Pennies from Heaven
By Jim DeBrosse
Inside Mother of God Church, a mountainside was quickly taking shape. An army of volunteers was busy hammering the framework and draping the painted canvas that formed the Alpine backdrop for the church's renowned Nativity scene. When finished, its handcrafted Bavarian statues and live Christmas trees would fill the entire side altar, from the communion rail up to the gold-domed ceiling.
So many good people to help this year, thought Fay Schmidt as she supervised the work from the front pew. It was too bad they couldn't fix the leaks in the century-old ceiling as well. Certainly, the spirit among them was strong, but the skills were weak. The church would have to find $100,000 — somehow, somewhere — to hire a contractor for the work.
Fay had been volunteering at the church for more than 40 years, and was now the church treasurer. Having spent so much time inside its cavernous Romanesque space, she felt like it was her second home.
Fay perhaps more than anyone knew its every nook and cranny, from its labyrinth of basement tunnels all the way up the creaky winding staircases to its twin majestic towers high above the city. She could point out its many decorative oddities as well, like the Irish harp the stained-glass maker had sneaked into the rose window of the once German-only church, and the pair of 19th-century lace-up boots carved into the statue of a young Virgin Mary.
"Fay, we need your help a minute."
A young mother named Stephanie, one of the newer church members from the transitioning neighborhood, came from the main altar with a distressed look on her face.
"What's the matter, dear?"
"We can't find Melchior."
"You mean one of our Magi?"
"I think Melchior is his name. The old bearded guy who brings the chest of gold."
"It's not behind the main altar?"
"No, and we looked behind the St. Joseph side altar, too."
For as long as Fay could remember, the statues for the creche had been stored in the large groundfloor cabinets behind the church's main altar. All except for the Baby Jesus, whose delicate outstretched arms were prone to breaking. He had his own dresser drawer inside the Parish House guest room.
Fay followed Stephanie over to the main altar, where the two dozen or so statues were lined up for cleaning.
Stephanie pointed out the other two kings — Kaspar with his offering of myrrh and Balthazar with his frankincense. Behind them was the big one-humped camel with the gentle brown eyes.
"See," Stephanie said. "Melchior has gone AWOL."
Incredulous, Fay squeezed behind the right side of the altar and, on bended knee, opened the cabinet door and snapped on the light. Empty. She bustled to the other side of the altar, remembering to genuflect before the Blessed Sacrament on her way, and inspected there as well. Again empty. Stephanie stood tapping her toe in irritation.
"I'm sorry," Fay said. "I had to see for myself."
Fay spotted Father O'Reilly motioning to her from the sacristy door. He seemed eager to talk about something.
"Do you have a wee minute, Fay?" he said in his thick Irish brogue.
Father O'Reilly was on loan from a church in Dublin. His sermons, delivered in a rolling cadence, could challenge the hearing of even the youngest parishioners.
He led Fay to a couple of straight-back chairs in the corner of the sacristy, where they sat alone. Father's darting green eyes warned her he didn't have good news.
"I have just now heard from the archbishop's office. I'm afraid they have decided not to lend us the money for the grand Midnight Mass this year."
Fay took a deep breath to calm herself. She had feared as much, but now that it was real she feared the worst as well.
"Does that mean they plan to shut down the church, Father?"
"Oh, heavens, no. No one has said that." He smiled and stared up at the ceiling. "At least not this year."
"Monsignor Feldmeyer would have never let it come to this."
"Ah, yes, the sainted Monsignor Feldmeyer. 'No Indians and buffaloes in the collection basket.' Isn't that what he used to say?"
"Yes, meaning no pennies or nickels. He thought people should be more generous. Monsignor was an old curmudgeon, and stubborn as a mule, but he cared deeply for this parish, and he provided well for its future. We always had money in reserve."
"Until now, I'm afraid."
"Then we must go ahead with the Midnight Mass — even if we have to borrow from the bank. It's our biggest source of donations all year."
"The archbishop would never give it his blessing — not when we have the devil's own task of paying our utilities."
