"We were the best little altar boys in the south Bronx. At least that is what Mother Mary Augustine told us."
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The other day I found an old picture from my grade school days. It showed our parish church packed with us kids from the school and parishioners. I had forgotten even having it and don’t have any recollection of the occasion. It did trigger a walk down memory lane though, to my years as an altar boy — back then, the term altar server was never used.
I began serving in 5th grade, which was the earliest Father Hyland would allow us to begin. The training was hard and true. We were handed cards with the Latin printed out phonetically: Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum, and underneath, Ad Day-oom qwee lay tee fee chot — yu ven tu tem may-oom (or something like that).
It was not easy to memorize, and when you got to the Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium for the end of the offertory prayers, there was always big trouble. That was because if we failed our “Latin” test, and didn’t make the proper phonetic response, we would have to write the Confiteor 10 times for extra homework. I remember wanting to watch “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” sooo bad but I couldn’t. I had to write the Confiteor.
You had to really want to be an altar boy to stick it out.
Oppressive Splendor: An Altar Boy Recalls the Pride and Mystery
But I loved it. Father Hyland was a demanding taskmaster, but we were the best little altar boys in the south Bronx. At least that is what Mother Mary Augustine told us.
I served into my first year in high school. Back then we had the regular Low Mass, celebrated by one priest and two servers, without song. Then there was the Missa Cantata, which actually was the Mass done in song. It had one priest and a master server, plus two servers called acolytes.
The Solemn High Mass was, and still is, the most beautiful presentation of the Mass. This holy offering includes three priests — the celebrant, the deacon and the sub-deacon, usually all priests. There was the master altar boy (the crème de la crème of all the other servers; that position Eddie O’Reilly and I ascended to in 8th grade). Then the corps of altar boys included two acolytes and a thurifer and boat (the incense and charcoal guys). When the occasion called for it (Christmas, Holy Week, etc) there were torchbearers and a cross bearer. Yup — there would be altar boys all over the place. A Solemn High Tridentine Mass is still something to behold.
Quiz: What is this smoky thing called?
Much was expected of us. We wore black cassocks during the week and red on Sundays and Holy Days. We also wore those hard, celluloid collars with the big red or black bows tied in front of them. I hated them, especially in the summer. And I did not like serving at funerals. There was an upside — we would get called from class to serve — but the fact is, there were many funerals and, even as a kid, I would rather have stayed in class.
Every Monday night was a Novena and Benediction at 7 p.m. and we all took turns serving at those devotions.
There was one grand perk in being an altar boy. It was when you were assigned to serve at a wedding. You always received an envelope with money — sometimes a buck, sometimes two bucks or five. One time Ronnie Murray and I got $10 each but Father Quirk made us give it back because he said it was too much. He let us have two bucks each.
We were so ticked off we said a lot of bad stuff and had to go to confession the following Saturday.
I’m really glad I found that old picture. It brought a lot of good memories from a spot hidden away… and I enjoyed having them back for awhile.
Read more: Where are the Thin Places?