The Matter of the Holy Shingles

When it came to the holy, Noonan always spelled it holey because, in his world, it was holes that mattered. Holy was left to another power. His, Noonan’s, was what would stand up in court. If there were holes in your argument, very bad people would continue to walk the streets. So, when it came to the holy — in Noonan’s world holey — the words sounded the same, were spelled differently and had totally different outcomes.

He was thinking of both holy and holey this day because the two coincided in a phone call he received from an unknown caller. As implausible as it seemed, someone was digging holes through the Holy shingle roof of the St. Vincent of Albany’s parish rectory.

“Let me get this right,” Noonan said to the voice on the other end of the electronic beast — the one with no wire into a convenient wall — someone is digging holes in the roof of your rectory? Why don’t you call the police?”

“We did but there was nothing they can do,” the voice continued. “See, there are a number of spots where someone had opened a hole in the roof and then closed it. We don’t know when the holes, any of them were made. All we know is one is recent because it is created a leak. When we went up on the roof, we discovered the other patched holes. We don’t know if the person or persons unknown is coming back to dig another hole so, as far as the police are concerned, there is no crime.”

“Let me guess,” Noonan said as he dug through the piles of file on his desk for a notebook. “The police suggested you call me.”

“Yes,” the voice said hesitantly. “St. Vincent’s of Albany usually trusts to the Lord. But occasionally ….”

“I understand,” Noonan said with a snicker. “But you have to understand, in my business, the Lord doesn’t have a lot to do with it. Give me your name. Then I’ll have a few question for you to answer.”

“I’m Reginal Perryman. I’m the building manager, by the way. The ministerial staff wanted to let the Lord handle the problem. I’m a bit more, shall we say, earthly.”

“OK, here are some questions. I’ll call you back in a day or two and tell you what I think. Ready?”

“I am ready.”

“How old is St. Vincent of Albany, how many parishioners regularly attend, do the holes enter the attic or upstairs chambers, has there been any contract construction work for the church in the last three or four years and if so, what was done and who did it, has the configuration of the interior of the church changed at all in the last three or four years, has the area around the church changed in the last three or four years, is the ministerial staff the same as it has been in the last three or four years, has the church received any unusual or large gifts or endowments over the last three or four year and that’s all I can think of right now.”

“And I am to wait for call, is that correct, Captain Noonan?”

“Yes. And it’s Heinz until there’s a crime. By the way, how did you get my electronic phone number.”

“My lips are sealed.”

“A good way to keep them.”

* * *

Whenever Noonan got one of his loo-loo calls, he went to his two unimpeachable sources of information: history and the local newspapers. It was not hard finding information on St. Vincent’s of Albany. But the information was odd. It had to do with the age of the church. On one hand, it could have been considered the oldest church in America. But then again, maybe not. And the back-and-forth was historically documented.

First, the definition of “oldest church in America” was nebulous. The oldest standing structure, was the Cathedral of San Juan Bautist in Puerto Rico. It was built, ground up, in 1521. But it was a wood structure which came down in a hurricane in 1540 and had to be rebuilt. But then, Puerto Rico was not part of the United States until 1898 when the Treaty of Paris after the Spanish-American War transferred sovereignty of the island to the United States from Spain.

The second oldest church in America was the San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was built in 1610 by the Tlaxcalan Indians in what was then Spanish Mexico. The land did not become New Mexico until after the Mexican-American War of 1848. The oldest American church on American soil was the Jamestown Church in Jamestown, Virginia. But it only existed in the present day as floor tiles and sections of the original foundation.

St. Vincent’s of Albany had been constructed during the American Revolutionary War and what placed it in the category of ‘old church’ was the unique manner in which it had been constructed. The land on which it was built had been donated but only if portions of the church contained the consecrated nave from a very much older church in France. The nave in France had been carefully disassembled and along with support timbers, icons, paintings and a stained glass window of Jesus and then been transported to the America. Construction had been started when the land was in a colony and finished when the colony became a state.

