Holy Week approached and Pere Phillipe debated whether to return to the cathedral a triumphant missionary or send back a message that he’d been eaten by wild dogs and stay among the valley people. He’d fallen into a routine of helping Gervung and Trevung in the school every day. He’d helped to build another room on Trevung’s house and helped plant gardens around Gervung’s house. He saw that the valley people could produce more food with better varieties of fruit trees and seeds.
He sighed as he stood beside Gervung and waved goodbye to their students. He wondered if he would ever see the students again if he returned to the cathedral.
“Pere,” Gervung touched the older man’s arm to get his attention. “Let’s sit beside the creek and talk a while. I know you plan to return to the cathedral for Easter. I have some questions that need to be answered.”
The older man nodded with a good idea what those questions might be. He didn’t know how he would answer those questions.
The two men sat down at the edge of the creek and Gervung began. “I think you loved my mother. Tell me about her.” He’d asked the one question the priest wanted to talk about.
Pere Phillipe brushed a tear from his cheek. “We will start at the beginning. My family name is Soyet. Our family is very rich with many servants. Mama often hired girls from the country to come work for us while they went to school in the city. Your mama came to live with us and work while attending school.”
The older man paused in his story and looked inward through the years. “I think I fell in love with her the first time I saw her. Mama was strict that us boys were not to talk to the servant girls. Usually we didn’t bother they were only servants. But your mama, she was special. She moved through a room with grace, not like the other servants who scuttled. Mama never found reason to scold her, but often commented that she was different. Her work was always excellent.
Mama soon decided that Y’NiD should become a nun because she excelled in her schoolwork and in her work in our home. I’d started making time to see her regularly by this time.
I knew Mama intended me for the church, but I wanted a wife and family especially after meeting your mama. I had no idea how determined Mama was that I should join the priesthood.
Y’NiD tried to tell my mama that she could not become a nun because she had been promised to someone. Both of us knew better than to acknowledge our love to Mama. Finally, Mama took Y’NiD to the convent and told the Mother Superior to take her as a novice.
I felt heartbroken for about six hours until I decided to go get your mama and run away with her. I went to mass. She was there. I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to speak to her, but the old nun in charge of the novices allowed me a couple minutes with her thinking that I had messages from Mama.
We ran away right then and returned to her family. Her papa took us to the old village priest immediately. We were married in the church and the marriage was recorded.”
“But, if you married Mama, how did it come to be that you are a priest?”
“The simple answer is due to the shear evilness of my family. We lived together with your mama’s family. I tutored the ignorant sons of my peers to support us. We were happy. The whole family celebrated with us when we learned that you were on the way.” The priest coughed and paused in his story.
“Before we’d been together for a year, my parents found us. I thought they’d simply disown us, but mama was set on me being a priest. I don’t know how many people they bribed. Papa’s servants tied me up and carried me in a farm cart back to the monastery and had me locked me up. After six weeks the abbot came to me and told me that Y’NiD had died in childbirth.” The priest paused and watched the water in the creek for a few minutes before he continued. “In black despair, I knew I could never love another woman, so I took my vows to become a priest.”
“Almost five years after I last saw your mama, I became ordained. I requested some time to work among the poor. Really, I wanted to visit your mama’s parents. They told me that she was still alive that you were strong and healthy and they gave me her direction. I went to her immediately. Now, we both knew the church would kill her and our child if they knew of our marriage. I stayed with her for five days. Our love was as it had always been. It was during that time that Trevung was conceived. We made plans for our future. Your aunt had married the local shopkeeper by then and he became our go between when I returned to the cathedral in Portlandia.”
“Uncle N’RS? I thought he hated me.”
The priest shook his head. “He hates the church more. He hated the whole business, but maybe he thought he was doing the right thing or maybe he wanted to get back at the church. Anyway, he befriended us. Citing my desire to work among the poor and the natives, I requested a transfer to the cathedral near your mama. The transfer came through when Trevung was six months old. From that time, we lived a half life, always wanting more time together and afraid of the church if the truth came out.”
“Was there no way out?”
“Don’t you think I researched that question? The church is not a forgiving mistress. I read. I talked to church scholars. The answer according to church law is that I would lose my ordination, which I care little about. The practical answer was that you, your mother and I should all be executed for apostasy, heresy and a half dozen other charges. We didn’t have money to leave the country, so we continued as we were. I did the best I could for my family, but our enemies were too great. Remember that we faced not only the church, but my family. My mama still rules the family. She is cruel and ruthless. We needed to hide not only from the church, but from Mama. Even now, I fear that if I do not return on time or even earlier than expected, your lives and those of your wives will be in danger. The church has forgotten or never known of my love. My mama will never forget.”
“And yet, you came among us as a priest baptizing us and marrying us by the laws of that monster, the church.”
“No son, I baptized you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I married you before God and the witness of your community. I will serve God, but not the greedy church. The two are not the same.”
Gervung sat and stared into the water for ten full minutes before he lifted his head. “Life is as it is. We will make the best of what we have. I think my neighbors are in great need of a missionary. Can you return? You will be welcome in my home.”
“I will come as often as I can. My heart has been at rest with my sons nearby. I see your Mama in the way you stand and hold your head. Trevung has her laugh. I cannot stay away.”
Abbot Paul looked up from Pere Phillipe’s report. “A hundred and twenty-five converts, you have done well, brother. I have often criticized you as a priest. You are indifferent in your duties. You do not give penance as you should. Your homilies are dull. You put me to sleep when you say mass. But, a hundred and twenty-five converts in six weeks. You have done well.”
“That is a hundred and twenty-five baptisms. The people need more instruction. Many do not know their prayers. I hope to return next year. There will be new babies and new weddings and they must learn their prayers and celebrate mass.”
Abbot Paul folded his hands as if in prayer. “No, what I am trying to say is that you are not called to serve in the cathedral. You are called to be a missionary. You will stay with us during Eastertide, but on the first day of Pentacost you must set out on another missionary journey.”
Pere Phillipe bowed his head in submission so the abbot could not see the joy in his eyes. For the first time since before entering the priesthood, he would be free to live with his sons.