"How's your mother?" Came my whisper,
the silence Breaking;
My Parish Priest
Have you ever known someone who always puts you on edge, someone whose mere presence could agitate even the most composed person? As a young boy growing up Catholic, I once knew such a person. Our parish priest, Father William T. Alexander was the most intimidating person I have ever known. His very demeanor instilled a gnawing feeling of fear inside the children at Saint Thomas School. We all walked the halls as if Father Alexander might accost us from some dark corner, demanding to know why we were not in Chapel. He walked those halls carrying a long wooden Patel, which he used as a disciplinarian on many occasions.
Father Alexander was a perfectionist and his appearance was no exception. Whenever I saw him, he was wearing the ritualistic starchy white collar and black suit that was crisp as if just pressed. His thick jet-black hair, he combed with a slight wave to the side and had the perfect part. Father Alexander’s stern, flawless appearance seemed sharply exaggerated by his rigidly thin lips, which were a constant exaggerated frown caused by the weight of his responsibilities, as they continuously tugged down at the corners. Meticulously clean, manicured fingernails topped off his soft, long wrinkle free hands. He smelled of the holy water that he used to bless us at church, which was sweet as the mountain air after a fresh spring rain.
What’s more, Father Alexander expected each of us to live up to these same high standards. The children at Saint Thomas School were never so well groomed as the year he was in our midst. The boys would line up in a row looking as though they were penguins out to play. We always had to wear black pants; calf high socks, black dress shoes, a blue and gray tie in honor of our school colors, a starched white oxford shirt, and a belt that topped off our uniform. The Girls were little Shirley Temple’s all in a row; they wore simple black dresses, which had a small lace collar and went down past the knee, white shoes, and the school crest pin.
I remember one spring day I got my uniform dirty while playing in the schoolyard; it was right before catechism class and we all had been playing tag. “Sister Beatrice,” Father Alexander said harshly to my kind teacher. “May I please have a word with you in private?” as he glanced around the room finally fixing his icy blue eyes upon me. Even though they stepped out into the hall and closed the door, the entire class could hear what they were saying. “What is it that I can do you for Father?” asked Sister Beatrice.
“Do you think it wise to allow the children to play in the mud before class Sister?” he asked, sharply raising his voice.
“It has never happened before, Father. Still I’m…” started Sister Beatrice in a meager tone.
“I hardly think that it is an acceptable excuse!” he cut her off.
“But father, the children need to play outdoors. With all this rain we have been getting accidents are bound to happen occasionally.”
“Your duty Sister is to teach, that does not include supervising a playground. From now on, the children will come directly to class. Is that Clear?” he amplified his voice so that it thundered through the thin walls of the classroom.
“Yes Father,” she replied meekly as she was re-entering the classroom.
I have often thought to myself; if God were at the top of a staircase, and I was on it, Father Alexander would always be one step ahead of me. “This child can’t be allowed to advance another step!” his apparition would say smugly in my vision. “He forgot to recite his act of contrition last night. He finds time to play in the mud, yet he skips a few Hail Mary’s when he says his rosary. Yes, I believe you’ll have to send this child to Purgatory for a very long time.” as he casts his long, sharp finger in my direction.
Since Father Alexander, there has never been another Parish Priest at Saint Thomas school who wanted such perfection from the children and would not accept any less. Some of the most compassionate people I know are priests; in contrast, as a direct result of my experience with William T. Alexander, I have learned that some people have such a thrust for the authority over others that they will misuse their position of power to get it. As a Parish Priest, Father Alexander was unquestionably the most intimidating person I have ever known.