“Introibo Ad Altare Dei:” An Altar Boy Remembers
Mike Foster, Metamora, Illinois:
Back in the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties, during my wild youth at Peoria’s at St. Bernard’s School and Spalding Institute, I had a few distinct talents.
One skill was spelling. I was the St. Bernard’s champion in 1960, my last year there. I had wanted to major in spelling when I arrived at Marquette University in 1964, but they didn’t offer one. Journalism and English were as close as I could get, so I took a double major in those with a minor in philosophy because I could spell “epistemology,” “existentialism,” “ontological,” and “gnostic.”
Another was my encyclopedic knowledge of pop song lyrics, which came in handy during my Spalding Institute years as “manager” of The Tempests. I had found a drummer from Canada attending Woodruff on my paper route, drove a hard bargain for five matching blue batik blazers in Carson, Pirie, & Scott’s basement, and was usually sober enough to collect the $30 or $35 that the five of them earned for a night of playing high school sock hops, post-game Catholic Youth Center, Bradley university fraternity parties in Pottstown barns, and dubious Springfield clubs. The Tempest’s pianist and singer Jim Croegaert and rhythm guitarist Paul Burson’s older brother Tom turn up later in this tale.
But my mastery of masteries, which I began at St. Bernard’s and continued through high school, was on a higher plane.
I was a kick-ass stud-muffin of an altar boy.
The Catholic Mass was recited in Latin back then. The priest faced the altar, not the congregation. Latin was forsaken for the English on March 7, 1965. By then I had retired from the acolyte’s life of the black cassock and the white surplice, the genuflections and the ascensions, the jingle-jangle bells and the frankincense smells.
I recall both the delights (checking out the tongues of St. Bernard’s girls; getting to finish up the altar wine occasionally) and the disasters (walking up the inside of your cassock while transferring the big book on its gilded stand from the epistle to the gospel side; screwing up at the 7 a.m. Mass that all the nuns attended; candle catastrophes).
We began learning the acolyte’s art in fifth grade. Back then, serving Mass was a boys-only club, something intelligent girls like my wife Jo rightfully resented. Well, neither were women drafted into the Army then.
And it was a grade-school military draft. No exemptions.
First, you had to learn the words by heart. Most of the responses were one-liners. Men of a certain age reading this who are or were Catholics can’t hear “Introibo ad altare Dei” (I shall go unto the altar of God) without mentally responding “Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” (Unto God, who gives joy to my youth).
A laminated plastic cue card of the response rubrics, literally written in red, was available on the bottom of the three stairs up to the altar, but only slackers resorted to that. Two long responses challenged the acolyte’s memory: the “Confiteor” early in the Mass and the “Suscipiat” at the offertory. But the first had a regular rhythm of names of who you were confessing to and the second was shorter, albeit more of a tongue-twister.
Speaking of tongues, taking the communion wafer was only done by the priest placing it directly on the communicant’s tongue in those days. The altar lad used a paten, a gilt brass plate on a wooden handle, to catch any sacred crumbs. Seeing some cute young classmate grade school girl’s virginal pink pistil of a protruding tongue tickled a boy’s fancy, but your parents, the nuns, really old people’s. Oy!
Occasionally a rowdy acolyte would gong a pal in the Adam’s apple with the sharp edge of the paten. That should’ve been a venial sin.
Before I joined the serving corps, lighting the candles high on the altar looked like fun. It wasn’t. If the wick had broken off, igniting the candle was nigh impossible. But it had to be done, so done it was. Steve Raney, now residing in Milwaukee, was often my partner for weekday morning Masses at St. Bernard’s. I’d ride my bike from my home at 2636 N. Prospect, just north of Glen Oak Park, to his at 1011 E. McClure, and we’d cycle over together. On the way home, sometimes we’d stop at the laundromat on the southwest corner of McClure and Wisconsin for a breakfast of popcorn and Pepsi.
Ringing the little bells was a favored chore. One ring at the beginning of the liturgy and three times each at the consecration of the bread and wine. I’d wind my arm like a rubber-band airplane and those chimes of freedom would flash jingle-jangily to wake the sleeping and the dead.
