Father Jim Leathy was a big man. He stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and was made from granite and iron, with a back that stretched his black priestly jacket tight over his frame. He dominated any room simply by his size. Jim Leathy had presence and when you added size to presence backed up by long years of Jesuit education for the priesthood and threw in an arresting Glasgow accent made crystal clear from years teaching foreign languages to adolescent boys you had a man of formidable moment. Unlike many priests, he was not a pompous man. He was good company and could both take and tell a joke, essential qualities for anyone wanting to be seriously considered a Glaswegian.
His Sunday masses at 12 Noon in our little Catholic church twenty-five miles down the River Clyde from Glasgow were packed with the faithful keen to hear the wisdom, eloquence and humour of Big Jim. He liked to spend his summer Sundays away from industrial smoke-filled Glasgow and his flock at the exclusive private school for Catholic boys from affluent homes. My home town boasted fresh clean air blown in from the Atlantic, magnificent views of the Highlands across the river and for Big Jim the added attraction of a splendid Sunday lunch cooked by my mother and a glass or two of excellent whisky supplied by my father.
My mother had known Jim Leathy all her life. He and her brother Hugh had been pupils together at the very same school where Jim now taught Classics and French. They had all been part of a tennis playing set on the south side of Glasgow in the years before the Second World War. Jim was a regular around the table at my mother’s family home. He was almost part of the family.
The small and tight-knit Glasgow Catholic petty bourgeoisie to which my mother’s family belonged held priests in the highest regard. When Jim announced he was destined for the SJs, the Society of Jesus, his stock could not have been higher. He was a lion in every way. Big, clever, handsome and a Jesuit. Every Catholic mother’s dream son.
My mother, who was well aware of the necessity to avoid the sin of pride, nonetheless could not avoid a certain preening whenever Big Jim phoned to say he was coming to say Mass on Sunday. Father Leathy was considered the intellectual cream of the crop by the doctors, lawyers and headmasters of the parish. The fact that he only ever came to our house – the grocer’s house – for his meal was the source of some considerable satisfaction to my mother. She keenly felt the snobbery of the wives of some of the professionals, particularly so because her own mother had been one of the first Catholic women to graduate from a Scottish university. St Andrews, no less, but few knew that as my mother was also aware of the sin of boastfulness.
When the front doorbell went and Big Jim came into the house my mother always rushed to greet him. They hugged and exchanged kisses on the cheek, something done in those days only between family and the very closest of friends. In fact, it was rare to see any form of public kissing in the Scotland of the 1950s and 60s. Many families shunned the behaviour as something entirely foreign and not to be encouraged.
It may be, and this is my lingering memory from over 50 years ago, that Big Jim held my mother for slightly longer than was entirely correct for a priest. I can recall my father quickly pouring a big whisky and encouraging Jim to take the glass, thus obliging him to release my mother. Jim did take the glass, but with one hand. With the other he kept a tight grip round my mother`s waist.
My father urged Big Jim to come through to the front of the house to have a seat and enjoy the breathtaking summer views from our best room. Eventually he would be dragged through, where he`d stand silent for a few moments, looking at the broad river and the great Highland hills. ”Ad maiorem Dei gloriam”, he’d say every time, repeating the Jesuit motto; “For the greater glory of God.”
The whole performance of holding my mother very close for a long time would be repeated again when it was time for Jim to go and get his train back to Glasgow. This time my father, who would be driving the big man to the station, would urge him not to miss the train, as it was a long wait between them on a Sunday.
If Jim Leathy’s over-attentive regard for my mother irritated my father, what really got him angry was waiting for Jim to arrive at our house after giving the 12 o’clock Mass. Often it would be after three o’clock before he arrived. There were two things my father really wanted to do on a Sunday, which was his one day off from the six days a week, twelve hours a day he worked at his business. He wanted to tend his big garden and he wanted to have a long snooze after Sunday lunch. Although a man of faith who had, like my mother, been educated at a private Catholic school, it was pretty obvious that going to mass was a Sunday chore he couldn’t avoid but would prefer to miss. So, he liked to go to 10 o’clock mass, get back to his garden, have lunch at 1:30 and then sleep in his big chair for an hour or two.
On weeks Jim came, his routine was destroyed. My dad had too much childhood-inculcated respect for the priesthood to ever suggest to Jim that he might be quicker about getting to our house after 12 o’clock mass. There would be no thought at all given to asking the Jesuit where he had been between 12:45 when the Mass ended and 3pm when he came to our house. Regardless of the fact that it was only a ten minute walk between the two locations.
As the years passed and I neared my twelfth birthday, my dad grew more weary of his business and the cares grew bigger on his father-of-six shoulders. He became less tolerant of Jim Leathy’s embracing of my mother and his cavalier approach to summer Sunday lunchtimes at our house. He said nothing to the man himself but complained to my mother. He left us children in no doubt that Leathy was not, at least in my father’s estimation, a man of decent manners and sound behaviours.
And then Father Leathy was gone. One day there was a great deal of whispering in our house. My mother and father whispered and my older brothers whispered. I whispered to my younger brother to ask him if he had a clue what was going on. He could not help.
I never saw Father Leathy again and he never returned to say Mass in our church. Then I heard that he’d even gone from the school in Glasgow and that he’d been sent to America to look after lost souls there. He had indeed been sent to America, to a huge rural parish in Kansas, with a horse for transport, said the carriers of tales.
Big Jim had not left his post in Glasgow and moved to the unsophisticated plains of Kansas voluntarily. He had been sacked. He was not given a choice about his new vocation.
A few years later I learned the truth about Jim. In between finishing 12 o’clock mass and coming to our house for lunch he and a barmaid at the town’s best hotel were lovers in the most intimate sense. It had gone on for years and it’s unrealistic to imagine that he had never been seen sneaking out the back door of the hotel to make his way to our house. Who would dare make such an accusation and how could it be proved and would it not just give satisfaction to local Communists and Protestants? Both groups relished having reasons to attack the Catholic Church and what bigger catch than a Jesuit?
Anyway, the hierarchy usually ignored anonymous tip offs about priests and their behaviour. Only a triple murder, ecclesiastical fraud and the theft of church silver would be enough to move the church`s top brass to carry out even the most rudimentary inquiry.
Whether it was because Jim was a Jesuit, a breed of clergy little loved by the ordinary priesthood, or because whoever told the Bishop about Big Jim`s dalliance gave a great deal of strong evidence to support the charges we’ll never know. The Bishop took the matter seriously, reported Jim to his headmaster and the headmaster told the Provincial Superior, the Jesuit boss in Britain.
Jim was gone in a trice. Booted to America. He was not defrocked. In the greater scheme of things this was a pretty minor violation of the rules, so he kept his job as a priest. It was simply shifted West by 4,000 miles.
I never knew if Father Leathy ever returned to his native land. He’s surely long dead now and long past explaining his Scottish summer adventures to his maker.
Was it my dad who told the Bishop about Big Jim and the barmaid? I hope it wasn’t, as he was a decent and honourable man. I have an instinct though that his pride and his patience had been pushed to the limit and, like so many men of his generation, he’d returned from the war less cowed and less impressed by authority and status. Perhaps he’d had enough of deference and just wanted his wife and his Sundays where he thought they should be.
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