The Priest and the Pauper

I grew up in a small village in the Irish midlands in the 1970s, and though life at that time was not as idyllic as perhaps it seemed then, it was, at the time, a pretty nice childhood.

I was perhaps lucky in the sense that my family weren’t poor, but we weren’t particularly rich either. My father was the local GP (family doctor) and he had status in the community because of that, but there was very little money about and very few private patients, so he survived on the minimal salary provide by the local health authority.

All these things are relative though. We had a car (a VW Beetle) which he needed for visiting patients, but our house was owned by the local health authority, which charged the rent out of my Dad’s salary.

My Dad had grown up not too far away, so I suppose the attraction of working in this village was that he was close enough to visit relatives – that and the fact that there was nowhere else he could get.


VW Beetle from 1970s

Anyway, because of this, the local priest happened to be a cousin of his. His name was Fr Cornelius Campion – Father Campion to everyone in the village except (and this used to freak me out as a kid) when he was talking to my Dad, who in private called him ‘Con’.

The big issue for the village was that the church was old and falling down. It was cold and rickety and getting to the point of being dangerous.

And so it was decided to build a new church where the altar would face the people (as opposed to the old church rite pre-Vatican ll where the priest faced the altar) and it would have features like a ‘crying room’ where women could take young infants who were too loud.

There was to be a place beside the altar for the choir, and the confession boxes were built into the walls so that you had much more privacy than the wooden confessionals used previously. All in all, this was going to be a State-of-the-Art Catholic church and, of course, it was the priest’s job to build and finance it.

What this meant for the community – and he told us this ourselves – was that every raffle and draw had to be, for the moment, for this new church. Every hurling match, every fete, every concert had to make either  a full or part contribution to this enormous effort.

It got to be part of life. Someone would win a raffle or a draw and immediately donate the proceeds to the church. Political parties – who at that time would collect money outside the church – would be asked to give a portion of their take to the new building.

And anyone with building talents – plasterers, labourers, carpenters and the like would be asked to contribute working a few days on the project. I even heard stories of people who returned home from working on the buildings in England who spent their two weeks at home working on the church. “Shure he’ll get his reward in Heaven”, is what people said.

And embedded at the heart of this project was the parish priest himself – cajoling, persuading and negotiating with workmen and suppliers, and trading grace in Heaven when he ran out of money.

He was reputed to carry a huge wad of cash under his cassock – and it was even possible to see this sometimes. At the end of a bingo session in the local hall, he would sometimes take it out and wrap the day’s profits around it – tying it all together with a massive elastic band, which he wrapped around the new pile.

He would then thrust it back, deep within the cassock, and it would disappear from both sight and consciousness. When someone needed to be paid, a chequebook was produced, or the exact sum in notes and coins. And always with the rejoinder “Would you not like to give something back to your Lord and Creator for his kindness and gifts he has bestowed on you?”

Invariably, through these techniques, the church began to be built, and it was a little miracle in its own way. The old church was torn down – which was a sign something was definitely going to happen (an Irish village without a church?) – and the scaffolding started to go around the new emerging temple.

Around this time there were some rumblings from some that perhaps, for the workers who were providing their labour for free, (or almost free) that the priest could be a little more generous with the cash. When people began to see the actual church being built, they forgot about the money it would cost (and continue to cost) and they thought (well, some of them) that now was the time to let the purse-strings loose.

One individual had a cunning plan. He had complained bitterly the previous night in the pub that he hadn’t enough money for a night’s drinking, but that he had a sure-fire way of getting more money the following day.

So he showed up at the church site with a pair of shoes with one of the soles falling off and the other in poor repair.

Now, the Fr Campion would have been aware of almost every individual in the parish and some beyond. He knew their income, how they treated their families, their problems and their faults. He heard them in confession, provided charity for poor families through the St Vincent de Paul and ministered to their dead and sick.

So he would have known that the man in question would not have been the type of person who would have spent much money on his family when there were plenty of pubs where he could part company with it.

Anyway, in the heel of the hunt, the priest came around the corner of the site and saw this man high up on a scaffold with his sole flapping. He immediately called up to him: “Come down here – you there, come down here.”

The builder smiled secretly to himself and with great and exaggerated difficulty made his way down to the ground.

“Do you realise how dangerous it is for you to be up there with those shoes,” said the priest. “You could have an accident and the church would be liable”.

“Yes father,” said the man, ” and I was going to buy a pair of shoes soon, as soon as I have the money. But I have to be doing the Lord’s work here in the meantime.”

Father Campion sighed. He reached deep within his cassock and pulled out the massive wad of money. It was deep and wide because the larger denomination notes at that time were larger.

He could just about hold the width of the notes in one hand.

He pulled the elastic band off the notes and perused them a little.

And then he handed the elastic band to the man.

“Well, for God’s sake, please strap up your sole or you’ll cause yourself an injury,” he said, and proceeded on his way.

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