BIRR, Ireland - The lady behind the door eyes her late-night visitor for signs of illness or insanity when he asks how to find Bishop Michael Cox.
"So you're looking for the faith healer," says Nancy Pardy, gesturing into the blackness beyond the doorway and its miniature font of holy water.
"Mind you, he's a bit of a crackpot. Sure none of us here believes in him. He was married just up the road from here. He has a grown son.
Everybody in this midlands town has an opinion about Michael Cox, Ireland's most famous member of the reactionary Tridentine wing of the Catholic Church.
"He's the talk of the town when he wants to be," says Anne-Marie Kelly, a program planner at Radio 3, where Cox is an occasional zither-playing guest and places ads for "healing clinics."
For years, Cox has preached the virtues of the Latin Mass, his skills as an exorcist and water diviner, and his healing powers.
Locals consider him charismatic, amusing, and good inspiration for "crack," the Irish slang for conversation.
But many say his latest stunt has gone too far, an effort to form a church in an abandoned chapel outside Birr and fund it by offering confessions, faith healing and prayers on a pay-per-call phone line.
"Any serious Catholic would understand that you can't do confessions by phone," says Des Cryan, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, which claims 4 million members, four-fifths of the island's population.
`Bill keeps adding up'
"And it's expensive, too. From what I understand you have to sit through several minutes of him talking while the bill keeps adding up."
Dial the number and you hear:
"Hello! And thank you for calling Tridentine Bishop Michael Cox's healing and confessions line."
Since November, callers in Ireland, Britain, Canada and the United States have been able to say prayers along with Cox's recorded voice, and then confess into the tape.
"It is guaranteed to be every bit as confidential as the confessional," Cox says on the tape.
Indeed, more so - since Cox doesn't listen to many messages before they're erased, as he acknowledged in a midnight interview.
"I don't know how many people are phoning at the moment. I might have a better idea when the money starts coming in," said Cox, 51, a squat man with a ruddy dimpled face and wavy mop of silver hair. "All I can do is listen to as many as possible. I give a valid absolution to all those who phone in whether I physically hear them or not."
`That does the trick'
In a normal Catholic confession, the priest listens to an account of sins, then prescribes a penitential act.
In Cox's service, "I invite them on the tape to say a prayer with me before they confess, and that does the trick."
Wearing a heavy iron crucifix that swings like a pendulum with his crooked gait, Cox operates from the disheveled shell of St. Colman's Church of Ireland chapel about four miles east of Birr.
Telephone callers hear how he stumbled across the church in 1995, had "a divine experience," and sold all his possessions to live in the building with no electricity, water, sanitation or heat. It doesn't mention his annulled marriage to a local woman in the 1970s.
Cox has bought eight pews, statues of Jesus and Mary and some angels, and a maple bishop's chair from which he sometimes performs healings. He says electricity and a telephone, a mobile home next door and a well were provided by families grateful for his healing.
Birr's ambitious bishop gained a national hearing in 1995 when the state broadcasters, RTE, filmed a documentary of his spartan lifestyle at St. Colman's.
His notoriety, Cox excitedly recalls, "took off like a bat out of hell, like a scalded cat."
He was ordained a priest by a Vietnamese Tridentine bishop in Switzerland in 1978, then consecrated four years later to become Ireland's only Tridentine Catholic bishop.
The Right Rev. Willie Walsh, the Roman Catholic bishop of Killaloe, should have authority to permit or forbid Cox from hearing confessions.
"He's never sought my permission for anything. But there's no way I would want to become involved in a battle with him," Walsh says.
"Michael hasn't been in touch with me for a few years," he says. "At that time he was wondering about the possibility of making his peace with Rome. That apparently didn't work out."
Cox hasn't even made peace with the handful of other Tridentine priests in Ireland, who belong to the Society of St. Pius X, a worldwide order founded in 1970 by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988.
Cox recognizes no superiors and has no priests to command.
"I lead a humble little life, the life of St. Francis," he says. "I've my mobile home, I'm warm and happy. I love the sick, the poor, the young and the old."
At that moment Cox's mobile phone rings. "It's my agent," he says, reaching for the phone.
Tom Higgins was a free-lance reporter in 1982 when he discovered Cox, then a police officer in Dun Laoghaire harbor south of Dublin. He wrote a story headlined "Cop Who's a Priest," and later about Cox's bid to exorcise demons from an irreverent radio station.
Today Higgins runs Promo Direct and helped Cox set up the phone line.
Higgins, an agnostic, says he is less interested in theology than in a cut of the profits - which he says is a trade secret.
"If Michael says that confession over the phone is legal and doctrinally sound, I believe him," he says. "But I'll tell you a little secret. The confession line's not going that well."
Healing is Cox's passion, and he drives hundreds of miles a week in his red Ford minivan to visit the sick. He claims to have healed more than 1,000 people.
His next project, developed by Higgins, is a video titled "Heal Yourself, by the Miracle Bishop" and will cost $30.
"Recently a lot of people have been coming to be healed. You can see in their eyes they're full of false hopes. It's sad," says Carmel Moore, manager of Birr's County Arms Hotel.
"Last week we had a lovely wee girl in a wheelchair come down all the way from County Fermanagh (in Northern Ireland). You feel like you should say something, but you wouldn't have the heart to tell her he's only a chancer," Moore says, using an Irish term for a rogue.
Johnny Carroll, who makes headstones in the town, has known Cox most of his life and isn't prepared to judge.
"Mick Cox isn't the only mystic in Ireland. We've all got it in our blood. But he might just know something the rest of us don't."