It was a giant old church in a part of New Orleans where people no longer live. It was completed in the early 1890’s. All brick, in massive amounts, with green vegetation growing out of the mortar in places. It has the longest center aisle to walk down of any church in the region, making it a favorite for weddings. The vast crawl space underneath has a mud floor that had been submerged during hurricane Katrina. The stained glass windows were built and installed by my great grandfather. That is why I was there. I was spending months at a time working on his creation. Much maintenance was actually going into the place but there was just so much to be done and it was so old. It definitely has its own sort of beauty.
It was a dirty place, except for the places where the cleaning people could touch. Over one hundred twenty years of burning candles leaves a lot of black suit. That and the pigeons. Pigeons get into a place of that size, now and then. Dust happens. Roofs leak. Roofs get fixed. Regular cleaning happens where people can reach. A place this tall has much space that never gets touched and that is where I worked.
The three old cleaning ladies that worked there every day seemed like fixtures designed into the place by the original architects. They seemed to spend most of their time in the little kitchen and maintenance area behind the altar, talking about every sort of thing that three old lady friends could possibly talk about. They cleaned what they could reach. They couldn’t reach much. One Spanish speaking guy was brought in so that they could “catch up”. He did the hardest work.
Off of the back of this little kitchen area was a door to the outside behind the church that had large wrought iron steps with a landing, and that is where the homeless people lived. You could also get to this area through a little black door behind the altar. This little door hidden in the back of the altar had a numbered keypad on it. The old keypad had six push buttons numbered one through six. All the paint was worn off numbers one through three, so that you knew that the code only used one, two or three, and the code happened to be one, two, three. Most of the time the three old cleaning ladies could be found here. The Spanish speaking Mexican could be found out in the church scraping wax off the floors. He, and others like him, where the force that rebuilt New Orleans after Katrina. They get a lot of tough things done.
The homeless people living under the wrought iron steps out back were reasonably well behaved. On the rare occasions that they would get out of hand the priest would go explain to them that they were welcome to stay only if they behaved. If they didn’t shape up, he would have to make them leave for good. This would do the trick, at least for a while. Father Tom seemed to have listened to the teachings of Jesus more than most priests I know.
Father Tom hired one of the homeless people, Jim, to do full time maintenance work and gave him a set of keys to the church. The trust was great, and seemed well deserved. Father Tom had to do a lot of innovative things to make this large old place work. Jim worked well by day. For the evenings, Jim set up a mattress on a small platform above the altar. His home was accessed by a built-in ladder in the small maintenance space behind the reredos. In old, traditional churches such as this, the back of the altar is made up of a wall of ornate carvings called a reredos. If Jim stood up from his bed, or should I say home, he would be visible to the entire congregation, standing above the altar. Whose idea this was was never clear to me. No one ever said a word about it. I wondered if any of the outside homeless people were jealous, but I suppose that Jim was not a homeless person anymore. He did not fraternize with them. Jim was very religious, evangelical and, unrelated to the first two things, very trustworthy with the keys. He kept the church locked up tighter than anyone. He was great security in a sketchy area. Jim seemed intelligent and professional enough to make you wonder why he had been homeless in the first place. Then he would talk about having demons. This, he would bring up on quite a number of occasions. He wanted to find and exorcise our demons too. I tried to politely change the subject as I wanted to leave mine where I could keep an eye on them. It later became clear that his demons came in the form of hard drugs, which he kept at bay for all the time that I knew him.
The homeless people out back were a loose social group. Sometimes they had fun together but you could tell it was fraught with many problems. They were generally rather quiet. We worked around them and they lived around us. We both treated each other as simply the background that we coexisted in. The whole time I was there, I meant to spend one night under the steps with them to get a feel of what it was like, but I never did. Authentic experiences of human lives are often the things that are on my bucket list, but I never felt that ‘this’ is the night I want to be miserable.