Fay folded her arms and stared the priest straight in the eye. Father O'Reilly sat back in his chair.
"Now, Fay, we've been down this road before. We shan't upset the archbishop again, or he'll be packing me things up for Dublin, he will."
Fay winked. "It will be our little secret."
She stood up before Father O'Reilly could respond."Now, if you don't mind, Father, I have a creche to put up."
She was almost to the sacristy door when the old priest called out her name.
He raised his forefinger and was about to issue an order when he dropped his chin and shook his head. In a teasing voice, he said, "You, dear woman, are one of God's most obstinate children."
She smiled sweetly. "Why, thank you, Father."
There was still the missing Melchior to attend to, and Fay was determined to find out where the elderly king had wandered off to. The creche items were normally stored in the larger ground floor cabinets behind the main altar. But there were two more upper tiers of cabinets behind the altar, accessed by an open wooden stair.
Someone may have moved the statue to one of the upper cabinets while cleaning. It was worth a look anyway.
But when she checked the second tier of cabinets, they were crammed full — one with Easter candelabra, the other with vases for the May altar. But. alas, no Melchior.
That left only the single cabinet on the third tier, directly behind the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Fay wasn't hopeful — it was a small cabinet, seldom used for anything but storing candlesticks — but she decided to climb the last of the stairs to see.
To her surprise, the door had been left partly open and the light on. Had one of the new volunteers been so careless? She opened the small door to find scores of candlesticks, standing on end, jammed into the cramped space.
But there was no room for poor Melchior.
Fay was about to hit the light switch when the faint glint of gold paint caught her eye. Just above one of the shorter candles at the rear was a domed crown.
"Why, there you are, you old rogue. You had us all worried."
Melchior was hiding among the candles like a refugee in a forest of wax. She pulled him free and set him on the platform outside the door, then began to rearrange the fallen candles she had left behind. But there was a spot in the corner where the candles wouldn't stand on end. Something was on the floor.
She pulled out the candles and, in the empty corner, lay a worn leather pouch the size of a softball, tied up with gold string. She lifted the pouch by its neck, surprised at its heft, and heard the jingle of coins.
"What have we here?" she said with some excitement.
She set the pouch on the platform and quickly untied the string, hoping to find... what? Gold coins? Silver dollars?
Instead, it was only loose pennies and nickels. She laughed at her disappointment.
So what would she expect to show up next? A leprechaun?
"You could have done a little better than that, Melchior," she mock-scolded the statue. "No Indians and buffaloes, you hear?"
Melchior only continued in his frozen bow, his right hand caressing the top of a shiny gold box — a present fit for a king. Or in this case, the King of Kings.
Fay tied up the pouch, turned out the cabinet light and closed the door.
It was almost closing time when Fay, her arms around the Sunday collection bag as though carrying a newborn baby, walked into the neighborhood branch of Twin Towers Credit Union. Weighing down her left coat pocket was the leather pouch full of pennies and nickels.
Only one teller was still on duty — Todd, the tall, polite young man with the wire rim glasses too small for his face.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Schmidt. I see it's deposit time again."
"And not a minute too soon. Our automated utility payment comes out today, and we'll need every bit of this to cover it."
She hefted the large cloth bag onto the counter. "I counted $2,354.32."
She reached into her coat pocket. "And for extra insurance, I brought along some loose change I hope you don't mind rolling."
"No problem, Mrs. Schmidt. We have a machine that does all that."
"Is Mr. Josephson in today?"
"Yes, he is. Should I call him to come out?"
"Oh, don't bother. I know where his office is."
She took a deep breath to gird herself for the task ahead and started down the hallway of glass-enclosed offices. She practiced her lines in her head along the way, hoping to hit just the right combination of pleading and persuasion.
"Mrs. Schmidt, what a pleasant surprise."
Mr. Josephson stood up from his computer. He was a round little man with a bald, shiny head and a smile that never stopped. He directed her to have a seat.
"How are things at Mother of God?"
"The answer is, not very good. And that's why I'm here to see you."
