In 1970, I was eleven years old. It was a rough year for my family. My twenty-year-old cousin Denny had died in a car crash in 1968. (For that story see here.) My stalwart and beloved grandmother, having endured a botched cataract surgery that blinded her in 1968, broke her hip that year, and my mother had to put her in a nursing home where she was utterly miserable. My father, who would go “on the wagon” in 1971, was still drinking. My sister had gotten married in 1966 and dropped out of college, and by the time 1970 dawned, she had had three children in a row. My brother was in high school and rebelling in various ways that scared the daylights out of my parents. As for me, I spent as much time as possible in the basement, reading books and eating chocolate peanuts by the bagful. I hated school, and played “hooky” whenever I thought I could get away with it. (For a story of how that once went horribly wrong, see here.) My grades were terrible.
As a Catholic girl in a Catholic family, I went to mass every Sunday (at the minimum) and once a month walked up to Christ King Church for confession, accompanied by my mother. On one of those “confession Saturdays,” I was feeling pretty bleak about the state of my soul and about life in general, and for the first time in my life veered away from the “script” of “Bless Me, Father, for I have sinned….” Oh, I still said those words, but when I got to the part where I told Father Stommel my sins, I burst into tears instead and unloaded on Father about my troubles. Before giving me absolution, Father told me that I had a lot of problems that really weren’t a matter for the confessional. He said that I needed to meet with him in the rectory the following week, for some “counseling.”
On our walk home, I told my mother that I was a much bigger sinner than I thought I was, because I had to go and see Father during his off-hours. My mom’s pace slowed a bit upon hearing that, and she said, “Just what did you say in the confessional?” Truthfully, I told her that I mentioned how unhappy I was, how fat I was, and how little my religious faith seemed to be helping. “Do you want to go to this meeting?” she asked. I told her that yes, I thought I had to. I didn’t explain to my mother that since Father had absolved me only AFTER securing my promise to meet up with him later, I thought that if I failed to show up, the absolution would be revoked and I would be back on my way to hell. My mother didn’t look especially pleased about the whole thing, but she grudgingly said, “Well, okay. But I think it’s strange.”
About three days later, I rang the bell at the door of the rectory, and the housekeeper let me in, saying, “Father is expecting you.” I had never been in a rectory before, and was surprised at how much it looked like any other house. She directed me to what looked like the study, and sure enough, there was Father Stommel.
I was extremely uncomfortable to note that Fr. was not in his clerical garb, which is the only way I had ever seen him before. He was in a tropical themed shirt and a pair of unflattering shorts. Also, he was smoking a cigarette, which did not match any vision I had about priests. He gestured at a chair and I sat down. I don’t remember a single thing we talked about, but I vividly remember how profoundly miserable I was the entire time.
After about an hour, Father said that our time was up but that I definitely had to come back the following week. My stomach sank; I had endured that awkward hour only by reminding myself it would end and I could go home. Now Father was saying I had to go back. Priests were as close to God as I got, and if Father thought I needed more work, I had to go back.
The following week, the same scenario played out: we sat in the study, Father was dressed like a creepy Beach Boy and smoking like a chimney. I remember very little of this hour either, other than him telling me that he had a plan. Father would try to quit smoking and I would quit eating sweets and we would meet regularly to support each other. After the hour was up, I dutifully agreed to meet him the following week.
I don’t think I have ever dreaded anything more than I dreaded meeting with Fr. Stommel again. For me, those two sessions had been nothing but uncomfortable feelings and off-the-charts awkwardness. But I saw no way out; this was a priest and he called the shots.
After the first session with Father, I didn’t tell my mother that I had to go back. Given all the tumult in our family at the time, the last thing I wanted to do was make things even harder for her by revealing that I had to meet with the priest again because I was so screwed up. In fact, I didn’t tell a single soul about that second meeting, because I was so ashamed that it was necessary.
After the second excruciating session with Fr. Stommel, I had a complex dilemma. In my bones, I knew that there was just no way I was going back there. But I also knew that to stay away would be to brazenly reject the authority of my parish priest. So I did what I always did during my childhood: I went to my older sister Susan. While Susan never quite knew how to solve my problems, or at least how to solve them well, she was always game to take a well-meant swing at them.
Once I had described my first two meetings with Fr. Stommel, Susan was quiet for a minute and said, “Don’t go back.” “But if I don’t show up,” I wailed, “He might come to the house looking for me!” I really did think that Father would track me down if I defied him. Susan thought for a moment and then said, “Let’s not be here during the time you are supposed to be at the rectory. That way, he can’t find us. We’ll take the bus to Marshall Fields and have Frango Mint Pie in the Linden Room.” That was just about the best solution I could ever have imagined: not only would I escape Fr. Stommel, but I would get to hang out with Susan and eat delicious pie.
And that is what we did. Even as we sat in the Linden Room laughing about how weird Fr. Stommel was, I kept one eye on the entrance to the restaurant, still half convinced that he was coming for me and knew where I was.
The following week was the annual Christmas play at Christ King School (for more about that, see here). I was cast as the Spirit of Love, which was (for me at least), A Very Big Deal. The play went well; I had remembered all my lines, and I was really happy as we all marched in two lines back to our respective classrooms. About five minutes after we sat down at our desks, there was a knock on the classroom door and Sister Collette answered it. She came back into the classroom and walked directly to my desk. “Fr. Stommel is outside and he wants to see you,” she told me. My stomach plummeted like an out-of-control elevator. Oh God, I thought. I was right. He tracked me down. Nearly paralyzed with anxiety and embarrassment, I stepped into the hallway. Father was dressed in his clerical garb, which was a big relief to me, and he wasn’t smoking, another big plus. He said that he just wanted to tell me that I had done an excellent job in the school show, and that he was disappointed when I didn’t come to my meeting with him the previous week. Before he could even mention the possibility of rescheduling, I muttered “thankyoufatherIgottagonow” and I escaped back into class.
I couldn’t wait for the day to end so that I could go home and report this ominous new development to Susan. I was afraid that, having told me he was disappointed in me for not showing up for our meeting, Fr. Stommel would be expecting me at the usual day and hour. When I told Susan what had happened, she said, “Don’t worry. Every week at the time you met with him before, we’ll just go get some Frango Mint Pie again like last time.” And for four weeks in a row, Susan and I took the bus to Marshall Fields to eat pie during the hour I was supposed to be with Fr. Stommel. After a month went by with no more encounters with Father, we stopped going to Marshall Fields and resumed our normal activities. Fr. Stommel never approached me again, and a year later he was reassigned to another parish.
Every now and then, I check the websites listing the credibly accused priests in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee; his name has never appeared. To this day, I have no idea what Fr. Stommel was up to back in 1970. He may well have simply been a priest who was new to ministry and eager to serve his flock in any way possible. He may have thought that I sounded like a chubby miserable kid who just needed a friend. I will never know. But that whole strange chapter in my life did teach me a few things. First of all, I learned that children in stressed-out homes are vulnerable. Second, I learned why a child would simply not tell her parents if a priest had made her uncomfortable. Third, I learned that it’s important to keep a safe distance between the teaching authority of the Church and the teaching authority of a single priest. Fourth, I learned to trust my intuition, at least a little bit. Finally, I learned yet again that my sister, though still a child herself (albeit an older one) always had my back and would look out for me. Oh—and also, sometimes a sister’s love and protectiveness comes in the delicious form of Frango Mint Pie.