Monsignor Wilhelm stepped along the dark icy street cautiously, for a fall would break his 76-year-old frame. He hung on to his hat to keep an occasional gust from stealing it away. The cars along the curb, some of them without windows, sat deceased, covered with a shell of ice from the day’s freezing rain. A nearby street light hovered overhead, cold and dark; probably hadn’t burned in years. Christmas lights hung in various places, but few glowed; looking as if they had been up year-round. It seemed this forsaken part of the city had been left for dead. “Left for dead.” The words crept through his mind like a lyric from Edgar Allan Poe.
Even in the daylight, the walk from his residence to the church always sent a chill through him. At night he walked in the street instead of the sidewalk, especially at the entrance to the alleys. Several times he had been accosted in his travel; but so far his clerical collar kept the demons away. Yet he knew it would only take one drug-crazed addict to take his life.
Monsignor Wilhelm came to America from Munich, Germany for a sabbatical. He had visited every country in Europe during his fifty years of the priesthood, and now wanted to complete his travels by coming to America. There are times when the best laid plans go awry; he had been in this country just a week when he’d been asked to cover for a priest who had suddenly lost his life on these very streets.
“Monsignor Wilhelm, will you please … ” the words ran through his mind again. “It would be so very kind if you would administer to the people of St. Rose for only a short time, and you speak such fluent English! We know you want to get back to your sabbatical, and it will be only for a week or so until we find a replacement.” Hearing the words again made his anger resurface.
“Unverantwortlich Amerikaner,” he muttered. (Irresponsible Americans). The frost from his breath hung in the air as he walked on. It would not have been so bad if it were not Christmas Eve. A retreat in the mountains of Colorado was planned for this night.
The broken steps of the church were glossed over with ice. Opening the heavy oak doors revealed a depressing darkness, whose only reprieve were two clusters of candles, one on either side. Looking in the broom closet, he found a box of rock salt, solidified. Must’ve gotten wet. Banging it on the pavement he was able to get some of it to scatter, and the ice on the steps quickly began to melt.
Midnight Mass was in two hours and there was always so much to do. His sermon was only half prepared; he’d have to ad lib and hope the parishioners were asleep. The stubborn heater didn’t come on until the gas valve was tapped. A stick hung nearby just for that purpose. Tapping it once, twice, the furnace roared to life. A row of wall switches nearby lit the chandeliers. Only then, the beauty of the church revealed itself.
With the evening service prepared, the Monsignor donned his hat, pulled his heavy coat tightly around himself and left for the warmth and comfort of the residence. Halfway down the block, the freezing rain started again. The chill crawled over his back and down his legs. He tried to say a prayer to the Virgin, but his anger kept getting in the way. He’ll make up for it later, he thought, when he’s back in Munich, sipping fine coffee in front of his favorite fireplace at the Peterskirche, the Church of St. Peter. His mind began to seek refuge in his love for his homeland. He thought of his weekly stroll through the Lenbachhaus, one of the oldest art galleries in Munich. His love of the Botanical Gardens in Nymphenburg, and the hours spent at the Konigsee, a beautiful emerald-green mountain lake, considered the pearl of the Berchtesgadener Land.
He was only a block from his house, still reveling in the thoughts of his mind when he heard a low growl from an alley, chasing the emotional warmth away. He quickened his pace, but a gust of wind took off his hat and ran with it. He chased it back to where it landed – at the entrance to the alley. The Monsignor kept his eyes on the hat, afraid to look into the darkness. The icy rain continued to fall washing down into his collar as he bent to retrieve the hat. The growl came back as a groan just a few feet from his face. The noise was soft, almost feminine; and there were words of desolation imbedded with it. “Padre … please … I cannot do this.” The words brought forth no frost.
Monsignor Wilhelm looked into the emptiness and saw two eyes, cold as the rain, peering out. He quickly retrieved his hat and continued walking, berating himself for stopping to look into the void.
“Left for dead.” The gruesome lyric returned stopping him from moving further. He stood motionless like the cars along the curb, not even breathing. The only movement was the falling rain. “Left for dead” it echoed, as the growl pulled up the memories of the `rattle of death’ he heard many times in his ministry.
We crave to look upon those things we fear. The priest turned back toward the alley. The vision of the cold eyes stood locked with the words, “left for dead.” His hands and feet went numb. When the body expels its demons it is by vomiting or an uncontrollable shiver. Monsignor Wilhelm stepped toward the alley and the trembling overtook him. He felt neither his steps, nor the rain as it turned to ice. The darkness of the alley beckoned his soul, but repelled his body.
As if his reasoning had shut down, he blindly stepped forward into the alley, pushing against a pile of garbage spilling out of a wet cardboard box. The growl returned, and the garbage rose up to reveal the cold dark eyes. “Please … help me.” The spiritless words were beyond any quiver, as the body requires strength to shiver. The priest looked down on the miserable creature, and his compassion returned like a warming fluid. With it came strength enough to melt through the macabre. He knelt down and held up the head. Even in his icy hands, the chin felt frigid. He saw the ashen face of a young Hispanic girl with ratty hair tangled around her. She took a slow deep breath and released it with the words, “… cannot … do this.” Wrapping an arm around her waist, he lifted her to her feet. He could feel ribs under the thin wet coat, yet she seemed heavy. Only when he helped her out of her dungeon did he notice her swollen womb. The young girl was pregnant.
