A buzz from people discussing the events at the Cathedral went around Helena, and occasionally the buzz became a rustle of discussion among people who wanted to do something to help the bishop. Such a discussion was being held at Meryl Lesum’s house on 5th Avenue on a Friday morning after Mass. Every Friday, many of those whom Meryl called the stalwarts gathered together at her house to analyze the state of affairs in Helena, in Montana, and in the “universal church.” Although Meryl inserted herself in all areas of politics, local, state and national, she did it in her role as a guardian of the true faith of Christ. It wasn’t necessarily the Catholic Church to Meryl, but it was all Christian churches. In her opinion they were all at risk of being destroyed by liberalism and immorality. It was in her willingness to insert herself into the affairs of any Christian church that Meryl thought of herself as an ecumenist. If she could busy herself with protective involvement in one church, she might as well busy herself with all of them.
Meryl was influential. She followed local politicians around so that they knew she was keeping an eye on them. She wrote regularly to the local newspaper, the Independent Record, and was noted as a spokesman for the Christian right. She had been the good friend of the last three governors and her influence with the current governor was very strong. They had both been “born again” in their own way and both watched for the forces in politics that threatened to dilute the true faith.
She had returned to active participation in the Cathedral when the bishop was appointed. She met him in his office the first week he was in town. She realized immediately here finally was a man, whom she could influence to resist the forces that had been so strong in the diocese of Helena since Vatican II. The bishop realized she would be an ally in the strange land he now governed. After that first meeting they met on a regular basis. They had many things to discuss especially the terrible way that the people of the Cathedral were responding to the authority of the bishop. Meryl certainly had specific details to report on this subject. She reported things people said and did that showed disrespect for the bishop and his agenda.
Meryl used the knowledge gained from her experience with power to advise the bishop on how to handle this disregard. She found the bishop receptive to her technique of using his power to isolate critics and malcontents. She showed him the wisdom of never responding to individuals and to specific arguments. She taught him how to respond in generalities to questions in public forums where no one could debate what was said. She said coalition building was the bane of true faith. She was very proud at how well her advice had worked for the bishop.
Then things started to get out of her control. The bishop had failed to consult her about the problems of “the girl,” and he had obviously needed some advice. Now he was holed up in the chancery and wouldn’t see anyone. If she didn’t know better, she almost felt like she was a victim of her own strategies. This is what she was discussing on the Friday morning with the stalwarts.
She wanted to develop a plan on how to curtail the influence of this little girl, who so many people seemed to respect and admire. It wasn’t easy trying to publicly thwart an eleven-year girl. She knew the girl’s parents well, and she knew they would not listen to reason. No matter how convinced she and stalwarts were that something had to be done, she didn’t know what to do. Finally someone suggested that the girl needed to be reminded of her manners. So Meryl decided to position herself in a place to do just that.
The next Sunday at mass, she waited until Catie Jo picked a spot in a pew about a third of the way from the front. Meryl was lucky that the girl had arrived ahead of her family. She waited throughout the service until the “kiss of peace.” She stared at the little girl. The longer she stared, the more convinced she was that this little girl was a pest and needed to be put in her place.
When the celebrant told the congregation to offer the sign of peace, Catie Jo finally turned with her hand extended to Meryl. Meryl was ready. “There will be no peace here until you apologize to the bishop and keep your thoughts to yourself.”
Catie Jo was a little surprised, but then a look of recognition came across her faith. “I know who you are,” she said. “One of my friends said that if I ever met you to tell you that you don’t have to be the ‘menace from Ennis’ all of your life.
Without thinking Meryl gasped and slapped Catie Jo across the face.
The people standing around the two were stunned and for a moment no one moved. Finally a man in front of Catie Jo began to demand an explanation from Meryl. Catie Jo told him that it was all right and that she understood why Meryl was upset. She reached out and grabbed Meryl by the arm and led the shocked woman down the aisle and out into the front vestibule. The whole congregation watched them leave. Fr. Manion quickly returned to the liturgy, while Catie Jo could be heard whispering to Meryl in the back of the church.
Meryl had been caught by surprise. “The menace from Ennis” was the name she had been given in college in Bozeman in the 1960′s when she was out of step with most of the students. She had made a reputation for herself as being someone who couldn’t be trusted. In grade school, she had been called by names like “squealer” and “tattletale,” but in college, she had been stuck with the menace name and for years she had heard people recite it when she walked into a room. She believed the name had only made her stronger, but in effect it had made her angry. It was this waiting anger, simmering across time, that she had felt when Catie Jo spoke to her and it was the ferocity of that anger that had brought her to the unthinkable slap.
She sat next to Catie Jo in the back of the church listening to her tell her many things about her life. She couldn’t respond. She couldn’t move. She was trapped by a little girl who spoke with an authority that was not about power or politics or any of the things Meryl understood. The girl spoke with a surety and accuracy that Meryl could neither contest nor debate. Finally she felt herself being led to communion by the girl. She couldn’t resist being led down the aisle. The little girl was rescuing her and although that fact was caught in Meryl’s throat, she knew it would save her some of the embarrassment she had brought upon herself. Her savvy had completely left her, and her mission had been a total failure. She hadn’t deflated the little girl. She had only added to the reputation for love and strength that the girl was developing in the parish. Meryl also couldn’t help remembering what Catie Jo had told her, about her life and about her faith. It was the resonance of those words that kept her silent as she received the Eucharist that Sunday and kept her in hiding for many weeks after.