Category Archives: Humour Religion

Sister Ildephonse

                                     Sister Ildephonse


by Harry Reynolds

When I was eleven years old I was told, and I believed it to be true, that God punished evil people, but then I saw that he didn’t, and then I saw that sometimes he did punish them, but then I saw that evil people sometimes were good and sometimes good people changed in midstream in doing good and turned to evil while they were doing good. In the end, I saw that God had absolutely nothing to do with good and evil, that good and evil were, so to speak, none of his business.

And so, one day, at a Lower East Side school where I was educated by military officers disguised as German nuns, when Sister Ildephonse looked at the ceiling and said, as if to herself, “No matter who you are, children, you can always rely on God’s love”, at that moment the course of my life was changed when I snidely whispered to the class forger, Vladimir Petrov, “God owes us nothing”. Sister Ildephonse, upon hearing what I had said, swooped down the aisle, grabbed my red tie, and dragged me upright into the cloakroom, where she beat me about the head, left and right, left and right, with such force that for a moment I stood apart from her beating and wondered at her strength as she delivered her blows. That night, as I lay in my bed in our cold water flat, I rolled over and over thinking of a plan for vengeance on Sister Ildephonse but could think of no way in which I could conceal my identity. But then I prayed to God to help me, and so he did, and I saw that, though he did not owe me anything, he was just. I suddenly realized that the key for concealing my identity was by telling a priest in a confessional something evil about Sister Ildephonse. We had been told by Sister Ildephonse herself that a priest’s mouth was silenced forever, even by the threat of death, about what he had heard in the confessional from any penitent. I was, I may as well say it, transfixed by the joy that my plan for vengeance upon Sister Ildephonse came out of her own mouth. For the next week, I could think of nothing but the variety of lies that I could tell the priest without making him suspicious of me whose identity of course he would know by looking through the grill at my bent form.

And so, having selected Father Fleckenstein, the newest priest in the parish, who was young and nervous looking, I entered his confessional on a Saturday afternoon, the time when the priests every week were in their confessionals ready to deal with the sins of what I thought a surprising number of parishioners. “Bless me father, for I have sinned. My last confession…” “Get on with it, boy, no need to go into that recitation.”

I confessed about five or six sins, none of them extraordinary. Sins of disobedience of my parents, of a choice lie that I was somewhat proud of, of my dreaming of a naked girl, the oversized Sophie Wyzinski who lived in our tenement, and so on until, as if I were munching on a fact that I seemed to be concealing, I blurted out that I saw Sister Ildephonse, after class had been dismissed, in the cloakroom with Father O’Brien, the Pastor, and they were laughing. Father Fleckenstein said, after pausing at length, “There’s nothing wrong with that. Why do you even mention it?” “ I don’t know”, I said haltingly, “except that I could see Sister Ildephonse wasn’t wearing her skirt. It was on the floor.” This time there was a very long pause. “What else did you see?” asked Father Fleckenstein. When I heard that question, fright overcame me. I couldn’t breathe. I began to cry. I could have urinated in my pants. Father Fleckenstein said, “You are never to tell what you saw to anyone. Never tell anyone. God will strike you and even your family dead. Do you understand that… Tell me you understand that.” And I said “Yes, I understood that.”

At Christmas, we learned that Sister Ildephonse was now in the Phillipines. I heard my mother telling my father that the rumour in the parish was that Vladimir Petrov had seen Ildephonse in the cloakroom with one of the priests, which priest no one knew. I marveled at how the seal of the confessional was observed and how God was so right in pointing the way to me. In the end, I could see that he might not owe us anything, but he certainly knew how to be just without disclosing my identity. It was then, I recall, though I cannot be certain, that I began to believe that one day I might become a lawyer.

Sister Philomena 1937


Sister Philomena

by Harry Reynolds

I stand at the window and watch the snow fall.

I am eight in the third grade in a Catholic school in a slum with crazy Sister Philomena and God all around in a dark land of prayer, guilt, daily Masses, a bleeding Christ crucified above the blackboard, the fear of having my face slapped or my hands beaten with a ruler held by Sister Philomena, souls screaming in Purgatory in a print over her head, Hell behind every closet door ready to break out with the Devil reaching for me as his daily catch. It is 1937.

I walk through life heedlessly innocent to a dangerous degree of the malice in the world. I am thankful for the privilege of sitting next to the hot belly of a coal stove in winter, protected from the murderous winter wind trying to get through the newspapers stuck under the hallway doors and in the tops and sides of the old windows through which I can see, across the park, the tiny lights in the surrounding snow shrouded tenements.

And then there’s Confession. I have to confess my sins come Saturday to an old priest sitting in a dark box, he on the other side of a grill, me on my sinful knees – God knowing it all, why do I have to tell this priest anything – he seems asleep, and has bad breath.

But if I don’t tell him everything, the confession is bad, I commit sacrilege by taking communion, and if I don’t take communion at least once a year, then it’s into Hell I go, for it’s a law that thing about communion once a year, break that and it’s the Devil inhaling my breath one night as I lay asleep in my bed in our cold water flat on the top floor of the tenement on Avenue B next to St Brigid’s Church across from Tompkins Square Park.

Yes, it seems that everything in life is connected and if I knew the spot where I could pull out the plug everything would disappear.

