Dawn stretched forth and yawned, opening out bright new colours along the sky on the morning of the 22nd December. The old grey house stood a few meters away from the small white country church on the two acre land. The sound of crunched gravel groaned beneath the tyres as the car moved into the grounds and stopped outside the side door entrance. "Well here we are, welcome to Woodland Corner," Maria said. Siobhan opened the car door, stepped out and walked around to the front of the house. "It's a bit creepy," she whispered, as if the neighbouring house could hear her. At the front of the premises three crows flew hurriedly from the chimney above, flapping their wings in haste away from their claimed territory. "Don't like crows," she added, stepping aside for Maria to put the key in the door. "It's just the country birds and bees, you'll get used to it," Maria chuckled trying to be braver than she actually felt.
Inside the house, on the left of the corridor an open doorway revealed a spacious room. "This must have been the priest's living room then?" "That's right," Maria answered. "I think some of the parishioners still come in here for monthly parish meetings." Siobhan walked across the floor, rubbing her arms as she looked around the room. "I don't like it, this is a strange house. It's hard to believe this is a priest's house." Maria feared everything Siobhan voiced and her heart sank at what she felt was ahead. "Father Peter said the house hasn't been occupied since Father Brendan died three years ago. Obviously it needs a bit of a clean up!"
Down the corridor in the kitchen more worries presented themselves. There was no cooker. What was there was already broken beyond repair and everything else had been removed from the kitchen. "I know we arrived a day earlier than planned but there could have been even a little show of welcome from the parishioners? This house hasn't been cleaned in ages and it will take months to get it back in shape. Also how are we supposed to cook?" Maria questioned. The two women remained silent for a moment and then looked at each other. "You're not thinking what I'm thinking?" Maria asked. "That's right," Siobhan answered. "There is no welcome because we are not welcome." "Oh boy," Maria whistled, "looks like our evangelization work is going to be of a different kind in this parish and one that we ourselves might be educated in."
Upstairs there were four bedrooms. The windows had not been cleaned in years. Siobhan reached up with a brush, sweeping it over the doorway ledges to see the extent of the gathered dirt and dust. She jumped back as dead butterflies and moths fell down. "Heavens above, this is not good." "Ok," Maria said, "Let's get the kettle on and have a cuppa, the rest we'll sort out later." Siobhan picked one of the bedrooms overlooking the front of the house, while Maria was happy with the bedroom on the side corridor overlooking the sacristy entrance to the church.
"The sacristan and her husband have arrived, let's go over to meet them." The cobbled path ran from the house to the side of the church and within seconds Siobhan found herself in the sacristy in front of Harriet and Ted. Remembering her manners she shook their hands in greeting but stood back feeling shaken and shocked by this couple. The open drawer beside them revealed the linen altar cloths, the corporals and purificators all thrown in carelessly on top of a mixed bunch of objects. The old antique dresser was stained and dull, the absence of polish demeaning the dark wood, the same dresser the priests vestments were laid out on. There was neither order nor cleanliness visible. Disturbed by what she felt Siobhan walked through the hallway into the main church. She looked around on all the walls then back again to the altar. "Where's the crucifix?" she whispered to Maria. "There's no crucifix in the church." They returned to the house. "I've never seen a sacristy like it! Every sacristy I've been in, and they were only a few, were so beautifully looked after. The altar cloths, the altar vessels, the priests vestments, they were all attended to with reverence and care," Maria said concerned. "Who are these people?" Siobhan asked. "Apparently Harriet was the priest's housekeeper and she worked her way into the sacristy, she's been working here for over twelve years." "Oh heavens above, I think we've got trouble," Siobhan said as she went to her room and began to unpack the waiting cases. She took a small crucifix out of her case and went downstairs, placing it on the wall directly inside the front door. Then they sprinkled the house with holy water, deciding to make an appointment with the priest for a proper house blessing.
The doorbell rang. It was Sophie. She called to introduce herself. A friend of Harriet's and Ted's, she was tall with long black hair brushed back from her face which sat like a dark veil over her head. Her eyes were disturbing, an expression she was unable to shield as she looked with disdain at Siobhan. Behind the actress smile her dislike for the new residents was obvious as the cold eyes assessed the two ladies. "So you are in the choir then?" Siobhan asked. "Yes, I'm involved in several projects here in the parish. One is the choir, the other is a committee meeting and then there's a youth group and children's playgroup." "A children's playgroup? Would that have been here in this house?" "Yes," she replied, shifting nervously and looking at her watch. "I have to go, you'll be seeing me around."
