My Town: Kid Catholic

May Devotions were held at 7:30 in the evening and were charming.  The grade school kids would bring flowers they had picked and file up the side aisle to place them before the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  There was a short sermon five to ten minutes.  I remember Father Gary telling lovely little stories of the intersession and the power of Mary.  “After all, she is Gods mother and what boy can refuse his mother a favor?”

Benediction would follow: the little service would last only twenty or thirty minutes and although not a requirement, it was well attended.  Our collective paranoia knew the good nuns kept track in their heads and absences would adversely affect our grades on the subject of religion.

We hung out a lot on the back steps of Riley’s house.  They shared a wide driveway with Dr. Craycraft next door and there was a basketball hoop and bank-board mounted on the garage.  It was a great spot for half court basketball and games of “horse.”

We were sitting on the steps one evening waiting to go to May Devotions when we saw Arch running up the alley behind the garages with an armful of lilacs.  We yelled, “What’s your hurry, it’s only a quarter to seven?” Arch yelled over his shoulder “I stole them!”

Our Pastor, Father Larkin was from Ireland.  His world was made up of “Cawthlicks” and “Prawtesttents”    Jews were mentioned only in conjunction with the Old Testament.  He walked into the gym one Saturday afternoon in the winter where we had a pick-up basketball game.  Father Larkin called me over and asked me if all the boys were “Cawthlicks”.  I looked and said no, there were a number of boys who were not.

He stated that we could finish our afternoon but from then on only Catholics were permitted to play in the parish gym.  These were pick-up games and we usually played to twenty, then pick up sides again, trying to even it out.  The last game ended up the Catholics against the Protestants and was the dirtiest game I ever played.  It was also the last time we played in the gym.

Dear Father Schmidt, his assistant was from Alsace on the Rhine.  Conversation with him suffered because of his poor grasp of the English language.  The word circulated swiftly when he was “hearing” confession and we all rushed to church to go to confession.  Since he couldn’t understand much of what was said, one always received a penance of three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers regardless of what heinous crimes were told.  We compared penances afterwards at Colonel’s Drug Store on the Lane.

We were old enough to be servers at mass and benediction, during this period, all the services were in Latin.  We were divided into teams of four to serve Benediction.  There was great competition among the teams to see which team could get the most smoke from the censer during the service.

The censer is a small, ornate brass bowl suspended from three chains approximately three feet in length topped by a disk used as a handle.  There was a fourth chain with one end connected to the brass, lace-like top on the censer, and the other end went through the brass disk connecting to a ring.  This allowed the top of the censer to be raised and lowered in order to load-in the charcoal and incense.

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I was on a team with Sonny Dofka, our censer-bearer.  One May evening, in the sacristy before benediction, he whispered to me, the incense-bearer, to really load the incense on the hot charcoal as soon as he brought the censer onto the altar during the service.

Normally, the censer-bearer would light a piece of charcoal about one inch square with a match before the service and then would leave the altar to bring the censer with the glowing bit of charcoal at the appointed time.  We would then huddle with the priest as he put a small spoon-full of incense on the lighted coal in a ceremonial procedure prior to his swinging the smoke-emitting censer in a sanctification protocol before the Blessed Sacrament.

That evening, after Sonny left to get the censer, I heard this low undulating sound one might imagine a ghost would make.  Sonny had loaded as much charcoal into the censer as it would hold and was outside on the sidewalk holding the end of the three foot chains and swinging the censer in circles over his head to bring the charcoal to the hottest heat possible.  When he brought the censer out on the altar, it was glowing!  We poured the incense out of the small, brass, boat-shaped container onto the pile of glowing coals and had an immediate smokescreen!  My mother was in the congregation later reported it was difficult to see anyone on the altar.  We, on the altar, were all coughing and our eyes were watering.  Somehow the censer hit a kneeler and hot coals flew out onto the new carpet.  This was a major disaster in the making, because it was during the depression and new carpeting was a major capital outlay.  This brought a rush of sisters and others to stomp our the hot ashes.  Benediction abruptly ended!  There was no question; our team had won the competition for producing the most incense smoke.

One evening we were lined up in the sacristy waiting to file out to the altar for benediction, when Father Schmidt, the celebrant, asked me, “Billy, what is the response to The Litnay of the Saints?”  I stood there with my hands folded, palms together looking up to him in white terror as my mind went blank.  The Latin response “Ora pro nobis” which we had so carefully practiced over and over had simply dropped from my memory.  He smiled at me and winked and said “ It is easy to remember”, as he rubbed his forefinger under his nose and said “ Oh, rub your noses.”

During Benediction that  evening, Father Schmidt intoned the Litany of the Saints……”Beata Maria, sempter virginum”  He looked over his right shoulder at me behind him rubbing his finger under his nose and we all chanted with gusto “Oh rub your noses”.   We  faced the alter then with our backs to the congregation who didn’t notice the slight variation.

Sonny and I volunteered to serve the 6:30AM mass in the fall.  We got extra points for that and  the pick of the apples from the tree behind the priests’ house  before their housekeeper got them.

The smell of incense, bee’s wax candles, the ironed and starched vestments, altar and communion cloths and the polished, shiny and immaculately clean everything come rushing back when I smell the fragrance of the lilacs in the spring.  I remember fondly the love and discipline that those dedicated nuns and priests lavished on us. And they had the complete support of my parents. Once when I had been whacked with a ruler for something I had not done, I rushed home after school to complain to my mother whose response to my complaint was “That’s for the time you didn’t get caught!”

It seems, looking back to that depression era, we were short of material goods but very long in love.