Date Published: June 2018
The Ugly Priest is a telling story of a priest’s missteps with the women who haunt his life, and his struggle to repair his soul and restore his vocation. It is a story of deceit, vulnerability and the loss of commitment. It displays the devastation of human frailty and reveals weaknesses that even a priest can’t escape.
If Father George Bernard had only known early on that the job of being a priest pounds the hell out of a man, his life choices might have been different. That pounding hit him countless times over his twenty years as a priest inflicting considerable damage on his soul and resulting in some bad choices. Jennifer was one, Helen another. He succumbs to the vulnerability every priest battles throughout his lifetime. The temptations of the flesh have a power his vocation is hard pressed to withstand.
The Ugly Priest reveals a vocation in shambles, deteriorated not only because of Father Bernard’s moral lapses but also because of his life’s lack of substance and value. His duties at Immaculate Conception Parish on the West Side of Chicago are tedious and distressing. The sin, dying, dishonesty and infidelity of his parishioners drains him. Deepening his distress is his life at a rundown, disintegrating parish with an outdated liturgy and a pastor who is a rude, spiteful and offensive old man. Father Bernard’s attempt to save himself from his cheerless, desolate life leads him down a dangerous path. Can he salvage his failing vocation and repair his troubled soul? Will he find the strength to restore the spiritual meaning and substance that once guided him as a priest?
That was twenty-two years ago, the last time he had seen Jennifer, but certainly not the last time she had entered his mind. But now there she was, her face so vividly displayed, her gentle voice, her seductive sense of humor, all of it summoned by a simple yet consuming scent. He didn’t notice it at first, but once it came to him, it was overwhelming.
It began with the pungent odor of burnt tobacco radiating from the driver and flooding the interior of the taxi. Suspended from the rearview mirror, a bag of potpourri made a futile effort at masking the smell. Father George Bernard considered opening the window, but the typical brisk Chicago wind thwarted his wish for fresh air. The temperature was a bit chilly as well, an unusual occurrence for late September in the city. The taxi passed Midway Airport and the rectory of Immaculate Conception Church, his destination, was not much farther.
He could tolerate the smell for a couple of minutes. He inhaled deeply once and then immediately again, trying to decide which scent dominated – the foul odor of tobacco or the sweet smell of…. What was the odor wafting from that bag dangling from the mirror? It was one he knew, something from the past. His past before the priesthood? Before the seminary? Before every part of life became bland, colorless, unremarkable, never leaving an impression on anyone? He drew another deep breath. Yes, that was it. Hyacinths. The now recognized smell filled his nostrils; the image it reconstructed, many times buried and as many times resurrected, took shape, waiting only for the right moment, like the right bouquet, to reemerge.
Jennifer Roland. It was the cologne Jennifer wore. Hyacinths, the scent that overwhelmed him over thirty years ago under that viaduct and ten years later kissing again in front of the A & P when he was visiting his parents before their move to Arizona.
He never forgot. Twenty years a priest and he still remembered countless times; each time those wonderful and bizarre days of his adolescence arose and the thought veered to the viaduct; when from somewhere, or maybe someone who passed or just in his imagination, the smell of hyacinths wafted near him; when his vocation faltered and thoughts surfaced of that second kiss. He raised his face toward the ceiling of the cab and exhaled a noise from his throat that disturbed him. He recognized it; that imperceptible puff of air rising from his chest. That regular sound of embarrassment and shame his body crafted whenever thoughts of Jennifer surfaced. A deep inhale and a rapid exhale. His head shook slightly. Staring out the taxi window at the passing homes, his breath built a vapor on the glass with each heavy exhale. The waft of hyacinths continued to fill his nostrils. Jennifer Roland.
The taxi swerved to avoid something on the road as it sped through an intersection. His head bumped slightly against the window and with the minor jolt he smiled again at the recollection of Jennifer.
Again Jennifer forced the realization that he still had a weakness for that sweet-smelling scent. Images of her advanced to memories, and memories of Jennifer Roland made him perspire and shake. Glancing at his reflection in the taxi window he pressed his lips together and closed his eyes.
The kisses. They were dreadfully amazing. Delightful.
About the Author
A former South Side Chicago boy and seminary student, Stickann’s Catholic upbringing sparked the need to write novels that illustrate the impact religion has on people. His two previous books – Glory Be To the Father, the Son… (2001), and Hobbledehoy Boy (2013) show how a strict religious upbringing can stunt the social growth of a person, particularly young boys. The Ugly Priest looks at the other side of the religious spectrum, the priest, and the religious implications of a weak vocation and unsettled soul.