Conor Murphy was seven years old the spring morning Father Leonard Ayers blessed the opening of lobster season at the North Rustico Harbor. Angus McLean, who was the Federal Minister of Fisheries, and everybody with a working boat in the harbor looked on. It was a wet cold day. It didn’t feel like springtime. Nobody who didn’t live and die lobsters was there. The men were in coats and most of them were wearing gloves. All of them were wearing hats.
When the priest was done sprinkling holy water in all directions, including into some faces, he pulled a pistol from his coat pocket. He collected rare handguns. He had hundreds of them. They hung on his walls and cluttered his hallways, lying flat on side tables. He raised the gun, which was one hundred years old, and was loaded with a blank bullet. He fired it into the air. It was a parting salute to the boats and the men who went out on them.
Father Ayers knew how to shoot straight. He didn’t always know how to set things straight, however. His aim wasn’t always true.
“My dad and I went to see Father Ayers in the summer to see if there was any way a bus could pick me up to go to the Stella Maris school,” Marie Peters said. She needed a ride. “He had a gun on every chair in the room. I was scared to move any of them, and I certainly did not want to sit beside one of them.” She stood behind a chair. “In the end Father said I should get a bike and ride to St. Ann’s and meet the bus there. That would be five miles and included five good-sized hills each way. We asked our own parish priest for help, but he said he had no influence with busses and certainly not with Father Ayers.”
The priest became the parish priest at Stella Maris in 1956. The church was unfinished, and he set himself to finishing it. The walls and ceiling of the building’s two wings, which had been built nine years earlier, were finished. New pews and a tile floor were added. Work was wrapped up on the basement. Thankful prayers soared heavenward.
Father Ayers was a ham radio enthusiast. “He thought nothing of dragging some of the bigger and stronger kids out of school class to help him put his antennas back up when the wind blew them down,” Derrill Gallant said. “The nuns didn’t always appreciate his intrusions.” They stood scowling, although they didn’t rap anybody with their rulers.
When he was an altar boy, Derrill once tripped over his cassock falling face first with the Holy Book in his hands. The Bible took the brunt of the fall. Looking down on him Father Ayres explained it was a divine warning. “It’s never been said, ‘Blessed are the clumsy.’” What about Thomas Aquinas? Derrill thought. “Everybody called St. Thomas a clumsy ox,” he said. In the end he had to stay after school and write 500 times, “Saint Aquinas was not a clumsy ox.”
Father Ayers had a cannon he usually fired to jumpstart the lobster season, and that was what Conor had been expecting to see, but it was out of commission that spring. He had seen the pistol before. It was the handgun the priest used at the school’s field day events, its firing signaling the start of each race.
The town was too small to boast a movie house, but feature films were shown in the church hall. “We went to the movies at the hall when they had them on Sunday afternoons,” Brendon Peters said. “It was fifteen cents to get in but one day all I had was twelve cents. I was short and the girl I was taking was looking me up and down. Father Ayers said, come over here, I’ll lend you three cents. Pay me back next Sunday.”
It was where Conor saw “Shane” and “Johnny Guitar.” He saw “The Searchers” and thought ‘The Duke’ was the toughest cowboy ever. “Why don’t you finish the job?” John Wayne, who went by the name of Ethan Edwards in the movie, asked Ward Bond, who went by the name of the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, as he was shooting out the eyes of a Comanche warrior. “What good did that do ya?” the Reverend Clayton asked. “By what you preach, none,” Ethan said. “But what that Comanche believes, he ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. He has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend?”
“I’ve got lots of guns,” Father Ayers told Conor. “The first one I ever saw was in a hardware store. I was about the same age as you are now. I thought it was the finest thing I had ever seen. The first gun I ever owned was a ball and cap Colt. It loaded slow but shot fast as lightning. Even so, I’ll tell you what I always tell myself, which is what my mother always said, guns are the Devil’s right hand.”
“But why do have them, Father? Why do you have so many? Wouldn’t it better to not have any of them?”
“That’s in God’s hands, son.”
One day Conor asked his father if he could shoot the family handgun.
“Dad, can I shoot the gun grandad left?”
“You can shoot it when you’ve got something that needs to be shot at, but not before that.”
“What about practice, so I can hit what I’m aiming at?”
“You don’t need any practice, son. It’s easy as eating pumpkin pie. Just point it like you point your finger and pull the trigger nice and easy. The gun will do the rest. It’s like the movies. Let the costume do the work.”