In Borough of Kings Jimmy, being of Irish blood, Catholic religion, and living in the “Irish neighborhood” in which he grew up (a working class area of Brooklyn containing a mix of ethnicities, but in which Irish and Italian surnames predominate) attends the funeral of one of his contemporaries who was “messed up on drugs” and dies of an overdose. It is “taken for granted” that many, if not all, of the major characters show up in church, at least for events like these. Though the majority of the characters involved in the plot are most likely nominal Catholics at best, no mention of a spiritual alternative is made. It is doubtful if the white ethnics portrayed in this movie would know a Protestant if one walked up and bit them. This is therefore “the church” and its parochial school is therefore “the school” as far as people in the neighborhood are concerned. (This is not very far from the reality of many Catholics in the outer boroughs of New York. Some NYC real estate listings have the parish name of the Catholic parish in the area given, rather than the name of the neighborhood/town/nearest subway stop.)
Jimmy meets an eligible young woman who works at the theater in Manhattan where he gets a part in a Shakespeare production. They date, and eventually become serious enough in their relationship that Jimmy takes her home to meet his surviving family (his uncle and the firefighters he lives with). When they get to know each other better, he tells her that he has dyslexia, and that when he was a kid, he would hate to go to school because he was embarrassed at not knowing how to read and anxious about looking “stupid in front of the other kids”. He was also afraid that he would get sent to a “special school” for “the learning disabled”. (This is perhaps because in the past, not all US parochial schools offered special education or services for students with disabilities, and that switching to the public school system was perhaps in some instances the only option for those with special needs. This may still be the case in smaller, less prosperous parishes.) Either situation had the potential to make him a social and possibly religious outcast in his neighborhood.
However, as he told her, there was a saving grace for his schooling situation and what would become his career: there was a particular teaching nun who worked with him specifically, and got him reading. He didn’t specify what sort of reading instruction or dyslexia remediation method Sister used, or whether it was typical of the Catholic school system or of the time period when he was in the parish school, but because of the devotion of this teacher, he was now able to read Shakespeare in adult life.
A coping strategy devised by the nun, which most likely arose from the need for him to read everything several times over to get the correct meaning and properly process the information was memorization. Fortunate enough to have a quick intellect and a good memory, Jimmy became the one to volunteer to “read” in front of the class, having memorized what he was to read before the recitation, to which he would come to add dramatic flair. This skill led to his ability to have the actors’ parts in Shakespeare’s plays memorized, so that he did not have to have a script in front of him when he “read” for the part during the audition.
This funeral near the beginning of the picture, held in the Catholic church, is a way of portraying in visual and social summation, some of the societal problems in the area served by the parish. Young adults in the area lack opportunities to better themselves or to find higher-level employment and cultural opportunities. Those who seek something better than the marginal existence that surrounds them must go elsewhere, draining the parish of potential contributors, financially and otherwise. Some low-ranking Mafia figures appear at the funeral; though they are indirectly responsible for selling drugs, they advise their close associates to stay away from drugs. The implications are that young adults who remain in the declining parish are faced with the temptations afforded by street drugs, and alternatively with potential recruitment by the Mob.
The church itself is a very traditional pre-Concilar style Catholic Church with large, vaulted spaces, standing candelabras, and lots of statues and pictures of angels and saints. The confessionals in this church are varnished wooden booths with openwork carving and entryways covered by red velveteen curtains instead of solid doors (some of which are soundproofed for the penitents’ privacy protection) which are found in more contemporary church buildings. This fact is relevant to the later development of the plot of the movie.
Though the parish church building may look impressive, it is heir to the economic and societal malaise which affects the area surrounding it. A local junkie, a crackhead who grew up with Jimmy, but is now known by the nickname of “Snake”, usually hangs around a subway stop panhandling, but as of late has taken to jimmying the lock on the poor box inside the church, and taking the change that people donate there. He is seen successfully doing this more than once, and evading detection, escaping the church with pockets full of change, with both the attitude and the look of someone who has experienced a slot machine win. In this particular church, the poor box, a large locked donation box meant to be an easy way for parishioners to easily contribute their small change to the poor, is somewhat improbably located near a side altar and across from a small holy water holder or baptismal font. A large statue of Michael The Archangel (patron saint of law enforcement, first responders, the military, etc.) looms above the poor box in the frame. The poor box is more typically located in the narthex (lobby area) of most Catholic churches, but perhaps the somewhat uncommon placement of the poor box which I have described facilitates foreshadowing and makes possible what I will next recount.

"Snake", the local junkie, has taken to robbing the poor box in the local Catholic church. The fact that the depiction of Michael The Archangel with sword drawn looms above him is not a coincidence, but a foreshadowing of the justice through local temporal law enforcement that will come his way later in the picture.

"Snake", the local junkie, has taken to robbing the poor box in the local Catholic church. It is there that he overhears Jimmy's confession about having witnessed a Mob hit.

Jimmy, having witnessed a Mob hit, comes to the church for spiritual comfort, just to soak up the holy atmosphere. The priest is hearing confessions, and having seen Jimmy come into the church looking troubled, encourages him to come to confession and tell him what is troubling him. Jimmy hesitates, well aware of what happens to those who “rat”, especially in a situation such as the one he had witnessed. But then he remembers what he was undoubtedly taught during his formative years concerning the Seal of Confession. It thus occurs to Jimmy that telling the priest what he has witnessed in the form of a confession is a way to “get it off his chest” without violating the Code of the Streets or the established Mafia expectation of omerta, and he enters the confessional and recounts the situation. Both Jimmy and the priest are well aware that this confession is not about sin on Jimmy’s part, but a form of psychotherapy outside the mental health Establishment in the sense that the priest and the church are through this means providing a culturally and religiously-sanctioned “safe space” in which to air something that is supposed to be kept secret.
It is because Snake is in proximity, stealing from the poor box, that he overhears at least part of Jimmy’s “confession” and is later able to add to Jimmy’s nervous strain (and effectively extort a few dollars from him) by hinting that he knew that Jimmy had witnessed the Mob hit.
It is only afterwards when the priest, having had his church’s poor box robbed in this way one too many times, lies in wait for the thief and physically confronts him, that it is revealed how Snake could have overheard what was said in the confessional. (N.B. The Seal of Confession applies not only to the priest who directly hears someone make a confession but to anyone who overhears what is said by another in the circumstance of confessing to a priest. This is good to know if you are in a church which has less-than-soundproof confessionals. This was probably emphasized more in the past when those curtain-for-a-door confessionals were more common, which meant that the potential for overhearing someone else’s confession was more common.)

The local parish priest catches the neighborhood junkie robbing the poor box and tries to stop him.

The local parish priest catches the neighborhood junkie robbing the poor box and tries to stop him.

Though he successfully subdues Snake, the priest ends up with a head wound from the encounter.
Snake is physically ejected from the church, with the circumstances plainly visible to all onlookers, including Jimmy, who puts two and two together. The cops arrive only afterwards to collect Snake, and give the priest the pro forma advice that from now on, they should be the ones to confront criminal activities in the church.

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