The church itself was small. That is, the original design was restrictive. Then, over the years, and centuries, the church expanded as the community around the church grew. By the First World War it was six times the size of the original church and covered all of the acres originally donated to the church. It could grow no more because there was no adjacent vacant land left.

St. Vincent had been a staid community until the Great Depression. Then, as happened in many communities across the United States, it took a devastating financial hit. Unemployment was rampant and the church changed from being a place of worship alone to a food and medical services dispenser. It became so flooded with the homeless, religious services were held in the basement. Eventually even these services ceased as the space was turned into an employment and training facility. The church fell into disrepair until the mid-1930s when the impending — and eventual arrival — of the war in Europe invigorated the half-dozen industries in the area. As employment went up, so did the fortunes of the community. Then the Second World War began and women took the jobs previously held by the men who were then fighting in Europe and the Pacific. After the war, the money into the coffers of St. Vincent’s took a leap upwards and the church was finally able to upgrade its facilities. As the community around the church moved into the 21st Century, the church did as well. This was a blessing because with the arrival of COVID19 it was able to Zoom to the same parishioners who had been attending services since their childhood.

The St. Albany newspaper was a typical small town newspaper. Unfortunately for Noonan it was killed by the Internet in 2011. There was several regional tabloids, all inconsistent in their runs. What replaced the regional tabloids — which Noonan was surprised to find at all — were what would be best called ‘industrials,’ or professional publications. In this case, these were more newsletter than newspaper or tabloid. Two of them were for art galleries and one — lavish in color and focused on high end sales — was for an antique store. One art gallery advertised a spread of artwork by “local and national artists” of “all sizes for all manner of display be it wall or hall and we have it all.” The other offered an estate management services with an instore art appraiser. It offered the “best assignment art for the St. Anthony area” and offered to be an “open conduit to local artists to get the art you want from the artist you choose from our catalog of professionals.” Noonan was unsure what an “open conduit” was since a conduit had to be “open” to be a conduit and if closed, was not a conduit at all.

While the antique store offered “large paintings for the salon and dining room,” it seemed to specialize in furniture. It touted “unusual, one of a kind” items for the “bedroom, den and living room.” Its items include American Colonial bureaus, Amish rocking chairs, massive oak dining room tables, Turkish rugs and one Jeffersonian lazy Susan.

Noonan had never heard of a “Jeffersonian lazy Susan” so he called the One and Only antique store. The “proprietor” was out so Noonan talked with the part-time sales clerk. She was a student at the local community college and quite knowledgeable of both the items for sale and the art world in general in the community.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” she said slyly, clearly angling for a sale. “We do have an excellent web site which offers a walk-through. We upgrade it was new items come in.”

“I will take a virtual tour now that I know you have a web site,” Noonan said than asked, “What is a Jeffersonian lazy Susan?”

“That particular item is still available. It’s an antique Sheffield silver on copper lazy Susan dinner buffet tray. It was created in 1915 and we have the its provenance. It’s steal at $1,500. Do you know what a provenance is?”

“A list of owners who owned the item over time. Who bought it, for how much and when.”

“Correct. And we have an inhouse appraiser to verity the value of the item.”

“That’s good to know,” Noonan said and then asked, “Why is it called a Jeffersonian lazy Susan? And I thought all lazy Susans were wood.”

“A common mistake,” the sales clerk replied. “The term ‘lazy Susan’ is actually a shortening of the term ‘Jeffersonian lazy Susan’ because it was invented by Thomas Jefferson. This is for real. He called it a ‘labor saving device’ but because he had a daughter named Susan, the term ‘lazy Susan’ was immediately attached to the device. Our antique Sheffield antique would look great on any dining room table and we can ship from here.”

Noonan feigned interest and then maneuvered the conversation into a chitchat about the sales clerk. Was she local and where did she get her background in antique furniture? She said she was local and the local college had an entire department dedicated to estate management, antique appraising and specialized classes in American art history. “I am specializing the estate management,” the young clerk told Noonan. “I had no idea there were so many people who had no idea what they inherited.”

