(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Father Macdowell is an old, slightly deaf priest who always has “to hear more confessions than any other priest at the cathedral.” His vast tolerance and slight deafness seem to account for his popularity as a confessor, yet his massive size hints at another dimension to his character: He is gentle, but he is also formidable in the exercise of his priestly office.

One day, after hearing confessions for many hours, he is reading in the rectory when the house girl informs him that a woman is waiting to see him about a sick call. The tired, old priest asks hesitantly if he was specifically requested—he was. So he goes to the waiting room.

Miss Jane Stanhope, a fine-looking young woman, is there crying. She explains that her sister Elsa is seriously ill, perhaps dying, and wishes to received the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. In the Roman Catholic Church, this sacrament is administered to those in danger of death and involves the priest’s anointing of the sick person with oil blessed by the bishop. Father Macdowell replies that he hopes the situation is not so critical as to call for the last rites of the Church and offers to go with her and hear Elsa’s confession. Just before they set out from the rectory, Jane reveals the complication that explains why she was particular about seeing him and no other priest. Her sister’s husband, John Williams, is not a Catholic; the couple was married outside the Catholic Church two years ago; John is against religion in general; and the girl’s family, except for Jane, has ostracized them. Father Macdowell assures her that all will be well, and they set off.

During the short walk, Jane offers additional information about the situation. The two young people have been exceptionally happy together. Nevertheless, Jane has just come from Elsa, who desperately wants to see a priest but fears that her husband will find out that she asked for one; just before Jane left for the rectory, John threatened violence if a priest were brought in. Father Macdowell radiates confidence and warmth, and proceeds on his mission.

When they knock on the door, John opens it and is fiercely indignant at the sight of a priest with his sister-in-law. He...

(The entire section is 907 words.)