Memories of an Altar Boy: Of Latin, Incense, Heavy Lifting, Clerical Visits, and Flatulence

massA fellow ChicagoNow blogger wrote a few days ago about an altar server with an unusual perspective. It got me waxing nostalgic a bit .  Memories of  being once an altarboy myself flooded my mind.  It was  during  the front side of the 1950s, to be precise.  Before Vatican II. When  the priest-celebrant had not made a 180 to face the congregation. And neither had  we, the altar boys ---girls weren't deemed  worthy to set foot in the sanctuary at the time.

In no particular order, the following memories take  center stage.  Let me begin  with the strains and  struggles I had  with the   lingua franca of the traditional Mass---Latin. For whatever reason, I never got  comfortable with ecclesiastical Latin   Which, you could imagine,  posed an impediment for an aspiring altar boy. Nonetheless, I was given a dispensation  from being  proficient  in this  language requirement, perhaps because strict enforcement of it  would have been too onerous and would  have  decimated the server ranks at the  Sunday Masses in old St. Pancratius Church. But I did grow  adept at faking  the Latin responses.  Especially , those in the  penitential prayer called the Confiteor ("I confess"),  which is   recited at the beginning of the service and was the  benchmark of Latin mastery. By the time I reached 8th grade, my incoherent  rendition of the Confiteor had grown to legendary proportions  for its  artful  verbal slurring.  The congregation had no way of knowing how mangled my Latin was.  You see, there  wasn't a mike on the altar.  Most priests did have  compassion. Although some winced in spite of themselves.

Before the Mass,   in the sacristy,  after donning our cassocks and surplices, we  altar boys had the ritualistic  duty of helping attire the priest for his role as celebrant.  Fans of Downton Abbey might picture Bates dressing Lord Grantham. Not quite.  Our valet service   consisted, principally,  in handing the priest various  parts of  his vestment or outfit---such as the stole and the girdle.  No, not what you  think. The girdle, or more properly, the cincture, was the  cord the priest tied around his waist after he had put on  the alb, a longer white vestment.  We were too young to reflect on this  social stratification in the spiritual realm. In time, like any other ritual, it became perfunctory.

Being an altar boy had its perks, though. We occasionally were pulled out of class to serve  funeral Masses.  During these Masses we  accompanied the priest as he circled and censed the closed coffin which stood in the nave of  church in front of  the Communion rail before the altar.  I still  attribute some of my latter respiratory problems to breathing in  the frankincense, myrrh, or whatever else  was used to overpower my lungs.

At other times, altar boys were pulled from class to tag along with the priest to canvass the parishioners.  I vividly remember when Father N___k knocked on a back door and was greeted by the lady of the house in dishabille---she was not, shall I say, dressed for visitors.  Fr. N____ k wasn't fazed at all.  He told  me to stand outside while he, presumably, took care of  her  spiritual needs.  I always gave him the benefit of the doubt, of course.

During the Easter season, the Mass missal rested on a gold portable stand. It was the altar boy's task to carry this heavy burden from one side of the altar to the other. It had to be done with utmost concentration and with acute  strain in the muscles of the arms.  On one Sunday, my classmate Leonard W___s  stood at right bells, or something like that, so it was his assignment.  Unfortunately for him, the cassock he wore was a tad too long. He stepped on its hem while  doing the exchange, tripped, and dropped the precious cargo.  He always  had had  a tendency to get red in the face, and, at that moment, his face was redder than his bright-red cassock.  The celebrant was not amused. But I laughed inside till I busted a gut. Of course, all with due reverence.

My most disconcerting memory was when I had to serve, solo, at the 6:00 morning Mass in the nuns' convent chapel.  Its small altar was at one end of a very compact room with  a few rows of pews facing it. It was a formidable experience for several reasons.  The early hour, the presence of  a few dozen nuns---the 50s, remember?---and the quiet.  So quiet that my Latin had  to sound almost flawless.  And somehow it succeeded to. Maybe  because the nuns' couldn't hear all that   well through the wimples they wore.

On one occasion, a visiting priest had the chapel Mass.  He was breezing through it until the Consecration, the most solemn and holy point when the host, the unleavened bread, becomes miraculously the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  With his back to me and the nuns, the priest bent over the altar, raised the paten with the host, brought it down,  knelt...and farted.

He repeated the rite with the chalice...and farted again.  When the Mass ended, I pretended like nothing out of the ordinary happened and left for home.

To this day, I wonder if,  at least, one of the nuns,  in the solitary confinement of her room, laughed her ass off.





Filed under: nostalgia, Religion


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  • At Our Lady of Vilna, near 23rd and Oakley, the parish was so small I was allowed to do the whole Communion thing when I was 8 so there would be enough altar boys. I had to learn the whole Mass in Latin. Did my very first mass as an altar boy in Latin.

    The very next week it was announced, no more Latin.

    To this day I have bits and pieces of it memorized in Latin.

    There was one priest who I'll say had a bit too much of the sacrificial wine at times. Since I was small, when holding up the book for him to read from, he would put it on my head, then lean hard on it to stop from swaying. Then there's serving funerals and all that incense laying around, but that's a different story.

  • In reply to Ken G:

    Ken, that was my sister's parish for a while. Maybe you remember her in-laws, the Higgenses. Her father-in-law was a judge, George Higgins Sr.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    I don't recognize that name, but my family has lived in that neighborhood since 1870, my uncle still lives on 24th and Leavitt. My parents moved out of there in 1967. My dad knew everyone in that neighborhood. I'll ask him, his memory is still pretty darn good. If the judge played softball, then he probably knows him.

  • The other question is whether the priests were as interested in the altar boys servicing their Oscar Mayers as they apparently were in the 1980s?

    Or whether Father N was taking care of only spiritual needs. I think you imply not.

    And, if one eats too much matzoh with wine, I guarantee they will fart.

  • This is a good story. Very nice. The content is is good, but it's your intentions I appreciate. An interpretation towards life, like 'a bronx tale' or 'A Christmas story'...on the other hand, Jack you just couldn't help yourself, could you.

  • In reply to 4zen:

    Especially not with the matzoh. For the reason stated, I usually eat whole wheat.

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