand. “He sing all by himself.” There’s cleverness in her hard little eyes. You’re a sly one, Mrs. Chlebek, Baran thinks; you know as well as I do that Father Malinski has had his sorrows, that he must once have believed he’d be the pastor of a parish like this and not finishing his days as a curate. [End Page 172] You and I both know he has spells that are difficult for him—maybe it’s the anniversary of his ordination—and he drinks a little more than he ought to.
“Father Malinski is a good priest,” he says.
Mrs. Chlebek nods grudgingly, though her face tells him she doesn’t believe it. It strikes Baran that he’d hate to encounter that face when applying for admission to the gate of Heaven.
“Nevertheless,” he says, “you’re right to be concerned about excessive use of water. After all, we have to pay for...