We arrive at “the age of reason” at the ripe old age of 7, if I recall correctly what I was taught years ago. It was decided by the church that a person of that vintage was experienced and seasoned sufficiently to know right from wrong, and with that marker came certain privileges. When I hit the magic number, I was selected by my teacher, a nun and a member of the order of the Sisters of Divine Providence, to become an altar boy, and so a thorough indoctrination into the Latin rite of mass in the Roman Catholic Church began. These women were really formidable looking, especially to a seven year old boy. Their pinched faces were encased in stiff, starched, white headgear that covered their foreheads, hair and ears. Their necks and throats were also covered with a stiff, white collar that extended out over their chests for perhaps a foot. This was all covered by layers of black cloth draped over their heads dropping to their black leather shoes. The headgear was visible, and the white collar was worn on top of the layers. This was all cinched at the waist with a very large rosary with all twenty decades. After circling the waist, it dropped to the shoe level weighted by a large crucifix. We were drilled by these teachers over and over to learn the Latin responses until we could recite them in our sleep.
And so began the adventures of a young boy and his partner in crime, Sonny Dofka, in the competition between two servers at the same mass and also between the teams of four who assisted at Benediction with May Devotions. All this took place in the old Saint Michael’s Church, a tall wooden structure located on Edgington Lane.
It all began innocently enough. There was a communion cloth in two sections that ran the length of the communion rail, which was the width of the church. This rail separated the sanctuary from the pews of the faithful. Prior to the priest giving communion to the faithful, the two altar boys would walk to the center of the rail, turn and each would walk to the opposite end, turn and bow to the other, then walk to the center turning their halves of the cloth from inside the rail to the outside. The competition developed when we discovered one could grab the very end by the bottom corner and snap-roll the entire cloth over the rail in one quick, deft motion. Of course, it didn’t fly the entire length every time, but when it did , it was really neat and you were a winner.
The most spectacular competition was to see which serving team could generate the most smoke from the censer during benediction. Before we went out on the altar the censer bearer would light the four corners of a square inch of charcoal and leave it, returning to the sacristy to retrieve for the sanctification ritual.
One evening Sonny was the censer-bearer, and I was to carry the small brass, boat-like container with a hinged lid. It contained the incense and a tiny spoon the priest employed to put small amounts of incense on the burning charcoal in the censer. We all huddled while this preparation was being performed. The priest would then return to a kneeling position on the lowest step of the altar where he would hold the censer by the long chains, gently swinging it, producing gentle clouds of smoke, sanctifying the altar.
This evening Sonny was determined to be declared the winner for producing the most smoke. He instructed me that as soon as he returned to the altar with the censer, I was to pour all the incense onto the charcoal. After he disappeared into the sacristy, I heard this moaning sound that one might hear from a ghost. I learned later that Sonny had loaded the censer to capacity with lighted charcoal and had stepped outdoors to swing the censer at the end of the chains in an arc around his head to maximize the burning of the charcoal. When he reappeared on the altar that censer was pulsating and glowing with heat. As soon as we knelt, he opened the censer, and I poured the contents of the incense “boat” over the raging hot coals. Immediately huge billows of smoke engulfed the altar, and it was so thick that no one could see anything. The priest told Sonny to ”get that out of here!” Somehow, in the ensuing confusion, the censer hit a kneeler and red hot charcoal went everywhere. This was catastrophic! The sanctuary floor just had been covered with wall to wall carpeting, no small expense during the depression years. Nuns, laypersons, the priest, and the altar boys were stomping around the sanctuary trying to put out the live coals.
Nothing was ever said about the event by anyone. I have a hunch that the parents of the serving team had the carpeting replaced. We never claimed to be the winner for causing the most smoke by a serving team.
Even though we had the Latin responses pounded into us by the good and loving nuns, the years, for the most part, have washed them away. One Latin phrase is indelibly imprinted in my memory, and that is “Ora pro Nobis.” And here is why.
We were lined up in the sacristy, some eighty years ago, and we four servers were waiting to go on — our debut — our first May Devotion Benediction. We were very nervous. Father Schmidt, a close friend of my father’s, was the celebrant. He walked over to me and asked “Billy, what is the response for the Litany of The Saints?” I froze. The bottom dropped out of my memory. I was in panic mode, very close to tears.
Father Schmidt put a gentle hand on my shoulder, looking down at me said “It’s Ora Pro Nobis” and it’s easy to remember, it sounds like “Oh Rub Your Noses,” as he rubbed his forefinger under his nose.
We proceeded on to the altar and had Benediction. When we came to the Litany of the Saints and Father intoned “Sancta Maria,” he turned his head towards me, I was kneeling behind him to his right, and he ran his finger under his nose, and we all sang “Oh, Rub Your Noses.” Of course we were all facing the altar with our backs to the congregation. My mother, who was there that evening, said she noticed nothing different about the service.
My interest in being an altar boy waned when Sonny volunteered us to serve the early weekday mass which was at seven o’clock. When I asked him later “What on earth was he thinking?” He told me we could get the good apples from a tree in the back yard of the priest’s residence, right off the sacristy door, before their housekeeper got them. Sonny was always ahead of me.