Sleep would not come. Siobhan tossed and turned and finally got out of bed. Pulling on her dressing gown she walked out onto the corridor. She let out a roar as she bumped into Maria. "Oh my God, don't tell me you couldn't sleep either." They went into Siobhan's room and over to the window. The curtains were opened back. It was pitch black outside, no lights to be seen. "What is it?" Maria asked. "Don't know, but I think we should make some tea and sit by the window. Something is terribly wrong." Sitting in the dark they waited. Half way through their tea the sound of a car engine droned through the stillness of the night. It was 3.30am. The white car crept along the front of the premises, its white spoilers sticking out the back, making it easy to recognise again. Slowly, so very slowly the driver kerb crawled by the house, his car lights off. Siobhan's heart pounded with each beat as her eyes remained fixed on the vehicle. The car stopped outside the front entrance and reversed back as the driver looked up at all of the windows. The women sat back, heads hidden behind the curtain edges. Finally the car moved on again and disappeared into the night. "Oh boy," Maria let out a sigh. "This means we have to start praying, right?"
One week later and sleep was still impossible. Despite the days spent washing windows, washing floors and cleaning bathrooms, no extent of exhaustion could make way for sleep. Once again Siobhan was up and watching the cars come and go. Now it was a red car, each seemed to take its turn and always between two and four in the morning. Their concern was growing. They were in the heart of the country. The only house beside them was the pub across the road. The owners had made it known they did not like new occupants in the presbytery house. In the event of danger, they would be of no assistance. The question arose, were they also connected to this strange group of people?
Morning Mass was becoming a half hour of tension rather than the joy of the celebration of Mass as it always is. Maria's offer to assist in the sacristy was abruptly dismissed, a further nervousness appearing on the couple's faces as Maria explained she was a Eucharistic Minister. Her feeling that something was terribly amiss was soon to be confirmed.
The last room to be cleaned was the living room. Siobhan went over to the fireplace and looked at the rubbish inside. Maria arrived in, walked over and opened a match box. Taking out a match, she struck it, ready to put it on the rubbish on the grate. "Wait, don't!" Siobhan exclaimed and blew out the match. She stood up and listened. "Do you hear those crows, they have been building nests up there. I have seen them flying over to the woodland, taking sticks and bringing them back to this chimney. I think the chimney is blocked. We have to get it cleaned. Until then, we need to remove all this rubbish and not set light to it." Putting on household gloves Siobhan stooped down again at the fireplace. She began to take out the rubbish, bit by bit, putting it into the bin beside her. Suddenly they both stopped in shock. At the bottom of the rubbish, sitting in a clear see-through bag appeared to be two Hosts. Both women made the sign of the cross. Maria carefully removed the cello bag from the fireplace. "God protect us and have mercy on us, it's the sacred Hosts!" She phoned Fr. Peter.
When Fr. Peter was told what had been discovered his shaken reaction only confirmed their worst fears. He assured his new residents he would attend to the matter immediately. Somehow both ladies knew that now more than ever they were in danger. They didn't have long to wonder.
Finally exhausted Siobhan fell asleep. A short time passed. Suddenly three men in balaclavas kicked in the front door, ran up the stairs and burst open the bedroom door. They dragged Siobhan out of her bed and told her they were bringing her over to the Church. She sat up in the bed crying out. Maria ran in. "You called out, are you okay?" Siobhan fell back against the pillows, relieved it was only a bad dream and told her friend about it. "What were the men like?" "One was tall and heavily built, the second was small and heavy, the third was tall and thin."
Ten days later the women were sitting at the table in the kitchen, having lunch by the front window when three cars pulled up in front of the house. First a white car arrived, its white spoilers familiar, next a black citroen and then the red car swerved in beside the other two. The three men got out and walked to each other to chat, lighting up their tobacco. They turned towards the house, studying it as they smoked their cigarettes. Siobhan put down her cup and stared at the men. Alarms bells rang loud. "They're the same men in the dream. Okay, that's our cue to get the packed bags into the hallway. We cannot stay any longer. Our prayers are being answered, this is a clear indication we must go. Now is the time."
That same evening at 9.30pm the side door of the house opened and cases one by one were slipped quietly into the boot of the car. Checking the door was locked Maria sat into the driver's seat, took a deep breath and looked at her companion. "Ready?" "Yes." Without any lights on, Maria eased the car onto the avenue leading out of the house and both started praying as the car moved quietly past the pub and along the deserted country road. Deep into the country they drove as each mile ticked on the meter. "Just another few miles now and we are leaving enemy territory," Maria assured Siobhan. Once on the main town route they let out a sigh of relief as they moved beyond the dark veil of Woodland Corner that fell behind them.
Over the weeks the prompting for prayers continued. As the prayers went up, the light began to shine down on the darkness in Woodland Corner. A month after their departure a local house break-in two miles from the old presbytery opened up an investigation that would lead to sinister findings. The investigation was the beginning of revelations of the secret network that had taken over a quiet country parish, eventually having control over the empty parochial house. The house where they gathered once a month for clandestine meetings.
It was also the beginning of the evangelisation work for Maria and Siobhan. Part of the preparation being an education in Woodland Corner. A preparation that would be of value to them for the years ahead. Equipped and ready, they were sent forth in the knowledge of what they had learnt. That not everyone who says "Lord, Lord" is necessarily of the Lord. But for those who go forth in His name... what marvels the Lord will do!