BY: PAUL A. BARRA
Death of a Sacristan is a historical mystery that tears away the veil of secrecy covering slave ownership by antebellum Catholics in the South, including the notorious third bishop of Charleston, Patrick Lynch—who owned eighty slaves and reigned during, and for twenty years after, the War of Northern Aggression. Lynch rationalized the institution on biblical grounds and explained his own reasons for opposing abolitionism so strongly that Horace Greeley labeled him The Rebel Bishop in the NY Herald. The diocese kept Lynch under wraps for one hundred and fifty years.
When a wealthy volunteer sacristan is murdered in the cathedral in April 1861, Lynch acts as a sort of Nero Wolfe—interpreting clues uncovered by his aide, Tom Dockery, a priest and former NYPD officer. As Dockery works to unravel the mystery, with Charleston devolving into civil war, he explores his own attitude toward slavery. But before he can decide what his true feelings about slavery and the brewing conflict are, he and Lynch must first stop a very determined killer…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Death of a Sacristan by Paul A. Barra, Catholic priest, Father Tom Dockery, a former NYPD officer, has joined the priesthood and is serving in Charleston, South Carolina just before the Civil War. One morning he discovers the body of a sacristan in the church, but the police do not seem to care about who killed him. With war on the horizon and the South in danger of losing their way of life, investigating a murder seems like small potatoes. But the bishop, under whom Tom serves, wants justice for his parishioner. So he tasks Tom to investigate and find the killer, but Tom is finding it a lot harder than he first thought it would be.
Well written and researched, the story has a ring of truth that is rare in historical novels. With excellent character development, vivid scenes, and plenty of surprises, this is one you can really sink your teeth into.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Death of a Sacristan by Paul A. Barra is the story of cop turned priest. Tom Dockery was a cop for the NYPD. Disillusioned when a man whom he feels is innocent is convicted of murder, Tom resigns from the force and becomes a Catholic priest. He is assigned to the church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861, under the Third Bishop of Charleston, Patrick Lynch. When Tom finds the body of one of the flock in the church early one morning, he is dismayed to discover that not only was the victim having an affair with the wife of the chief of police, but the police could care less who killed him. Unwilling to let a murderer escape justice, Bishop Lynch asks Tom to find the killer. Tom’s investigation takes him to slave auctions, smuggling operations, and into parts of the South that most white people don’t frequent. As Tom struggles to find the culprit, he also struggles with the whole ideal of slavery, as well as concerns about the coming war with the North.
Death of a Sacristan is compelling, poignant, and intriguing. Combining mystery and suspense with flashes of humor and fascinating characters, it’s a story you won’t soon forget.
I walked down Broad and let myself through the lychgate onto the cathedral grounds. Something rustled the underbrush nearby, but I kept my lantern dimmed. The early morning darkness was pleasant, and I knew the gravel path that meandered across the great sward surrounding the church. My mind drifted as I meandered myself, vaguely grateful for this time alone, not yet considering the day ahead. Peace was a scarce commodity at other times of the day, with South Carolina just seceding from what had been a nearly one-hundred-year union of colonies and with my religion being assailed on many sides. These moments alone in the quiet air, heedless of direction and moving easily to warm my muscles for the tasks ahead, were graces to be valued.
Still, I was happy enough to unlock the oaken side door to the great church and step inside. It was a damp spring in the coastal city of Charleston, and the interior of the tall wooden building was dry. Standing for a moment, smelling polish and wax and something else not immediately identifiable, I readied myself for what was to come.
I was thinking of the day’s chores and duties, not ever contemplating the horror that assaulted my eyes when I opened the shade of my lantern. I straightened in the sudden glare, drew in a sharp breath.
Poor Jamieson’s remains lay crumpled in front of the altar rail.
The first thought that galloped unbidden through my mind was that my mother was probably right after all. She had warned me about heading south into slave country.
Mother was worried about Lowcountry diseases and temptations of the flesh that were concomitant with sultry climes in her mind. Her concern for me was genuine, even if she had never considered that the duties of her thirty-year-old son would eventually involve a murder.
That’s because I’m a priest. That was my second thought when I saw the figure, his face frozen in the grimace of his final surprise. I rushed up to the man, saw immediately that he was dead. His head was crushed, and he lay on the slabs of heart pine in drying brown liquid, as if a jug of molasses had broken, and his eyes had about them a soulless look. The corpse no longer had the texture of a living body, the solidity one sees even in a sleeping person, but I was still able to identify the red hair and dark eyes of Jamieson Carter. I didn’t have my oils with me, but I administered the last rites verbally. The sacramental duties, the care for his spirit, kept me from dwelling on the outrage of his death for a few moments, but then I was forced to face the reality of my discovery. This person had been murdered in our holy building. He had been hit over the head with tremendous force.
The stench of blood was strong near the corpse, probably because the church had been closed up overnight. The stately building smelled like an abattoir during hog butchering time. April of 1861 had begun nearly two weeks earlier with warm days that had lingered. Bolted doors hadn’t kept the flies away. They were crawling over Carter’s body, eating and doing God only knows what else in the gore that had been a man’s head. One fly walked across an eyeball that stared at the altar. I followed the sightless gaze for an instant, as if the stare of the dead could help answer some of the questions that were somersaulting through my mind in the empty quiet of the church. I could see the sanctuary lamp still burning and the glistening tabernacle closed and locked. Nothing seemed disturbed—except for the body on the floor. Something small scrabbled in a dark corner, motes of dust drifted down from the impossibly high ceiling of the place. The smell of old incense that had permeated the wooden interior seemed strong just then, though not strong enough to cover the smell of blood.
Breathing deeply through my mouth, I wobbled out to fresh air and then over to the house on Broad Street that served as a rectory. I had seen a few dead bodies in my work before I entered the seminary, but I had not known any of them in life. And none had been murdered in church. The bishop had enough trouble facing his diocese already. He wasn’t bound to welcome the news I carried.
I went to the massive front door of the bishop’s house, rather than using the back entrance that let in to the business offices of the diocese and my own downstairs quarters. I was moving quickly when I reached out to push the door handle open. It was locked, and I nearly crashed my hand through the stained glass window that marked the house as a cleric’s residence. I paused for a deep breath before I hammered the brass knocker.
Mrs. Ryan answered. Her thin, pale face was puckered in annoyance, her arms white with flour. She was wiping her hands on a dishtowel and had used it to jerk open the door, which she herself had locked even though she knew I had the early liturgy. She looked at me with tight lips, the way she often did since I’d arrived in her diocese some two years before. I thought she would have welcomed another Irishman in the house she ran, yet I could see her mind wrestling with respect for my Roman collar and vexation at my relative youth.
Compared to her ancient bones, I was indeed youthful, although the tremor in my knees at that very moment might as well have been an old man’s ague. But my resolve was as strong as the Celtic blood that coursed through my limbs and brain. I fancied that I could hear it throbbing in my temple.
“His excellency is resting after his breakfast, Father Dockery. I–”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Ryan. This just can’t wait.”
I pushed by her as I spoke and went down the wide hall at a good clip, the hem of my cassock whispering across the glossy floor. The housekeeper seemed stunned into silence. By the time she recovered and moved after me, I was already at the half-open study door. I knocked on the jamb and went through.
The Most Reverend Patrick Neison Lynch, forty-four years of age, looked up from his desk. He had been consecrated Bishop of Charleston three years earlier in the very same cathedral where the dead body now lay. He looked his age, and more, if truth be told. I hated to add to his woes.
“What ails you, Tom? You look like you’ve seen the face of evil itself.”
“And I fear as much, Excellency. Jamieson Carter has been murdered in our church.”
The bishop sat erect in his padded chair, his blue eyes reflecting the alarm he must have felt in his soul, ringed as they were with pain lines and moistened at the corners. He half rose slowly, his face masked in shock. Then he sat back down, heavily with a sigh that seemed ineffably sad. “Our sacristan? Are you sure he’s—No, I’m sorry. I know you well enough to know that you would not come here with such disastrous news unless you were certain. Please tell me what transpired.”
“I went into the cathedral to prepare for the seven. Mr. Carter was lying at the foot of the altar. I’m afraid, sir, that his head’s been bashed in. I administered the last rites and relocked the church. I came right here. I believe he was killed but a few hours ago based–” I hesitated before adding the gruesome detail “–on his body’s warmth. Forgive me, Excellency.”
He nodded absently and with a thin smile.
“Yes,” he said, “your pre-theology training. You are such a gentle man, Tom, I forget you were once a policeman. Did you then…e……detect any cause for the murder? Was the church burgled, the door forced?”
Impressed again with the prelate’s ability to get right to the heart of a problem, I replied, “No sir, it was locked, and nothing seemed to be missing.”
He shook his head slowly, adjusted his glasses, and resumed his administrative calling.
“It’s nigh on seven. Catch Uncle Williams and have him position himself at the cathedral door and direct worshippers to the lower church. Say your mass there as usual, Tom. I’ll take the oils over to poor Jamieson.” He raised his voice slightly. “Mrs. Ryan, please send Flora to summon the police. Have them come without fanfare to the side door of the cathedral.”
Mrs. Ryan stood in the doorway behind me, mouth open, arms hanging loosely, and eyes as big as palmetto bugs. She snapped to on the bishop’s orders and retreated toward the kitchen. Bishop Lynch sighed again. I nodded as I caught his meaning. We wouldn’t have to worry about Charleston newspapers telling readers of the murder. It would be all over the chancery before the workday even began.
© 2018 by Paul A. Barra
Kenneth E. Nowell:
“With a spicy dash of murder, two heaping tablespoons of savory Old South ambiance, and three cups of boiling mystery, author Paul A. Barra cooked up a tasty whodunit, in Death of a Sacristan. On the eve of civil war, Charleston is rocked by an unspeakable crime: a killing at the altar of the cathedral. What follows is an entrancing tale of historical fiction in which unlikely sleuths investigate a colorful cast of southern characters. Like a feast of low-country shrimp and grits, Death of a Sacristan is deliciously satisfying!” ~ Kenneth E. Nowell, Author of the best selling travel guide: Rome and the Vatican – Guide 4 Pilgrims, Publisher, Vero House Publishing