On Being an Altar Boy

Where oh where is the incense pot?
Out in the hallway too damn hot.


D Vautier

There were few things young impressionable catholic boys could do back in the early 1950s other than get in trouble but among the more interesting activities was to become an altar boy.  I'm not sure why I decided to became an altar boy other than that it seemed like a good thing to do and sounded like fun and it was something to do other than getting in trouble.

In 1950 I started going to Perpetual Help School located in Everett, Washington (pronounced “Petuel” in the local vernacular).  I first went to school at the Immaculate Conception School (also pronounced "Maculet") for my first and second grades with my sister.  The school was only a few short blocks away from home which was quite convenient but mom got mad at the pastor or something and decided to sent me to the "better" school over on Riverside.  I don't think it was all that much better because I got into a fight the first day at school and got bawled out by the nuns.

Anyway you had to be at least in the 5th grade to sign up for altar boy and I had to wait two years.


So on the first day of my 5th grade I took a great big huge step and signed up to be an altar boy and got my little white instruction card which I considered a badge or honor.  The white card had a bunch of strange unpronounceable words that we were expected to memorize, which rarely happened for most of the kids since they could just mumble their way through, but it was easy for me to memorize.  And we also had to learn how to hold the cruets, how to transfer the book and a bunch of other stuff such as ringing bells and genuflecting.  So serving consisted of two parts, words and actions and it was easy to memorize all the mumbo jumbo words but very hard for me to remember what I was supposed to do or where to go at certain times during Mass.  The whole thing was just plain confusing.  The most important rule for me was to always serve with another kid who knew the actions because I knew the words and we could work as a team and get the job done.  The number one altar boy got to ring the bells and pour the wine and do the neat stuff but that was OK with me because I liked the number two spot anyway. That was my secret to successful altarboying.   

Even to this very day I still do not know which side of the altar I was supposed to be on or at what time I was supposed to change the book.  But I still knew my laetificats and suscipiats.  You bet.  When the other alter boy showed up I was greatly relieved and would gladly be second altar boy because all I had to do was go to the opposite side and follow the other kid around and everything worked out fine.

So life was good as an alter boy as long as I had another kid who knew the actions.  However since I was young I often got scheduled for the early 6:30 Mass.  I had to get up at 5:30 and ride my old bike the two miles or so to school and it was cold some days.  Mom was hard on me to be on time and not make the priest wait but she would give me 50 cents so I could get a plate of hotcakes after Mass—I loved hotcakes.

Students were expected to attend 8:30 mass before school started at 9:15 each day.  The girls were on the left side of church and the boys were on the right.  Each class had their own pews.  First grade was at the front of course and ninth grade got to sit in the back and mostly goofed off.  On the inside of each row was the nun who taught your class.  Most of the classes had nuns teaching and it was not until later that lay people started teaching.  The nun kept the class in order and prevented slouching down in the pew and whispering and the nun usually sat on the boys side because the girls generally were better behaved.  First and second graders always fidgeted around.  We got a lay teacher when I was in 7th grade.  All the boys suddenly wanted to deliver stuff to her desk while she was sitting down.  She usually wore a low cut blouse.    

Only the older altar boys got to serve the 8:30 Mass in which case your every action was on display in front of the entire student body.  That was OK with me anyway because I was afraid of making a huge mistake in front of my own class and the entire school—like ringing the bells or moving the book at the wrong time.  It would be a catastrophe so I mostly did the 6:30.


All the kids were supposed to attend Mass before class and their parents were asked to encouraged it, but many of the kids would take their time on the way to school.  The ninth graders were very tardy coming to Mass usually arriving sometime after communion.  Often they gathered down by the coffee shop and our assistant pastor Fr. Buck used to go down there and chase them into Mass.  If I had served 6:30 I could sit by and watch with a big smirk on my face because I didn't have to go.

Fr. Buck was a kind and generous man but he also liked order.  He said the 6:30 Mass and as luck would have it I wound up as the only server on several occasions and each time I managed to botch something up big time, like ringing the bells at the wrong time or forgetting to transfer the book.  Once when he whispered the words of consecration Hoc est corpus meum, I thought he was trying to tell me something so I whispered back "What did you say Father?  What was that?"  Not cool.

After mass it was the custom for the altar boys to receive a blessing from the priest.  On this occasion the priest could take the opportunity to talk to the kids about things and also make comments on their performance.  When Fr. Buck gave me a blessing he would then grab my ears and say "Vautier, when are you ever going to learn your actions?"  I still haven't.

There are many other stories I recall as an altar boy, especially during the Holy days and lent when we got to light the incense pot, or carry the cross, or sing or procession and turn the wrong way.  I think some of my fonder memories were during that fragile and enjoyable time in my life when I was an altar boy.