The Altar Boy

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by Joe Tortorici

Our parish was Saint Sebastian Catholic Church, in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. To say it was small is an understatement. The church lacked the towering splendor of stone columns or even a steeple. It had a barn-like appearance and held, perhaps, two hundred souls including standing room.

I recall kneeling in a pew, aware of tall stained glass windows and the tortured countenance of Saint Sebastian looming above me. His eyes rolled back in agony as he was skewered by a dozen arrows, while bound to a tree. Not a drop of blood issued from his wounds, even as the sun shone through the colored glass. You have to love the Catholics for imagery. As the Latin mass droned on, the penitents would beat their breast in the hope of forgiveness, droning along in response. The Latin mass always had a medieval air to it.

I attended early grade school at Saint Sebastian’s. The school was staffed by a small religious order of nuns: “Our Ladies of Perpetual Agony.” Or something like that. They wore peaked “habits” and long black frocks tied together with sashes and giant rosary beads. The only flesh you could see was their hands and a face squeezed through stiff white celluloid frames. Most of them were pleasant and loving toward the children in their care. I fondly remember the petite and jovial Sister Theresa. Of course, there were exceptions.

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The fourth grade was taught by Sister Mary Carl. She was a big Irish girl with permanently flushed cheeks and a booming voice. Fire and brimstone were her specialty. “Woe be unto you!” when she pinched your shoulder with vice-grip fingers. Mary Carl would swagger around the playground enforcing the separation of genders while refereeing fair play among the boys.

Her “alpha” presence was set in balance by the matriarch of the rectory, Sister Aetna. A lass in her day, Sister Aetna still spoke with a brogue. She was now several hundred years old and barely five feet tall, ever stern, but always pious in word and deed. When Sister Mary Carl would become a bit too obnoxious, Sister Aetna would plant her feet, point a bony finger at Mary Carl’s nose and very quietly tell her to chill, or so we hoped. Whatever was said, it worked. Mary Carl would always defer. The Irish held great sway at Saint Sebastian’s and though I was an “ethnic,” Sister Aetna liked me. I got my chance to become an altar boy.

The training was a simple set of tasks wherein you followed the lead of the priest. The most difficult part was learning Latin. At first, it was all phonetic pronunciations. Actually understanding the language was the final hurdle. Then came your first solo! Weekday mornings celebrated a 6:30 a.m. mass. Newbies got the early call. It was meant to be easy. Our small church was mostly empty Monday through Friday morning. The only attendants were a handful of nuns and a few elderly regulars. Errors would be tolerated and, at that hour, the general public was sleepily unaware.

The caveat being this service was always celebrated by our pastor, the aged Father James F. Cloonan. Father Cloonan did not make eye-contact with anyone, ever. His face was gathered into a knot just above and between his eyes, creating a permanent squinty scowl. Speaking about anything other than money was beneath him. Father Cloonan’s homily was always a nasally exhortation for supporting the church… HIS church. Dad called him “Cash-box Cloonan.”

On this glorious day my father drove me to church, intent on seeing his son bask in the grace of the Lord. I arrived at the sacristy (ready-room) early and searched through the closet for my red cassock and surplice. No altar boy was ever so careful in his garb. It was a big morning.

Father Cloonan arrived without a word… there was no greeting or acknowledgement of my presence. My first impression was his early morning aroma. Not until adulthood did I identify the smell. Vonnegut once characterized his personal musk as “mustard gas and roses.” Father Cloonan ambled around the room to prepare himself.

The sacramental wine was kept in a large bottle under the counter. It wasn’t what I knew as wine from my Italian culture. This was a deep yellow color. Father Cloonan produced two glasses, he filled one with water and the other with wine. Wait a minute! This was a part of my set-up duties. Two small glass cruets needed to be filled with water and wine and set upon the altar. I gazed in wonder as Father Cloonan chugged down two fingers of wine followed by a swig of water. He chewed three or four communion wafers. This caused him to smack his tongue as though he put a cotton ball in his mouth. That called for another belt of wine followed by more water. This cycle went on for several more rounds. The only interruption was an unintelligible grunting sound after each belt of wine. He belched once, and was ready to go.

My other pre-service tasks included making sure the proper candles were lit, the missal turned to the correct page, and the service bells in place. The service bells were an ornate contraption made of four different sized brass bells joined by a common handle.  Instead of one clapper per bell, there were three small clappers in each one. This gave the bells a soft jingle that, when moved gently, created an angelic sound. At the given moment, I would lightly shake the bells and feel the embrace of all that was holy. The sounding bells also marked the home stretch of the service time-line.

The mass proceeded as Father Cloonan shuffled about the altar. He looked unsteady. Uh oh. He missed the challis while pouring the wine… by a few inches. He momentarily stared at the puddle of wine then moved the challis to cover it. What was going on?

A part of the classical Latin mass was a chant of liturgical phrases and prayers.

“Dominus vobiscum” The Lord be with you.

“Et cum spiritu tuo” And with your spirit.

Pater noster, qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum” Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.

These were also verbal cues for me to perform certain tasks. But something was wrong.

“Omnis viscum” Huh?

“Eh cus tritu” Wait! What? 

Father Cloonan was facing the altar with prayerful hands, eyes closed, slurring unintelligibly into the open missal. From my kneeling position behind him, I couldn’t even read his lips. Oh shit! The cue for the bells was approaching.

“Potster in chelsis sanction tum”  

Oh God!! Please, let him get the ending right. I need to know where I am!

Father Cloonan then raised his head and, in full voice, belted out to the visage of Christ on the cross…

“MEA CULPA, MEA CULPA, MEA MAXIMA CULPA!” Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.

This was the ultimate exorcism of Catholic pennance, apparently his favorite part. Thank you, old man… here come the bells. With the most delicate shake of the wrist, I sounded the chimes three times, then gently placed them down. The finish line was near!

I rose, missed the marble step and felt myself about to fall. Throwing my leg forward, I regained my balance but caught the bells squarely with a forceful kick. They flew into the sacristy door and broke into parts, each bouncing several times on the marble floor before coming to rest. It was as if Quasimodo himself was banging on the brass with a large hammer. The noise was indescribably piercing. In the vacant church, it reverberated for what seemed like an hour. Then, silence… I froze.

Through his thinning grey hair I could see the priest’s scalp flush. Father Cloonan didn’t move, except for his head. It was otherworldly, almost demonic, how his face turned toward me without any hint of movement from his torso. One eye, only one, opened wide and stared a hole into my retina. My ears were on fire. I could hear someone in the back trying to control a laugh. It had to be Satan. I struggled to keep my urine in check.

I kept my head down and finished the service without further incident, on the verge of tears. Father Cloonan staggered from the altar while a downtrodden altar boy attended to the clean-up and extinguished the candles. For each candle snuffed out, my short life passed before me. I was forlorn and frightened as I walked off the altar and into the sacristy. Father Cloonan was gone. I hung my vestments and headed out the door, knowing I would never return.

There was my father, grinning broadly. He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close as we walked to the car.

“Let’s get pancakes.”

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