(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Father Firman celebrates his fifty-ninth birthday by inviting his old friend, Father Nulty, to dinner in the rectory. Their association goes back to their seminary days, and their conversation would turn to sentimental memories if it got the chance. The occasion, however, is thoroughly dominated by the aggressive housekeeper, Mrs. Stoner, who simply does not know her place. Mrs. Stoner has assumed the role of the priest’s wife, although the relationship is innocent of any explicit sexual complications, and she has forcefully extended her authority over his life and society and opinions. She gossips about the bishop—who is not the man that his predecessor was—who cut poor housekeeper Ellen Kennedy out of Father Doolin’s will, who ignored the dinner she cooked for him on his last visit, and who is coming again for confirmations this year. Clearly, there is a society of priests’ housekeepers with their own gossip and social ranking, as is evidenced when she comments about the new Mrs. Allers at Holy Cross, as if she herself were the pastor there. She scolds Father Firman when he strikes a match on his chair to light the candle on his birthday cake. To him, the candle looks suspiciously like a blessed one taken from church.

The two priests have a moment to themselves when Mrs. Stoner returns to the kitchen. Father Nulty is very much aware of Father Firman’s aggravation. He points out that another priest of their acquaintance, Fish Frawley, got rid of his snooping housekeeper with a clever stratagem. He told her the false story that his “nephews” (a long-standing euphemism for the children of supposedly celibate priests) were visiting him, an item that promptly appeared in the paper. Not only did Frawley dismiss her, but he even made a sermon out of the event. Then he hired a Filipino housekeeper; the implication is clear that Asiatic women will be more deferential to male authority.

In laughing about how Fish Frawley painted all the dormitory toilet seats on a New Year’s morning while they were in...

(The entire section is 833 words.)