When I was eleven, I decided I would set fire to the Cathedral.
I would walk into the church – which was cavernous and cool, and smelled of frankincense and the dark red powder janitors used to sweep floors – and I would take the glittering glass cups that contained the flickering candles, and I would hide them in places that would burn. Under the wooden pews. Inside the confessionals. Beneath the altar, where the flames could lick at the starched white cloth and race up towards God, and the wooden crucifix that was hung with the agonized body of his son, to the hovering tabernacle that housed the Holy Ghost.
I decided I would do this, because God knew everything, and my nightly plea to him to stop the bullies from throwing dog shit at me on the way home – to stop them from cornering me in the schoolyard and stealing my mittens, my jacket, my notebook, my yo-yo and whatever else they could lay their hands on; to stop them from threatening to cut my throat with a penknife if I ever told on them – was evidently falling on deaf ears. God did not care that I had spent Thursday morning having my lower spine x-rayed because on Wednesday afternoon I’d been deliberately tripped on the ice.
God was as big a bully as the girls who attended Confession on Wednesdays, shoplifted lipstick and nail polish from Pinder’s Drugs on Thursdays, pursued me with the pointed ends of their compasses on Fridays, and sat in the front pews with their families during Mass on Sundays.
God deserved to be taught a lesson.
The day someone else set the Cathedral on fire, I was in school. From the classroom windows I could see the double silver spires and, between them, a terrible beauty – a soft, rolling cloud of red-grey, black-grey, brown-grey – plumes of dense, toxic fury, spewing out of shattered stained glass windows, competing with the steeples for God’s immediate attention.
I was glad.
The faithful were sent elsewhere to confess and pray. The doors and lower windows of the soot-blackened Cathedral were boarded over until money could be raised to rebuild what had burned inside. But if you knew where to look and how to do it, you could pull away a piece of the plywood, and you could crawl through the small gap. You could trespass.
Which I did, when I needed somewhere to hide, after Joan McIntyre warned me that Margaret McDonald and Mary O’Brien were going to wait for me after school and beat me with their brothers’ hockey sticks.
I pulled away the plank, and slipped myself in.
The Cathedral was built of brick and stone and concrete, and its shell was intact. The flames had stripped away the interior – the green carpet leading up to the altar – though the altar itself was marble, and still stood. The cloth at the altar rail, the doors to the confessionals, the first few rows of pews. The heat had shattered the glass cups that held the votive candles before the statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The statues themselves were streaked with grime, but their eyes still stared out into the semi-darkness. Their outstretched hands still coaxed the weak and the helpless to believe.
As I stood in the charred remains, waiting for my eyes to get used to the lack of sun, I heard a noise. I looked, and saw two others. They were sitting in the pews at the back, in a place the flames had not touched. One was Father Wasylenko, a young priest who heard our Confessions, and said Mass on days when Father Murray was indisposed. The other was Sister Mary Rose, who taught Grade Three.
Father Wasylenko’s white collar shone in the blackness as Sister Mary Rose removed her veil and wimple. Her blonde hair was cut short and raggedy, and her face made me think of a small, frightened child.
They spoke for a few moments more, earnestly and passionately. They kissed. Earnestly. Passionately.
I crept away.
Margaret McDonald and Mary O’Brien were waiting for me in the back lane a block away from my house. And they were indeed armed with their brothers’ hockey sticks, though one broke in half immediately and Mary O’Brien tripped over hers when Mrs. Houston, who was the President of the Catholic Women’s League, came out onto her porch and demanded to know what the hell was going on.
The next day at school, during recess, in the middle of the playground, I aimed my yo-yo at Margaret McDonald, and shot it out, spinning, on the end of its string. I whacked her smack in the jaw. The other children were transfixed.
Mary O’Brien ran to the Principal.
I was marched into Mr. Halter’s office and given the strap.
I went back last year. The school was closed, and there were plans to tear it down. The Cathedral was still there, though, and it looked the same – at least on the outside.
Inside, the lights were on, and the atmosphere was warm and golden. The dark walnut pews had been replaced with pale, bleached seats. The statues had vanished, as had the tormented crucifix. And the altar was a simple table, facing the congregation, surrounded by hanging fabric panels decorated in brilliant purple, crimson, teal, and jade.
A woman was sitting near the front, and although she was older, I recognized her elfin face and cropped blonde hair. She was wearing a simple grey dress.
“Sister Mary Rose,” I said.
She looked at me, startled, and then she, too, recognized me, reaching over the chasm of forty years.
She remembered I had attended the school, and she remembered I had been bullied.
“But I couldn’t do anything,” she said, “because we were encouraged not to get involved unless the parents complained.”
I told her I had fantasies about setting fire to the Cathedral.
She laughed. “I did, too.”
“And then it really happened.”
Sister Mary Rose looked at me, and smiled.
I asked if she was still a nun.
She shook her head. “In a way, I think it was you who made up my mind for me. I was desperate in those days. I didn’t have the courage to leave the convent and renounce my vows. I was afraid of what God would think. And then I saw you in the playground that day. You finally hit back. I thought that showed such immense courage….”
I sat down next to Sister Mary Rose – her real first name was Jackie, though she never told me her last name – and we talked for a while. Neither of us believed anymore in the things we had been taught. But we had both been drawn to the Cathedral at that moment, on that day.
Perhaps God had decided to listen, after all.
The above was a writing assignment for one of my classes at Vancouver Film School in 2003.
Some of it is true.