How he was able to carry her to his residence he didn’t know. Time seems to stand still when there are more important things to deal with. He called for an ambulance, but only excuses were heard. Christmas Eve brings out many people needing help. “Don’t know when we will be able to dispatch one sir, right now I’ve got them at a bar fight on 128th.” The Monsignor placed the phone in its cradle just as the woman rose up and curled forward with another contraction. He knew of no one else to call for help, and even then, time had run out. Her contractions were less than a minute apart. The Monsignor realized he was going to have to deliver her child.
He had witnessed births, but had never performed a delivery. All he could do now was pray for a miracle, and do what he could. To witness the miracle of birth is a wonder in itself, but to perform the task is a terror for those who don’t know how. Yet a simple prayer to the Virgin, brought peace and confidence to the Monsignor. His compassion for the mother guided his hands and mind. There was no fear, just a wonderful awe that enveloped him. He marveled as the scrunched-up little face came into view. His deft hands guided the head, carefully freeing it from the cord. The body of a woman has a certain strength at this moment and with one final push, the shoulders were free, and the little one plopped into the arms of the waiting priest. Quickly removing the debris from the little boy’s mouth and tying off the cord, he placed him at his mother’s breasts. She had fallen asleep from exhaustion. He finished the delivery and cleaned both mother and child. Suddenly, the clock struck midnight. Mass will be late tonight.
The parishioners didn’t seem to notice the delay. A few of them even seemed vacant and empty. “Don’t these people realize the significance of this night?” he asked himself. All through Mass, he thought of his guests resting quietly at his house, and added them to his own personal petitions. After the readings, the children performed the Nativity Story. Never had it been as real to him as that night. He had seen the miracle of birth on the holiest night, and will never again look upon the Birth of Christ as just a fanciful story. It now had substance and life.
After Mass, as everyone filed out, some of the children exchanged gifts among themselves. Realizing the mother and her newborn had nothing for Christmas, he removed a small angel and a miniature manger off one of the decorated trees. ‘This will bring a smile to her face.’ he thought.
The walk back to the residence at 2:00 am was one of reflection for Monsignor Wilhelm. He felt no fear, nor was he chilled. No one bothered him, no alley beckoned him. His thoughts were not on Germany, but the little mother at the house. The only shudder he felt was in thinking of her giving birth alone in what would’ve been her death bed. Both she and the child would not have survived the hell in which she laid. Hell is not always fire and brimstone.
In the short discussion he had with her, she said her name was Maria. He noticed a scar on her face, and several on her abdomen. She wore a tattoo of a rose on each arm and her ankles. Those are things he would have looked down on her for, if he met her on the street. When he asked about the child’s father, she simply said, “He left me.” And to himself, he added the words, “for dead.”
He found the two still asleep where he left them; she in his bed, and the little boy in an emptied drawer filled with towels. He placed the back of his hand against the mother’s neck. Her pulse was steady, her skin warm and soft as a rose petal. He left the angel ornament beside her. The little child had somehow found the knuckle of his thumb, and sucked gently on it. He placed the little manger at his feet.
Then he heard the woman speak. In German.“Sie sind ein heiliger mann, Gerald Wilhelm.” (You are a holy man)
The priest quickly turned around. Sitting up holding the angel gift, smiling, her face had color and her eyes were clear and full of life. It pleased him seeing her so alive.
“You must rest little mother and I will fix you some soup.” Her dark eyes radiated a smile, and the Monsignor could not keep from marveling at her. Even though she was ragged and exhausted, high cheekbones and full lips made her beautiful.
She continued to speak to him – in his native tongue. “Your gift tonight, to me and my child has not gone unnoticed. You have given us the gift of your love and compassion, and all of Heaven thanks you.”
The modest priest turned his head away. Looking toward the make-shift crib, he saw the little one must’ve kicked the cover over his face. Pulling it back, he saw only the miniature manger in his place. The child was gone. The Monsignor touched the depression where he laid; it was still warm.
It took several seconds for his mind to grasp the empty crib.
“Wo ist das Kind?” He gasped in German, turning back to the woman – but she too was gone. He stood stunned, unmoving, until his senses understood what his eyes were trying to tell him.
The bed in which she had laid, where she had given birth to the child, and where she had slept exhausted, was now covered with roses! Scores of long stem roses amidst thousands of petals, many still spilling out onto the floor. Warmth filled the room with the sweet scent of the flowers. He stepped back and reveled in the passions of his senses. Tears filled his eyes as he realized something beautiful and holy had taken place tonight. He didn’t know what or how, and it didn’t matter. He too, had been given a gift. Picking up a petal and gently rubbing it, brought back thoughts of the mother’s soft neck. He picked up one of the roses and finding a vase in the kitchen, placed it in water. `Such a silly thing to do at a moment like this.’ he thought, yet it seemed so right.
Monsignor Wilhelm remained at the parish for another seven years; returning to his homeland the final year of his life. No one understood what made the strange priest from Germany want to stay and work with the people. But it is said, to this day, every Christmas the church is filled with the sweet perfume of roses. And throughout the year, rose petals often appear on the altar. No one has yet come forth to claim the act, and no one has been seen leaving them. Some attribute it to the Monsignor that came from Germany just to administer to this parish. One even remarked how he always frowned, until that first Christmas when he gave roses to everyone in the parish. He had taken the church amidst all that lay cold and dead around it, and turned it into the pearl of the city with beautiful rose gardens; their pinks, yellows, and burgundies, intertwined with brick walkways and antique lighting. He brought life back to the streets – to a community that had been left for dead.