“Do you get a lot of those kind of folks?” Noonan asked with interest.

“More than I expected,” she replied. “We were was once a rich town. Rich, that is, in the old sense of the word. We started as a mill town with the management, I guess you’d call them, living here. By the time the mill closed, the rich had their money invested handsomely. Their children, the bright ones, went on to college and then into the tech industry. What really caused the town to boom again was COVID19. All those techies left their high priced apartments in New York and California and came home. They worked virtually from homes they had inherited. They became home bodies and the old furniture had to go as they needed more office space. One and Only is the largest antique dealer here. Now, as to the Sheffield lazy Susan, if you buy today I’ll see if I can get the shipping cost cut by half!”

* * *

When Noonan called Reginal Perryman, he had an additional question. “Does the local university use the church for any reason?”

“Oh, yes!” Perryman was enthusiastic. “The local university is very small. A private institution so it uses St. Vincent of Albany’s parish rectory for the art classes. It’s perfect, you know. We have the 16th Century nave and the associated icons and artwork. Then there’s the stained glass window. It’s perfect for art history classes. There are also a slew of community organizations who use the nave. It’s large, that is, the nave is large, and ancient by local standards. We have art appreciation classes, stained glass enthusiasts, fine artists, art historians and the like. We also have youth theater groups, poetry readings and the local literary folk have a regular program broadcast from our library. We have quite the crowd most days of the week.”

“I see,” said Noonan nonchalantly. “Now, do you have the answers to the questions?”

“As good as I can get. The structure of St. Vincent of Albany went up over a long period of time. It was started in 1756 and originally it was just a log structure. In 1774, an anonymous donation was made to the church if it included a consecrated nave from a church in France. That particular church had either been burned or badly damaged in a war. It was never clear which. What was left was the nave. The anonymous donator apparently owned the land on which the church had been sitting so he — or she — did not have to buy the nave. The same person paid for the fragmenting of the nave and the transportation to where the church is now. Part of the church nave arrived before the Revolutionary War and the rest came in 1783 when the church was finished.”

“Was the nave inserted in the church or was the church built around it?”

“Both. There was a standing structure but it was known the nave was coming. The construction plan left a massive architectural bubble in the interior for the nave. The largest part of the nave was the stained glass window and a large section to the outer wall was left open for the window.”

“So the stained glass window went in last?”

“As far as I know, yes. I don’t see anyone putting the stained glass window in first and then maneuvering the sections of the nave around it.”

“Go on.”

“The church has an official, monthly donation congregation of 347 but many do not attend regularly. Regular attendance is about 250. There have been three holes in the roof. Two of them lead to low attics in two wings of the church. The third drops into a large closet behind the nave. That was the one causing the leak The church is old so there is constant upkeep and maintenance. So, yes, there has been a lot of work over the last few years but much of it has been replacement of pipes, wires, repairing cement, replacing tiles, upgrading bathrooms. Nothing I would call major. All of the work is contracted out so there is not a single firm that does all the work and the minor upkeep is done by parishioners. The configuration of the church has not changed since it was built.”

“So the footprint of the church is the same as when it was build?”

“Correct,” Perryman said. “As to the area around the church, it has not changed in the sense structures are brought down and more expensive homes go up. The big change has been the influx of boutiques, art galleries and small businesses in the older structures nearest the church. We are kind of known as an artsy-fartsy community. People come here to buy art rather than drive up the coast or down to Philadelphia.”

“Has the ministerial staff changed at all over the past, say, ten years?”

“Not really,” Perryman said. “We’re a small group and we’ve been here since dirt, I guess.”

“And there hasn’t been any major changes within the church lately? No large bequests, donations. Anything like that?”

“Not really. We’re just glad to be open in these trying times. We get enough money from the use of the church to balance our budget.”

“Who are the largest renters of the church?”

“The university, of course. Then there is a group of art dealers who offer one of those shows like the Antique Roadshow on public television, a young woman’s dance company and a Shakespearean theatre company who uses our stage to rehearsal.”

