Father Aloysius Brophy had grown up in New Brighton as the son of a policeman and a seamstress. Peggy Brophy had some renown in the town, especially in the Irish neighborhoods, thanks to her embroidery. “Sewn like an angel”, said Mrs. O’Reilly, a sentiment repeated many times. Mrs. Brophy had a way with fabric and an instinctive sense of design, and with only the vaguest instructions by clients (“I want something floral”) she would produce a flight of fancy worthy of Queen of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting.
Her hands were never idle and even when she had set aside her customers’ commissions for the evening, she went to work on her own creations. She was so deft and agile, so patient and careful, that her embroideries were often taken for paintings. On the wall above the fireplace, for example, was a pastoral scene worthy of Watteau; and in the parlor hung her graceful Virgin Mary. The Mother of God looked so serene, peaceful, and kind that no one who sat in the room could fail to be touched.
Michael Brophy, Aloysius’ father was an old-fashioned cop – one who looked after his own, turned a blind eye to minor indiscretions and the antics of rambunctious boys, accepted the odd envelope and bottle of Irish whisky as benefits of the job; and – at least while he was young - took his job seriously and conscientiously. New Brighton was a typical small town. Each of its ethnic communities – Polish, Irish, Italian, and Slovak – policed itself, kept order, and subscribed to Catholic principles. Michael’s job was more of a helpful friend than an officer of the law.
Soon after their arrival in New Brighton, the Brophys attended St. Bridget’s Church whose parishioners, like most of New Brighton’s Irish were conservative, obedient, faithful, and loyal. They were proud of their severe and disciplined Catholicism which – although the good fathers of the parish would never admit it – was not unlike Salem Puritanism in its inflexible rectitude, harsh punishment of sin and transgression, and demanding faith.
It was not easy to be an Irish Catholic in those days, but the faithful of New Brighton knew no different. They all attended Mass on Sundays; and the most devout went every day. Women especially did the Stations of the Cross every Friday, cried before the purple-shrouded images of the Stations during Holy Week, and went to Confession every Saturday. Peggy Brophy was no different, and was a devoutly observant, pious, and faithful member of the church.
Her husband, although observant and at times prayerful, wanted little to do with the unctuous priests who sat in judgment of him in the confessional, smelling of eau de cologne and whisky, and dispensing Our Fathers and Hail Marys like the Pope himself. He had heard stories of the comings and goings in the rectory – as much alcohol and sex as there was in a San Francisco bathhouse – and except for his wife’s faith, the naïveté or deliberate ignorance the town regarding the vicars of Christ, and its insistence on maintaining an image of probity and social perfection, he would have broken in on them like a storm trooper of the Schutzstaffel. The goings on in the rectory turned Michael Brophy from a Norman Rockwell policeman to an angry even vengeful enforcer. Both the Catholic Church and nice New Brighton society went out the window.
“I want to be a priest”, said young Aloysius Brophy when he was 12.
His mother was delighted. There could be no more noble profession that to accept the calling of the Lord and minister to His flock. Although she had always hoped for grandchildren, such a simple desire was easily eclipsed by the idea of holy celibacy and a life in service to God. She gave her son a big hug, and with tears in her eyes, said “I love you, Allie.”
Allie’s father had an altogether different reaction. “Now, where did you get that cockamamie idea?”, he said. “Which of that buggering bunch put ideas into your head?”.
“No one, Papa”, Allie answered. “God did”.
Despite every trick in his father’s book, Allie Brophy persisted. He prayed like a monk, hung pictures of the Sacred Heart, the Passion, the Virgin Mary, and the Pope on his walls. He wore two sets of scapulars, carried rosary beads to school and quietly prayed during class. He went to confession twice on Saturdays – once to Father Mullins and once to Father O'Dea – and would have received holy communion three times on Sunday if such repeat infusions of the Lord were not expressly prohibited. by the Church.
In other words there was no stopping him; and instead of going to college or trade school like the rest of his classmates, he enrolled in St. Thomas Seminary in Cranston, Rhode Island.
His mother visited him often, and after he had obtained a position in his first parish in Newburyport, she made the long trip every month. Over her long life she remained close to her son, talked about him to anyone who would listen, and prayed for him daily.
Her piety and overweening attachment to their son was a source of growing irritation for her husband. “He’s only a priest, for Christ’s sake”, he would remind her. “Not the goddamned Pope”. The more sanctimoniously pious his wife became, the more her husband turned away from the Church, and to make matters worse took up bad habits. Never a serious drinker, he began to hit the bottle; and came home at all hours of the night from poker sessions with his police and fire buddies. At least he didn’t have a girlfriend – or so Peggy thought – and she was right because neither he nor any of his friends considered hookers from Providence ‘lovers’. Michael Brophy wanted nothing to do with his son or the Church.
