It is always hard for a priest to pick up the threads of a new parish. I could see why the bishop had chosen a troubleshooter.

“My son,” he said, “I have not given you an easy task. There is a spiritual malaise to be sought out and conquered. It is never a light matter when one of our own has taken his life. Father O’Shea, rest his soul, I had always considered to be a stable man, lacking perhaps in imagination, but one of the old school.” and the tired eyes clouded as he blessed me and sent me on my way.

The first week was an endless round of meetings – The Women’s Circle; Contacting Social Welfare; The Council; The Lay Committee; The Geriatric Nursing Home, St. Joseph’s Convent School for Girls; St, Anthony’s Catholic Primary.

As the blur of new faces resolved themselves into individuals so too emerged the dead priest, pictured through the eyes of his flock.

“A Saint from Heaven he was.” said old Mrs Rafferty. “From the Old Country, you know. A Kerry man from the far west coast. Many’s the time we’ve cracked on about the good old days, when the Mass was the Mass, no disrespect intended Father.”

That seemed to be the general consensus. “A good fella was Father Tom.” The burly labourer swapped his beer glass to his left hand and ran fingers like thick sausages through his tangled hair. “He liked his pot of ale did His Reverence, though his favourite tipple was the Irish; a great one for Tullamore Dew!” The man shook his head in puzzled disbelief. “I can’t think why he did it – and in that way too!”

Simon Quigley was another kettle of fish. Most prominent amongst the Laity, chairman of this and that committee, local businessman and fundraiser, he nevertheless was the type of man I have little time for. Self-righteous, fawning, all Father this and Father that, do people ever consider how it sounds to the priest concerned? He had a mincing way of talking:

“Poor Father O’Shea was a good man. No doubt about that. But” and he coughed delicately, “he was hardly a cultured man, Father, as you and I understand the term. God chose him from the wildest of the Irish. A rough diamond, I’m afraid. Salt of the earth I’m sure, but I doubt if he read anything but the Catholic Herald and the Racing Guide since he left the seminary, in the year dot!”

I spoke to the Children. “My Mum say I mustn’t talk about Father Tom”, said little Lucy. “But we loved Father Tom. He used to tell us stories.

“My Dad says ‘Dead is Dead, and that’s that!’ And Mum shushes him and says ‘The Children ‘. My Mum says he is in Heaven but my Gran says he will go to Hell for killing himself. Do good people go to Hell Father?’

I was suddenly almost uncontrollably angry. I collected myself and replied to the child. “God has forgiven him already Lucy. Don’t worry. Father Tom is quite safe now!”

I went to the local hospital to visit the cleaning woman who had found the charred corpse. The poor little old lady was still heavily sedated and her eyes rested on my clerical collar. A brief hope-filled them but then the memories flooded back and I could see panic and disbelief widen her gaze.

I spoke soothingly to her and blessed her silently, the familiar ritual seeming to lighten her burden, and I left her as she sank into a light sleep.

Thomas Patrick O’Shea, parish priest, had immolated himself in the crypt of St. Anthony’s. The only things left in that bare stone chamber were an empty petrol can, an empty bottle of Irish whiskey, a box of matches and the words ‘ Mea Culpa’ scrawled in the dust on the floor.

I have saved Mary until last. Fortyish, a widow, hair caught up in an outmoded bun, face plain and devoid of make-up, her only remarkable feature was a pair of smouldering eyes. They were a dark blue, an unusual shade and the surrounding tissues were shadowed and puffy with grief. She was his housekeeper, now mine, and she tended unobtrusively to my requirements; providing plain but tasty meals, doing all the household chores in a quiet manner that made life really very pleasant.

At the end of a particularly trying day, I went up to my room – the dead man’s room – and sat down on the old brass bed, trying to work out just why a good unimaginative Irish born priest should kill himself, and in such a manner.

Idly I looked at the big brass knobs on the bedhead. I unscrewed one, fleeting childhood memories teasing at the fringes of my mind. We used to hide things there.

I felt inside the one-inch wide tubing. Something was wedged. I drew out the tightly rolled cylinder of papers. Smoothing them out I could see at once what they were. It was the usual venomous filth; accusations of fornication, of homosexuality, of paedophilia, and even one of heresy! All priests have had to deal with this sort of thing at one time or another. But Father Tom, he seemed so stable, too ORDINARY to succumb to baseless charges, I remembered the letters scrawled on the floor of the crypt:

“Mea Culpa!”

I have sinned, or more exactly, It is my fault, I am guilty! and I wondered which of the accusations had struck too close to home.

Deciding to leave these speculations until the morning I undressed and was just about to switch off the bedside lamp when a knock at the door stayed my hand.

The door opened and there stood Mary. Her hair, released from its bun, hung around her shoulders. She was wearing a transparent nightdress. A scarlet gash of lipstick framed the mouth.

“Was there anything else you would be requiring tonight Father?”

Poor Tom!