in Ashton: The Church Steeple
people of Ashton didn't care when Father Michaniuk proposed to
pull down the steeple and plant the bell between posts of wood
buried in the ground. But predictably, the older parishioners,
for whom the belfry was a loved and familiar sight, said that
a church without a steeple was a rusty barn of a building.
damningly, Elva Howland claimed that the prayers would have nowhere
to go: "They'll get stuck under the church roof. They'll slam
there until they die, like that Sunday when we found the floor
covered in dead birds." Three months earlier thousands of birds
had somehow pried their way past the wrinkled screens, and spent
Monday to Sunday beating themselves against the walls. The birds
became a political tool in the hands of the devout, who shouted
for meetings on Wednesday nights.
was not the most progressive minister, and his proposal had nothing
to do with improving the church. He was responding to a dream
that had come to him after a particularly dry Sunday. There must
have been a football game or a big run down at the slaughterhouse,
for when Father Michaniuk went to preach his sermon--that artificial
insemination is a sin against nature and god--he found the building
empty. He stood for a long time realizing that the parishioners
make the church. Then, forced to drink the sacrificial wine he'd
consecrated for the service, he reeled away home.
that night were unsettled, but one theme was clear. The church
needed a radical change. In the visual medium of Father Michaniuk's
dream, the change was visited on the body of the church proper.
Father Michaniuk went to work with a clear purpose. The steeple
must come down.
He first approached
the church board, which consisted mostly of those members who
were too busy to come on Sunday. They intended to pay the toll
levied by purgatory and go straight to heaven, their good deeds
offsetting a lifetime of evil doings. The board disagreed with
Father Michaniuk and Tittle Klesen punctuated his disgust by pitching
his glass of water into Father Michaniuk's face. Tittle revealed
both the depth of his passion and, inadvertently, that he'd been
drinking vodka in a church meeting. The meeting broke up, but
not before everyone was determined that the steeple would stay.
was equally stubborn. He had argued that the steeple set the church
off from the other buildings, and that the hotel bar had no steeple.
Everyone agreed with that. But his claim that the presence of
a steeple meant that fewer parishioners could find their way to
the church on a Sunday morning, did not--for nearly all of them--follow
Fullerton believed in Father Michaniuk's scheme; but his support
was suspect, since he was the only carpenter in town. Behind fences
people joked that Emerson's advice about euthanasia was corrupted
by his coffin making business, and that his measurement of creaky
cupboards leaned towards his ready hand as a cabinet maker. Everyone
knew what his encouraging words meant, although few were willing
to undermine what he said. They worried that the next time he
worked on their house their bathroom floor might slant or a crack
would appear under a window that should have been sealed. Emerson's
power was seemingly limitless, but even so his opinion on the
steeple was largely ignored.
was not a man to be trifled with. Before he'd gone off to the
seminary he'd worked at the rodeo wrestling bulls. A biblical
profession. He was Moses, fresh from the mountain and critical
of a new town sculpture. The other jobs he'd held, however, were
more difficult to explain. For three years in Vancouver he'd driven
prostitutes to work. He'd sat in the car offering a slim protection
and smoking dope, while the women plied their trade inside Kitsilano
hotels. Father Michaniuk had also been a guitar player in country
bars, where anything could have happened. The worry that god had
been watching through that period in his life was typically enough
to drive him to his knees on the hard church floor. Today was
no exception, although this time he asked for divine help on his
The hand of
the divine came in the person of Jimmy Nash. Jimmy was a reserve
boy who'd responded to the talk about the church steeple by reading
about steeplejacks. Jimmy swore that he could climb a steeple
as well as the boy in the book. Although he had no pigeon to rescue
at the top of the highest church in town, he set off to prove
his point. Even while Father Michaniuk kneeled below him, the
cramping in his legs underscoring his supplication, Jimmy was
climbing the church roof. He got onto the main roof by way of
the entrance overhang, hooking one foot over the doorknob and
shimmying up onto his belly. Father Michaniuk heard the noise,
but presumed the damage could be taken care of after god had been
Even as Jimmy
approached the steeple, cars began to stop on the main road. They
parked away from the church grounds, which they said was not to
disturb the boy. But they knew, deep down in their non-interfering
hearts, that they wanted to watch the show, not save Jimmy Nash
from himself. Soon thirty cars were parked by the highway. Amongst
them was Eddy Prosser's police cruiser, where Jimmy had spent
many a terror-filled afternoon.
They all watched
and drank, as Jimmy crept up the steeple, and many laid bets on
who would win, Jimmy or gravity. Some said gravity had the advantage,
for countless eons it had been untroubled by boys from the reserve;
it had been working longer to bring people down than Jimmy had
on going up. Other people argued that Jimmy had the benefit of
surprise. By picking his moment as he had, perhaps gravity might
be caught napping.
It was Father
Michaniuk, from inside the church, who first realized Jimmy was
slipping. Perhaps because his knees were so in tune with the wooden
floor, he felt the vibration and then heard Jimmy's fingernails,
as they gripped, slipped and then gripped again, all to the tune
of rattling shingles.
stakes were high on Jimmy to win, and going higher when the crowd
saw him slip. Some tried to dump their bookings on their neighbours,
even as Jimmy fell from the steeple and hit the ground. Such was
their gambling disappointment, that Jimmy was left there. When
Saul from the reserve stopped because he had seen the crowd, he
gathered up the broken boy and took him to the hospital.
At first the
hospital was reluctant to admit him, since Dr. Reginald Klassen
was in attendance. He'd made his feelings about patients from
the reserve clear when he had Angel Littlerock wait three days
to deliver her baby, who was born dead and blue from lack of oxygen.
Typically, the reserve took care of its own, but Saul was desperate
and Jimmy was dying. Finally, Jimmy was only reluctantly admitted--after
spending four hours on the bed of Saul's truck--because Saul threatened
to vandalize Reg's car. Reg was famous for his car collection,
and rarely a day went by that he wasn't driving a new one. Acquiescing
only because of fear for his true love, Reg plotted how to get
Saul on his fear-stained operating table even as he palpated Jimmy's
died later that night, Father Michaniuk knew his prayers had been
answered. Jimmy's death once again confirmed the existence of
god for all of those sinners who had skipped church the previous
Sunday. In his eagerness, and showing a political acumen he'd
learned in the country bars, Father Michaniuk skipped over the
church meeting and went straight to his parishioners.
the audience were a healthy number of people from the reserve.
Even though they were not normally allowed in the town church,
they'd come hoping for solace after Jimmy's death. Intent on his
speech, Father Michaniuk inadvertently ended up giving them more
consolation than he normally would have.
"We must remove
the evil spike of vanity. We must rid ourselves of temptation."
Citing the World Trade Centre in the same breath as the Tower
of Babel, Father Michaniuk soon had all parishioners on his side
and demolition was slated for the following day.
Jimmy had not died, or if the parishioners would have had time
to think about their decision, they would have chosen differently.
Many blamed those from the reserve, whose presence had slanted
the vote in their favour. The fact that Father Michaniuk had allowed
them in the church was now seen as a power play by those who spoke
against the destruction of the steeple.
climbed the roof the following day, self-conscious in a new shirt,
everyone was watching. He had no idea how big a crowd there would
be. Over by the trees, near the creek, were at least two hundred
from the reserve, here to confirm that after so many white lies
that the preacher's words would become true. They represented
the entire population of the reserve. Although once they had been
many thousands, even these latter day representatives made the
whites uncomfortable. The Aboriginal people kept to themselves,
and even the children watched silently, as Emerson looked over
the whites, rowdy and drinking in the parking lot.
To the tune
of car stereos, Emerson climbed to where Jimmy's fingers, in their
desperation, had made scores in the shingles and left bloodstains
on the roof. There Emerson bent to work on the fasteners that
held the steeple in place. Heaving to find purchase on the slippery
roof, his work was rewarded when his crowbar jammed aside the
shingles and bent the spikes which held its timbering. After prying
for nearly twenty minutes, the steeple tilted and much to the
crowd's satisfaction, slammed down past the church steps onto
the tarmac of the parking lot.
Some of the
reserve kids wanted to rush over and see, but they were held back
by their parents. The white kids were not so constrained, so it
was they who first saw what the steeple contained. Their blanched
looks, even on the face of Butcher Brad who had just started at
the slaughterhouse, brought the adults running. Even as the steeple
broke apart and spilled its dark secrets onto the pavement, the
whites stood as a divided group. Some hovered near their cars,
with keys in hand, and when Eddy tried to control the crowd, almost
puking at what he saw, more than one person crept away into the
stand of poplar behind the graveyard.
sensitivity that went unnoticed, the Aboriginal people returned
to the reserve. Their curious children glanced back and chattered
about what could have been in the steeple. Those whites who were
not washing out their mouths and splashing cold creek water on
their faces stood around in a rough circle, watching as one bundle
after another was lifted out of the steeple body. Sally Jenning's
self-aborted foetus was laid to one side, to reveal the wizened
body of the Edwards boy, who was born small and then had just
found his own contribution, the reserve boy he'd beaten, who had
died in the town jail and been forgotten. Granny Spittle, as everyone
ashamedly remembered calling her, fell out as a bag of ash and
sticks. The baby of the Mennonite girl, Jessica Yaap, rejected
by her devout parents, tumbled after those that had been removed.
Body after body, an impossible amount of bones and shrivelled
limbs, of desiccated skin and mummified skulls, every dirty secret
in the neighbourhood, fell one by one out of the steeple. Although
cars should have been conspicuous by their absence, everyone was
too intent on the content of the steeple to make note of who was
the steeple no longer seemed to be discharging its terrible load,
more bodies, some more recent than others, spilled out. There
were kids from residential schools, recognizable by their uniforms
and the lash marks on their knuckles, backs, and faces. Aboriginal
women, caught by the police out late at night, came after them.
Hunters found the men they'd accidentally shot and cruel children
saw the birds they'd killed right out of the nest. Mothers saw
the times they'd shook little Jeff too hard, and slapped Susie.
Even Father Michaniuk saw something he was loath to describe to
his parishioners, when on the following Sunday they held their
secret funeral. Then they buried the hundreds of corpses, which
had fallen, impossibly, out of the narrow steeple. Since there
was no time to ask Emerson to make a coffin, they got Jake, who
ran the snowplough, to dig a trench. There they laid, tenderly
using the steeple as a casket, their dead to rest.
the church roof, but everyone complained that his hasty application
of discount shingles showed where the steeple had been. Father
Michaniuk was fired, and found himself at a church in the inner
city, where the endless parade of glue sniffers, solvent drinkers,
and crack heads was a relief. He was robbed three times in a year
of the collection plate, which mostly consisted of joints and
hash, but his church had a flat roof and the bell tower was open
to the winter winds.
In the churchyard
there was a mound where the steeple lay, and the parishioners
passed by it every Sunday they could spare away from the slaughterhouse
or the game. Even years later they still complained that Snave,
down at the mortuary, had made an inappropriate marker. Since
he was the only stonecutter in town, the stone stayed, a small
steeple beckoning to the indifferent prairie sky.