Being an Altar Boy in the Catholic church was a pretty “big deal” back when I was growing up in New York. Is was considered a solemn duty of young boys to serve in this role and good Catholic parents strongly urged their boys to become Altar Boys. It was no easy duty and required a good amount of training. Duties, included Altar preparation, candle lighting, handling of incense and preparing water and wine for communion service. There were many others, but my purpose here is not a lesson on Altar Boys, but what I consider a fond and funny memory of an Altar Boy “malfunction”.
If you have been following this blog at all, you know that my brother and I spent our younger years attending St. Bernards Church on 14th street in New York City. I also spent three years attending St. Bernards Catholic School. Since being an Altar Boy was considered special, and it would also give your parents bragging rights, (Lord knows I needed all the help I could get), I thought I would give it a try. I didn’t last long. The training was tough and much of it took place during the summer months when Rob and I would be enjoying Lake Hopatcong. One also had to learn many Latin words and phrases as proper responses to the Priest (this was just before the Latin Mass was changed to English), and I had problems enough with English, so this was not going to work out in the long-term. I know mom would have been happy to see her angelic son in front of the Church every week, solemnly serving with the Priest, but that was put on hold. That Black Cassock (under garment) and crisp white Surplice (outer garment) would have been her perfect Sunday, and perhaps everyday, attire for her son, but again, it just didn’t happen.
I had, however, friends who were more disciplined and devoted than I who were Altar Boys. They memorized the Latin and knew how to fold their hands and kneel properly at the right time….they were the “whole package”.
One such friend we will call “Billy F”, and it is with him that we will pick-up the story. Billy F was a good Irish kid from the neighborhood and he and I (the good Italian kid) became fairly good friends. This was during what would today be called the middle-school years. It was the exception rather than the rule that an Irish kid and Italian kid became friends, as for the most part both groups spent an inordinate amount of time calling each other vile names and beating each other up. But somehow, Billy and I made it work.
Most of the kids who went to St. Bernards school would attend the 9 am. mass. Those who were Altar Boys would serve during this mass and then in three or four services that followed. Before the 9:00 am. mass, I was in the sacristy with Billy F where the Priest prepares for a service. Vestments and other items used in the mass are kept there. Altar Boys would also prepare there and make sure their vestments were put on properly and everything was in order. I was with Billy as he got ready to begin the ritual. As an “almost Altar Boy” I had relatively easy access. Billy and I were basically clowning around before the serious business began. One of the items kept in the Sacristy was the wine that would be used and Blessed during the very meaningful Communion service. Well, as part of our clowning, Billy decided he would “show off ” for me a bit by indulging in some of the Communion wine. Remember, we were of middle school age, I laughed and laughed as Billy guzzles mouthful after mouthful of the alcoholic beverage. “Here’s to the Priest of St. Bernards!” Billy toasted as he took a guzzle. My laughter was a mixture of excitement, fear and apprehension. I dared not join him. I was too much afraid of Hell-fire. “Here’s to all the 8th grade girls!” another mouthful. More giggles and laughter from me. “Billy is so crazy; I thought, but almost in an envious kind of way. This went on for a few more moments until the time for the Priest to arrive neared. I took my leave, still shaking my head and holding back laughter as Billy started to put on his garments. I made my way dutifully back to the designated row in the church for the boys of St. Bernards to sit. I settled in and waited for the familiar bell to ring which would signify the start of the mass with the entrance of Billy, the other Altar Boy and the Priest. At Precisely 9:00 am the bell rang, the congregation arose and those serving entered from a door to the rear of the Altar. The Priest entered first, head bowed in prayer. He passed the Chalice that housed the wafers that would be blessed for Holy Communion. The Priest was followed by the two Altar Boys. Hands folded and heads bowed, they followed the path of the Priest. Except, Billy’s head was not bowed, He was looking straight out at the congregation with one of the stupidest grins on his face I have ever seen. My heart almost stopped. When the Altar Boys passed the front of the Altar they were to stop and kneel as the Priest had done. Billy didn’t; he just kept casually walking and grinning like a fool to the place on the right of the Altar where the Altar Boys sat. I don’t think I took a breath in over a minute. I grasped, rather quickly that my friend and fellow desecrater of all that was sacred, was totally looped. The first Altar Boy I had ever seen drink as he prepared to serve mass. I broke into a cold sweat as I glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed. Sister E, who sat across from us in the girls section had a strange look on her face. Something between a scowl and amazement. It got worse. The stupid grin never left Billy’s face. Then came the big moment when the Altar Boys would assist the Priest in symbolically washing his hands before serving communion. One Alter Boy held a small basin while the other would pour a small amount of water from a small container (Cruet) over the Priests fingers and hands. Please don’t let Billy be the one pouring? Please don’t let Billy be the one pouring! I silently prayed. Alas, it was Billy doing the pouring. And…a fine job of pouring he did, other than the fail that he never stopped pouring. Water filled the basin and then began to overflow onto the carpeted floor of the Altar. The Priest, lets call him Father S, was wide-eyed, giving Billy a classic “My God Son! Have you lost your mind!” look. Only when the other Altar Boy gave Billy a pretty good elbow to the side did Billy realize he had poured enough. The stupid grin remained. Sister E looked as though she would pass out right then and there. Snickers started to ripple through the Congregation, especially the students of St. Bernards school. Somehow, Father S made it through Communion and his homily without bashing Billy’s head in with an Altar Crucifix. However, the piece de resistance did not happen until mass was just about over and it was time for closing benediction. Depending on the mass, this was a time that the Priest would lead the Altar Boys around the church, blessing the Congregation. The Altar Boys would carry a Thurible (a piece that would hold burning incense . It was on the end of a strong rope and was to be swung in just the right manner to cause the smoke of the incense to drift beautifully toward the top of the church. Billy’s performance would have made a champion calf roper proud. The Thurible swung left, it swung right, causing incense to fall out onto the floor. Smoke went everywhere. Father S practically ran around the church to end the Benediction as quickly as possible. Sister E was probably on life support by now. I was looking for a place to hide, knowing that somehow I would be implicated in this disaster. Billy never stopped grinning.
I really don’t remember much after this. I know Billy’s career as an Altar Boy did not go much further. Father S was heard weeks later muttering curses in Italian and Latin about the Altar Boy that almost burned down the church. Sister E recovered but hated 7-8th grade boys. I escaped unscathed. No one ever found out I was with Billy during his pre-mass antics. Except for Billy, and Billy, if you ever read this, know that your performance was epic. So epic that I just recounted it, over 55 years after it happened.