And a gong went off in a deep crevice of his brain.

* * *

Noonan was sitting in his office staring at a can of tuna fish and six celery stalks when his administrative assistant and office common sense guru came in with a ham and cheese sandwich. She chortled at Noonan’s ‘lunch’ and made a rude a comment about LDL levels and then pulled the top slice of bread off her sandwich. Reaching onto the top of the now-exposed — to and from Noonan’s view; delectable — luncheon repast, Harriet lifted a — again, to and from Noonan’s view — massive slice of Swiss cheese.

“Speaking of holy,” Harriet said as she took a bite of the flavorful slice of heaven, “I just got a call from some church in Pennsylvania.” She shook a finger at Noonan, “You’ve been a busy boy while I was on vacation.”

“All in a day’s work,” Noonan said as he pulled his eyes away from the Swiss cheese and planted them back on his open can of tuna fish. “All in a day’s work.”

“Well,” Harriet said as she took another bite of the Swiss cheese, “tell me all.”

“Not much to tell,” Noonan pushed the tuna fist can away and snagged a celery stalk. “There was a church where someone — or someones — were digging holes in the roof.”

“The roof? Trying to dig their way to heaven?”

“Not so much to heaven as mammon.”

“Ok, enough of the allusions. Why would anyone want to dig a hole in a roof?”

Noonan sighed, “That wasn’t the biggest part of the problem. The church did not want any negative publicity. It did not want to be seen as helping the police (pause) because it wanted to continue to be known as a sanctuary.”

“Even for criminals?” Harriet snickered. “The church is supposed to be sanctuary for criminals of conscience, not cash.”

Noonan spread his hands and shrugged like an Italian being asked about his in-laws. “Mine was to solve the matter, not recommend punishment.”

“Well, what was the matter that needed resolving?”

“The church, St. Vincent of Albany’s parish rectory, was established about the time of the American Revolution. What made it unusual was the inclusion of a consecrated nave from France. The nave was from an older church. So the nave was moved to Pennsylvania along with some icons, paintings and a large stained glass window of Jesus.”

“And?”

“Well, I suggested the reason for the holes in the roof were for some miscreant to get behind the nave for some of the support timbers. See, the community had become quite an art center and apparently someone with a nefarious streak saw an opportunity to get their hands on some 16th century wood.”

“Wood? What’s the big deal? Wood’s wood.”

“Not really. Art forgers need 16th Century canvas, 16th Century paint and 16th Century wood so their creations pass muster as 16th Century artwork. 16th Century canvas is not hard to find. At estate sales, for instance. But over the years, the frames of those 16th Century paintings were replaced. Wood can be dated. A good forger can fake 16th Century paints but not 16th Century wood.”

“So,” Harriet cut in. “Some forger wanted to get the wood from behind the nave to make fake 16th Century frames for paintings.”

“That was my guess. It was also my guess those persons would continue to dig into the parish roof until they could actually remove the 16th Century timbers which came with the nave.”

“Well, if the church didn’t want to make a fuss about it, how are they going to keep that person from continuing to dig into the roof?”

Noonan stretched. “Oh, I just made a suggestion.”

“Which was?”

“To announce the timbers from behind the nave were being sent to Paris to aid in the rebuilding of Notre Dame. I suggested the church hold a ceremony and trot out some ancient timbers from behind the nave. With the 16th Century timbers gone there would be no reason for anyone to dig through the roof for timbers which were not there.”

“Were they really 16th Century timbers?”

“My lips are sealed.”

“Not around tuna fish and celery,” Harriet said as she pointed at his festering, low carbohydrate. Then she leaned forward and said, “You know how to sneak up on celery?”

“Oh, no. Not a joke at lunch!” Noonan said as he covered the tuna fish can with his right hand.

Harriet laughed as she took another bite of her Swiss cheese, “You stalk it.”

[You can find Heinz Noonan’s impossible crime novels at www.authormasterminds.com/steve-levi.]

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