Sunday, June 3
Feast of Pentecost
The early-morning knock on her bedroom door startled Sister Mary Helen out of a deep sleep. “What is it?” she called, fighting down the dread that immediately began gripping her stomach.
“Telephone,” Sister Anne whispered hoarsely. “It’s Sister Eileen.”
“What’s wrong?” Mary Helen quickly slipped on her robe and slippers. In her experience, anything good rarely came in an early-morning or a late-night telephone call. She hoped this call from her old friend was an exception to the rule.
“Nothing’s wrong. I think she just wants to talk,” Anne said reassuringly.
“At this hour?” Mary Helen grumbled. Putting on her bifocals, she checked her bedside clock. Good night, nurse! It was six o’clock in the morning! What could be so important?
“Hello,” Mary Helen said.
“Hello, yourself, old dear,” Sister Eileen called cheerfully.
At the sound of her good friend’s voice, any grumpiness Mary Helen felt melted away. As it turned out, all that was wrong with Eileen was a little loneliness and a big desire to chat.
No wonder, Mary Helen thought. Eileen had been in Ireland for over a year caring for her sister Molly, who was slowly dying of cancer. It was a very difficult task that she was doing remarkably well.
During that same time, Sister Mary Helen had been with Sister Anne, one of the young nuns, ministering to homeless women at the Refuge, a daytime drop-in shelter in downtown San Francisco. After more than fifty plus years in education, it was all new to her. Much to everyone’s surprise, including her own, she loved the work, proving that some old dogs can learn new tricks.
Although Eileen and she spoke and wrote frequently, there was still a lot to catch up on. The time slipped away. “If we talk much longer, it’ll be cheaper to fly over,” Mary Helen said finally.
Reluctantly Eileen agreed. “Regardless of cost, I feel a hundred percent better,” she said before she hung up. Mary Helen did, too.
Running a little late, Mary Helen hurried across the campus of Mount St. Francis College, where she lived, toward the chapel. The thick fog made her face tingle and her nose drip. The sides of the college hill were so banked in that, if she didn’t know better, she’d think the city below had disappeared.
Sister Mary Helen slipped into her pew just as Father Adams, wearing bright red vestments, entered the sanctuary to begin the liturgy for Pentecost. Mary Helen loved Pentecost Sunday. She never tired of hearing the Scriptural account of the first Pentecost with the disciples of Jesus cowering in the upper room, afraid that they, too, would suffer His fate.
Suddenly, a driving wind had filled the room and tongues of fire rested above each of them as the Holy Spirit infused them with courage and wisdom, commanding them to go forth and teach all nations. It must have been something to see, Mary Helen thought, imagining the group bursting from the room, all speaking at once. Amazingly, when they spoke, everyone, regardless of the language, was able to understand.
That’s hard to do even when everyone speaks the same language, Mary Helen thought as Father Adams continued on with the Mass.
When it was over, Mary Helen joined the other nuns for breakfast in the Sisters’ dining room. Sister Therese, who liked her name pronounced “trays,” had the floor. “Since the Holy Spirit came in tongues of fire,” she announced with a silly grin, “I suggest we have a barbecue for supper.”
Sister Mary Helen noticed Sister Patricia’s gazing out the dining room window. She knew exactly what the college president must have been thinking. The whole hill was shrouded in a thick June fog. The foggiest month in San Francisco and Therese wants to have a barbecue! She could imagine what the kitchen crew would have to say when they were told. Fortunately, most of them spoke only Spanish.
For a moment Mary Helen thought of all those tourists who must be downtown shivering in short sleeves. No amount of vacation write-ups about the city’s strange microclimates ever seemed to convince them that San Francisco in the summer is cold. She thought, too, of the women who dropped into the Refuge during the week for warmth and comfort. She wondered how “the refugees,” as they were affectionately called, were faring today. No doubt they were wearing everything they owned.
“You think it’s quite the weather for a barbecue?” Sister Ursula asked tactfully. Apparently the question fell on Therese’s deaf ear.
“Since red is the order of the day,” Therese announced, “we can have red meat done on red coals, red wine, and tomatoes!” She looked so pleased that no one, not even old Donata, who usually could be counted on to call a spade a spade, had the heart to dampen her spirit.
The day passed quietly. Mary Helen even had time for a short nap and a long read of her latest Marcia Muller mystery. “A murder mystery is the normal recreation of the noble mind,” some sage had once said. Mary Helen believed it, although she still covered her paperback whodunits with an ornate prayer book cover. No sense scandalizing the ignoble.
At supper time, Sister Mary Helen stood shivering with the other Sisters near the large black barbecue grill. She tried her best to look pleasant, but between the fog and the smoke, it was difficult.
“This is nuts!” old Donata complained loudly as Therese, undeterred by smoking coals, flipped over the tritips. “I’m taking mine inside,” Donata grumbled. “The rest of you can freeze to death if you don’t have any better sense.”
Mary Helen noticed several faces brighten at Donata’s suggestion. She was so preoccupied with her frozen fingers that she didn’t hear Sister Anne sidle up to her.
“Are you all set for tomorrow?” Anne asked through chattering teeth.
“Child’s play after this.” Mary Helen closed her eyes against a billow of black smoke. “Why do you ask?”
“I just remembered that I have a dentist appointment in the morning at ten,” Anne said. “I’m wondering if you’ll be all right alone at the Refuge. Ruth Davis is the volunteer. It’s just a check-up. I won’t be long.”
“All right alone?” Mary Helen felt a sharp jab of annoyance. “First of all, I’ll hardly be alone. Secondly, why wouldn’t I be all right?” she asked, feeling sure that Anne was harking back to last year when Mary Helen had discovered the battered body of a young prostitute at the side door of the Refuge. It had been unnerving, surely, but how often does a thing like that happen?
She marveled at how much more at home she was with the refugees now than she had been then. She was even beginning to understand their special language—“street talk,” as they called it. Crazily she imagined a little flame hovering above her head ready to impart courage and wisdom and the gift of a street-talking tongue.
“Of course I’ll be all right. What could possibly go wrong?” she asked crisply, and then wished she hadn’t. She didn’t like the wary look that flickered for a moment in Anne’s big hazel eyes.
Copyright © 2006 by Sister Carol Anne O’Marie.