The question always was how and why Allie Brophy decided to become a priest. Most sons of very religious mothers are never called to the priesthood; and to be honest, most run in the opposite direction. At the very least the influence of Allie’s increasingly reprobate father should have had some sway. His virulent anti-clericalism and dismissiveness of all religions should have at least put a few chinks in the boy’s sanctimonious carapace. Nothing, however, could deter him. On the contrary, every snide remark from his father only hardened his resolve. He would become a priest for God, Jesus Christ, the Pope and to spite his father.
There is very little to report about Allie’s middle career. His faith never faltered. He became a powerful, even charismatic speaker, and as he grew older felt that he had been chosen by God to be His enforcer. He had not been put on this earth simply to minister to the poor, the disaffected, and those whose belief wavered, but to call out sin and sinners, and to get them to repent. To the dismay of his colleagues, Aloysius became more and more like a Baptist preacher. His sermons were no different from those of Pastor Blackwell in Bristol whose Evangelical Church of the Holy Savior was stuffed to the gills every Sunday – so much so that he had a standing room only audience at all his services.
Despite the influence of Rome and the Church’s insistence on clerical mediation with the Lord, Father Brophy increasingly called on Jesus Christ to save, heal, and redeem the sinners of his parish and join with them in a personal relationship. Most of his parishioners who knew nothing about St. Augustine, Origen, or St. Thomas and who knew even less about Protestantism, were unconcerned about doctrinal issues, and responded to Brophy just like their friends across town who were transformed by Pastor Blackwell.
Father Brophy knew sin, and his congregation expected him not only to harangue them about lechery, adultery, masturbation, and sex in general but to abuse them. Like most sinners, Brophy’s faithful wanted to be flagellated, humiliated, shamed, and beaten back to belief and the way of the righteous. In fact one of Brophy’s favorite metaphors was the Passion of Christ; and here he U-turned away from evangelical Protestantism and back to 16th century Spain. He described the torture of Christ as he stumbled his way under the weight of the cross to Golgotha in gory, painful detail.
“Our Lord was whipped, spat upon, and scourged. Bloodied, lashed, and lacerated, he went where he was called. To his crucifixion, his death, his resurrection, and to the right hand of his Father. You should be ashamed of yourselves”, Brophy intoned, waving his arm from aisle to aisle, from alter to vestibule. “You, living in the putrid swamp of sin, wallowing in self-indulgence, illicit pleasure, and bad company, our Savior died for your sins, but seeing you today, he must be having second thoughts.”
Friends who had known him back in New Brighton concluded that Aloysius’ father had won out in the end. Allie the priest was as much of a storm trooper as his old man, ready to break down the doors of sin and iniquity by any means necessary. Just as his father rejected the authority of the Church and progressively became a policeman who followed his own rules of justice, Allie refused to be corralled by the Vatican and its theologians and clerics. Allie’s faith had nothing to do with his mother’s piety and deep belief. It had all to do with his father’s obstinacy, nastiness, and resolve.
Most lapsed Catholics have at least one Father Brophy in their past – one priest who was obsessed by sin, carnality, and respect for authority. Few are free from the residual guilt hammered into them by these abusive clerics; and most are more anti-Catholic than the worst Protestant or Muslim haters.
“Moderation is not in the cards when it comes to Jesus”, Brophy was fond of saying. In his later years he was compared to the most severe Saudi Salafist. He preached a brand of Catholicism that hadn’t been seen since the Inquisition.
In short, religion had gone to his head. What had started off as a simple catechism of beliefs had gotten twisted by clerics who had their own demons to exorcise, their own mothers’ obsessive love to square, their ugly looks to accept, their tendencies to sexual deviancy faced. There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter priest; and every fulmination from the pulpit is fired by a priest’s own life. Catholic doctrine, liturgy, and tradition only provide the foundation and architecture for a priest’s profession. The genes, crossed wires, misfiring synapses, psychological scars which produce his harangues and insults are his and his alone.
Did Father Brophy do any good in his long life? Perhaps he indirectly or unwittingly led someone to God; but his legacy of arrogant triumph over the credulous is hard to forget and even harder to forgive.
“Religion will be the death of us all”, said Allie’s father when he heard one of his son’s sermons late in life. “God is not supposed to make mistakes”, he went on, “but he did in the case of Father Aloysius J. Brophy.”