If, I thought, my mother dies and I don’t go to that school every day and smell Sister Philomena’s body bent over my shoulder, looking for ink spots on my paper that would make her grab it and rip it up, if my mother dies and I don’t have to go to Mass every morning except Saturday and watch the priest do the same thing over and over again, if I kept on sleeping in my bed and no one noticed that an ambulance came and took me to Bellevue Hospital where those parents of Mickey Rooney in the movies would take me secretly from Bellevue to Judy Garland in their snowbound house in Westchester far from Avenue B, then I could pull out that plug and whenever I wanted I could buy a thirty-five cent corned beef on club, with mustard, at Katz’s on Houston Street, and everything wouldn’t be connected anymore, especially Sister Philomena, who would be dead.

But wait. Should I have killed off Sister Philomena just because, balding and pot-bellied in age, I am watching the monotonous fall of snow on Bradley Road? Americans say they love realism (of course they are lying, they love realism as an entertainment) and if they love realism shouldn’t they receive dollops of it even if only in a local weekly newspaper? The truth is that on other occasions, particularly when speaking before bar association groups, I have wheeled out Sister Philomena as the third grade teacher who turned my life around by instilling in me the desire to excel as a student. Of course my motive to study was in part prideful but deep down in my heart it was to save me from an attack by this nun who represented the Pope. As a lawyer I have never drafted an agreement without her shadow enveiling the paper that had invisible ink spots made by my invisible dip pen. Whenever and wherever I stand in public I stand with the rigidity of a German officer in memory of Sister Philomena’s order of German nuns who punished slouchers with a slap from behind at the back of a head. Waste not, want not was tattooed across Sister Philomena’s forehead, and in self-defense across mine in larger letters. Every sheet of paper that we used had to be used on both sides so that in the fifth grade I took a test on the back of a sheet the front of which had the third-grade scrawl of Thomas, my younger, black sheep brother. We were fed lunch every school day by the Sisters for a dollar a week. Huge helpings of chopped meat, boiled potatoes, German cabbage, beans and so on, were laid across our plates with the two-fold warnings that as we ate we should remember that our parents were digging ditches or cleaning floors or unloading the tween decks of ships for that dollar a week and that there were millions – yes, millions – of children who looked just like us who were starving in India and China thinking of that very food on our plates. Sister Philomena said, as we ate, that these thoughts should make us humble, a thought that I kept in mind as I walked in winter to the cold water flat that Charles Dickens had thoughtfully provided for my arrival. Last, and the greatest gift from Sister Philomena, was the gift of memory, the gift instilled by the sheer fear of failing to recite each and every word, including punctuation, exactly as they were found in our old, dreary text books, smudged by the hands of other prisoners who had passed before Sister Philomena’s half-closed eyes as she looked down on us when one by one we recited from memory in fright the paragraphs assigned by her for memorization the prior night.

So, good and gentle folk, I’ll turn Sister Philomena in her wheel chair and walk towards stage left where I’ll keep her behind the curtain in a sepia toned memory cell, waiting for another snow fall.

Lester, My IRA Hero

                                                         Lester, My Uncle and My Hero     

                                                                                    Harry Reynolds

            It was the spring of 1935, or was it the autumn, when my uncle Lester, bachelor brother of my father,  tenant by sufferance in our Lower East Side cold water flat, despised for his drinking by my deaf mother, made me a member of the Irish Republican Army. 

            I was proud of it all, all of it, the rifles Lester said he stored in my uncle Charlie’s pigeon loft around the corner, the escape map  he drew for me, tied round by a rosary, on which he had me hurriedly swear a death oath against England on the steps of St Brigid’s Church across the way from Tompkins Square Park. I inhaled the purity of the adventure of it all, for I was eight and the magic of the new and unexpected had its hold on me as it does even until today.

            Unlike my friends in parochial school, who didn’t seem to have uncles, Lester took me everywhere. Regularly on Wednesdays we went to  Esther’s apartment on Avenue C where he gave her catechism lessons that took a good twenty minutes with me sitting alone in the kitchen reading  comic books he bought me, while Esther giggled like a little girl in the next room, once calling  out Oh my Jesus, a sign to me that Lester knew what he was doing to convert Esther, and then we would traipse over to Vazac’s Club for an hour with me sitting in the rear booth with Heshie Horowitz our numbers man waiting for the 3 p. m. number call, and  then across the way to Berkowitz’s Bakery where with three Irishmen, Lester, his elegant vest thrown on a post and his sleeves rolled up,  would help to unload cases from a covered truck all the way from New Jersey while Berkowitz kept a lookout for robbers, Lester said, and with that done and a  fistful of money he would call a cab and we would go to Times Square to the Belasco, a real theater, not a movie, where I would sit in the front row and watch beautiful girls dancing in lines and chewing gum and kissing Lester’s face as he chose one to meet him in church, he said, with all the girls laughing away and poking at his fat stomach, and then we would walk fast to St Patrick’s where Lester would take  literature from a rack and we would rush down the steps to a cab and back to the Lower East Side where Lester would run up to Charlie’s pigeon coop and  take a swig out of a bottle stashed in a feed bag, and then he would comb my hair and would take me home around the corner and give me to my mother as I handed her the St Patrick’s holy literature, and Lester would stick a five dollar bill in my pocket and run down the steps to an emergency IRA meeting, reminding me with a wagging finger to answer all my mother’s questions but to say nothing because she was a Ukrainian and not one of us in the IRA.

            Then, late at night, when all were asleep in the flat, Lester would tip toe in, kiss the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus hanging on the wall above my head, and slip into bed, whispering to me to be quiet as he told me of the English freighter he had just left, just blocks away from our house, soon to leave port with something, he couldn’t say what, set to go off when she was at sea. With that, I fell contentedly asleep as did Lester, the red candle light in front of the picture of Jesus flickering above me and around the room, sending us off to sleep in a grand soft light that aureoled the room.