Mr. Josephson folded his hands on his desk. His smile was replaced with a look of bankerly concern.
"So how may we help you here at Twin Towers?"
"Are you familiar with our Midnight Mass, Mr. Josephson?"
"Yes, I hear it's beautiful — the music, the flowers, the creche. I don't attend Mother of God, but everyone raves about it."
"Well, this year it may not happen. It seems we're running a little short on cash. For things like flowers and programs and extra music and soloists and —"
He stopped her from going on. "And you need a loan, Mrs. Schmidt, is that it?"
Fay chuckled. "Call it a cash advance. We'll collect far more in donations."
"How much are we talking about, Mrs. Schmidt?"
"Say," she winced a little in asking, "$3,000?"
He smiled softly. "I don't think that will be a problem at all, Mrs. Schmidt. Let's look at your account."
He typed in the account number, called up the summary page and began to peruse the figures there.
"Oh, my," he said.
"Oh my what?"
"Your utility payment went through this afternoon. I'm sorry to say it resulted in an overdraft of $962."
"How can that be? I just deposited over $2,200."
Mr. Josephson turned the screen around to show her. "It must be all this cold weather we've been having. Your bill this month topped $8,500."
Fay gasped. "But it's never been more than $7,000."
"I wouldn't panic, Mrs. Schmidt. Your church has overdraft protection from the archdiocese."
"So they'll know then, won't they?"
"Well, yes. Unless the church can somehow cover it today. I don't mind staying open a little late if it helps."
"But how? I can't get that kind of money on short notice."
"It's not such a terrible thing to overdraft, Mrs. Schmidt. In this economy, many of our customers do, and they eventually recover."
"But you don't understand. The archdiocese is looking for an excuse — any excuse — to close the church."
Mr. Josephson made a little O with his mouth.
"Excuse me for interrupting."
Todd the clerk was standing at the door. He had the leather pouch full of loose change in his hands. Mr. Josephson waved him in.
"I thought I should tell Mrs. Schmidt that I didn't add the pennies and nickels to the church account at this time."
Fay flapped her wrist. "It hardly matters. It won't cover the overdraft anyway."
"But it does matter, Mrs. Schmidt."
Todd set the pouch on Mr. Josephson's desktop.
"Sir, do you mind?"
Mr. Josephson shook his head no. Todd opened the pouch to reveal the pile of pennies and nickels.
"I started counting the coins and I could hardly believe my eyes at first."
Todd spread the pile out and began sifting through it. He picked up a penny and showed it to them.
"Here you have an 1877 Indian head penny, in uncirculated condition," he said, setting it off to the side.
"And look at this — a 1909-S Indian head. Extremely fine condition. And this," he said, his voice growing increasingly frantic, "that's a 1924-S Buffalo nickel. Mint condition. Do you have any idea how rare these are?
"Oh, and let's not forget this little baby," he said, and carefully stressing each word, added, "a 1926 S series Buffalo nickel. Uncirculated. This coin alone is worth at least $3,000 on the collector's market today."
Fay drew a deep, deep breath and sat up straight. She spread her hands caressingly over the loose pile of coins as though they might be gold doubloons.
"Indians and buffaloes. All of it," she laughed. "Tell me, Todd, how much do you think this whole pile might be worth?"
"I haven't gotten through but a quarter of it, ma'am, but I'd venture to say at least $15,000. Maybe more."
Fay jumped up from her chair and turned her eyes to heaven. "Oh, thank you, Monsignor! Thank you, thank you!"
She gave Todd a kiss on the cheek and took his hands in hers.
"You are such a fine, fine young man. A brilliant young man. Will you please keep these coins in our safe deposit until I get an appraiser here tomorrow?"
"No problem at all, Mrs. Schmidt. It's our job to keep your money safe."
She bent over and kissed Mr. Josephson smack on his shiny bald head.
"Merry Christmas, everyone!" she shouted and started for the office door.
"Now if you merry gentlemen will excuse me, I have a Midnight Mass to prepare for."
Copyright, 2009, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved.