The Empty Apse by Maria Messina

Amaryllis Gacioppo

"La nicchia vuota", from short story collection Piccoli gorghi [Little eddies], 1911.

The Empty Apse

Every year, all the nuns would kneel behind the choir grate to see the women and then the priests and then, finally, amidst a blaze of burning torches, their lovely Saint Joseph on his golden pedestal shuffle down the church nave.

His annual outing in the procession was a major and much-anticipated occasion. But what worry it caused them! What if the procession brought him out while it was still sunny and his face peeled and his yellow and turquoise mantle faded? Or what if they brought him out while it was overcast, provoking his immolation by rain?

Upon Saint Joseph’s return to the church, they’d huddle behind the confessional and whisper their suggestions over to the chaplain, such as: take care how he is repositioned in his apse! Mind the creases in his mantle! Make sure you lock his glass case yourself!

Early that morning, before the sacristan banged on the rota for the keys, they’d secretly snuck, one by one, crawling on hands and knees, inside the chapel, to get a glimpse, up close and with their own eyes, of their own Saint Joseph who – with his kindly face like a placid elder, milk-white and flame-red cheeks, and a big white beard so lifelike that you could count each hair – was the envy of the mother church.

But as the day stretched on and clouds filled the ever-darkening sky, the nuns grew nervous. The rooster in the courtyard bellowed, the windows rattled, and the sparrows glided low over the old wall. A real storm was threatening to break out. And once it did, a state of mass panic followed, set off immediately after sister Orsola pressed herself up against the convent grate and screamed: Rain!

Rain?! repeated the nuns gathered in the chapter room, and the cry of terror echoed until it reached all the way to the kitchen, where sister Dorotea was preparing dinner.

And now it was pouring. They slammed the windows shut and then stood with eyes fixed to the glass, on the other side of which water bucketed. My God! exclaimed sister Antonietta. Will they at least cover him with something?

With what? asked sister Tommasa.

How should I know? They can borrow something! A sack, a carpet? Something!

We needn’t worry! The chaplain is the type who understands.

He’ll find a way to fix it...

God, so much water!

Look at that lightning!

Sanctus Deus, Sanctus fortis, Sanctus immortalis!

Miserere nobis!

They all whispered at once, hurriedly crossing themselves, full of agitation. The mother superior was in a chant, so engrossed in prayer that she flinched when the bell rang. She remained where she was, continuing to pray with fervour until she heard the heavy tread of the portress. It was the sacristan, she reported, a little short of breath from climbing the stairs. She cheerfully added: He’s safe.


In the church of Saint Dominic. With the monks. He didn’t even get wet!

What a miracle, Blessed Virgin!

Could a saint have ever gotten wet?

But next time...

In the meantime, mad March had purged his bad mood and was in good spirits again, the heavens cleared and the sun emerged between two big grey clouds, so that on earth half was in light and half in shadow.

The mother superior awoke in her cell at dawn, Saint Joseph’s return already on her mind. Hence, that afternoon the procession regathered along with the band, and paraded cheerfully to Saint Dominic’s. But all that awaited them in the monastery courtyard was a handful of monks with the father guardian. The latter stated to the chaplain, in no uncertain terms, that the saint, in their church, was now at home, and that they, the nuns and the priests, had no right to take him away. But they were welcome to try, and see what happened. Monks ranked higher than priests, and seeing as Saint Joseph had performed a miracle by seeking shelter at their church, they would see to it that his will was respected by any means necessary.

It was enough to make you blaspheme! Enough to drive you mad!

They didn’t stand a chance. Behind the monastery, the flabbergasted priests murmured to one another for a long time about what should be done, while the women
whispered amongst themselves at a distance. The band clutched their instruments in silence. To return empty-handed – a humiliation! What had been the point of the music? And all those women? Some procession! They split into groups, some opting for the main road and others for the backstreets, discussing the matter along the way. The priests went two by two, mute, hunched over and harried, the wind ruffling their black cassocks and white surplices, down a narrow muddy path between two files of dewy peach trees that seemed to poke fun at their haste.

For the nuns, the news of this catastrophe was a shocking blow. The chaplain, poor man, walked back and forth between the convent and the monastery, spending long hours in the parlatory, even though it was humid in there and he suffered from rheumatism. They tried playing it nice, playing it mean, they tried threats, persuasion, all for nought: those monks were harder than the back of God’s head. To all their pleas those monks would only reply that Saint Joseph had asked for refuge in their monastery, and they, being good Christians, had obliged, and if the saint desired a return to the college, then he would summon another miracle. The chaplain was mortified. But what can we do? The mother superior, appalled, kept repeating through the portcullis. What if my signior made an offer...a significant offer?

I already tried. At the risk of bankrupting the college. But the monks are already rich, and they say they’re doing it out of respect for Saint Joseph.

You’re right. But that means that what they’re after is our Joseph! Why can’t they get their own? They don’t love him like we do – we’ve been his custodians since forever, and we’ve taken such good care of him that he looks good as new!

Who do they think they are! Sister Dorotea was saying further away, circled by a group of nuns. Where could they find another Saint Joseph like ours! And one blessed by the Cardinal at that! Do you know how difficult it is to get that sort of benediction?

Remember that, sister Immacolata? It feels like yesterday. What a party...the church was a garden, the choir festooned with laurel and myrtle...

And the music outside, and in the evening the fireworks on the Castello...

And one by one the nuns, huddled together in a corner of the parlatory, recalled every detail of the celebration, moving each other to tears. Meanwhile, the chaplain looked physically pained as his mouth tentatively shaped the word: A complaint –

Get the authorities involved? Jesus and Mary! Between monks and nuns? On a matter of saints? And who would even adjudicate?

Well, I thought, perhaps...I –

My signior?

The mother superior took a deep breath. Absolutely not. The situation did not call for the involvement of the law of man; the only one who could make those blessed monks repent was God! What if the Madonna were to conjure a miracle!? What if, all of a sudden, when they least expected it, they heard the music outside and the procession showed up, bringing the saint home to his little church?!

They had to face the facts; but having to attend mass up in the choir overlooking the sorry apse was miserable. The apse was so empty that it looked like an eye socket; yes, just like an eye socket, as sister Immacolata had said, because Saint Joseph truly had been the benevolent eye of their little church.

Jesus and Mary, Sister Dorotea murmured one day after praying the Golden Rosary. Saint Joseph’s apse can’t remain like this. It’s useless to go on hoping.

So what can we do?

How should I know? But if I did, I would say it is time for a replacement.

Another saint! How could we put another in Saint Joseph’s apse?!

And in the church, in the college of Saint Joseph at that!

The college was poor and there was no hope of purchasing another idol. The situation called for ingenuity. It was sister Immacolata who found the solution: Say – up, in the old choir, wasn’t there an abandoned Saint Jude? With a nice beard, that almost looked like a Saint Joseph, if you squinted?

The proposal, at first greeted begrudgingly, was soon met with enthusiasm; and the younger nuns skipped up to the musty, dank old choir to collect the neglected idol; which they dragged with great effort down to a corner of the refectory. The others gathered around them, both gleeful and a bit shy, to get a close up look at that big choleric face scowling back at them.

He was weathered, a bit chapped. He was not handsome. It took a whole month to scrub and polish him. Every nun had a job. One was to colour his cheeks, which was tricky to get right, because sometimes they came out too red, and others too white. Another was to fashion three fleurs-de-lis to put on top of the staff he’d soon grip in his hand; another to whiten his beard and hair. A whole bunch of them were tasked with embroidering his mantle in turquoise and yellow, just like his predecessor.

And finally – once he was draped in his lavish mantle with his staff resting in the crook of his elbow – the idol was positioned in the apse; and the nuns, praying, told themselves their Saint Joseph was before them. Often, in conversation, they would slip up: Saint Jude –

Saint Joseph, another, sighing, would correct her.

But, passing by the choir grate and seeing down below, despite the whitened hair, the reddened cheeks, that clearly counterfeit face, oh! How they longed for the affable and good natured gaze of their lovely Saint Joseph who was now in the hands of the monks!

Maria Messina (1887-1944) was born in Palermo, but due to family reasons she lived in different cities from childhood, first in Sicily and later on the peninsula, from which she would never return to her native island. She traveled through central and southern Italy until the family settled in Naples when she was 24 years old. She began publishing stories at the age of 22, and published 6 novels, several collections of short stories, and 8 children's books. Her career was cut short at the age of 41, when multiple sclerosis - diagnosed at the age of 20 - definitively prevented her from writing.

Amaryllis Gacioppo

Amaryllis Gacioppo is an Italian-Australian writer and translator who lives in Palermo. She is the author of the travel memoir Motherlands (Bloomsbury UK, 2022). Her short fiction and essays have previously appeared in publications such as Granta, Catapult, 3:AM and Meanjin. Currently, she is working on an autofictional historical novel set in Sicily with funding from Creative Australia. ( / IG: @amaryllisgacioppo)

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