At a funeral Mass, one of us would have the duty to go up into the St. Bernard’s bell tower to toll. One pull and one ring for each year of life. I was pulling the chain for an 82-year-old. I was supposed to say an “Our Father” between each ring, but I got excited and rushed the tempo. Fr. Brennan sent another acolyte up to tell me to slow it down.
Back then, strict rules mandated fasting before taking Communion at Mass, so a server hoped that his Latin responses would cover his stomach’s grumbling. Serving Sunday Mass at the St. Francis Hospital chapel for the Franciscan nuns as well as the occasional doctor, nurse, or ambulatory patient always meant a splendid Sunday breakfast at the cafeteria courtesy of Sr. Tharsilla, the Wolfgang Puck of St. Francis.
A crew of two sufficed for ordinary Masses, but for solemn high Masses, sung instead of recited, required three or more likely lads. On special occasions, like Christmas midnight Mass at St. Francis, the sacristan, Sr. Leone, laid out scarlet cassocks and special surplices of exquisite lace.
Most altar boy careers ended after grade school, but when I started at Spalding Institute, in 1960, my righteous Latin skills were recognized.
In Fr. Patrick Sweeney’s freshman Latin 11 class, the take-home final was in two parts. Part one required translating Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from English into Latin and diagramming each sentence in Latin. The second part demanded English translation of the first chapter of the gospel of John, beginning “In principio erat Verbum” (In the beginning was the Word) which was the “Last Gospel” recited at the end of every Mass, into literal English and diagramming the sentences. Nothing I would face in any “History & Structure of the English Language” class at Marquette fazed me after that.
My sophomore Latin teacher, Fr. Leo Weiland, dragooned me into acolyte duties with him when he said the noon hour Mass. Without stepping on each other’s lines, we could get through that in just a few seconds over 11 minutes.
Once the Pere Marquette Hotel hosted a convention of bishops, and I was sent to be a server for their solo morning Masses before they began their regimen of daily meetings. That was the only time I was asked to polish off the leftover consecrated wine. I walked back to Spalding with a spring in my step inspired by the Holy Blood.
I served every variety of Mass there was, except for weddings, which had the best acolyte tips. For funerals, I was either the thurifer, the guy who shepherded the incense burner, or the boat-bearer in charge of the gold vessel that held the frankincense and a small golden spoon to apply the incense to the hot coals in burner. Once on the ride out to the cemetery, the burner tipped over, filling the Wright & Salmon long black limousine with the unliturgical scent of burning carpet. At a military funeral, the first volley of a 21-gun salute went off behind me. I nearly jumped out of my cassock.
Christmas Midnight Mass was magical.
Holy Week before Easter likewise had unforgettable pomp, from the long Gospel of Palm Sunday to Spy Wednesday (named for Judas Iscariot’s actions) through Easter Sunday’s “Hosanna! Resurrexit (He is risen).” The slow candlelit walk into the darkened chapel down the center aisles on Holy Thursday night, stopping, kneeling, rising, proceeding. “Oremus” (Let us pray)…”flectamus genua” and we all knelt…”levate” and we got up and went. A long liturgy, that one, ending with covering every statue and crucifix with purple cloths.
Good Friday featured somber silence on a dark church. One was supposed to be totally silent between noon and 3 p.m., the hours of the Crucifixion. If I was serving, no problem. If I wasn’t…well, as my dad Claude S. Foster had said years before, “That boy was vaccinated with a phonograph needle.”
My erstwhile St. Bernard’s classmate Donnie McCraith, who attended Peoria Central, and I continued serving Sunday Masses at the hospital through our high school years. Sometimes that meant I was leaning over to mumble the “Confiteor” into cupped hands scented with Saturday night’s Shalimar and breath redolent of Pabst Blue Ribbon, hoping to make a perfect act of contrition because going to confession to Fr. MacGowan was just not on.
The nuns there were mostly Germans who had fled Hitler. At funerals for a deceased sister, they sang so soulfully. All the altos were on one side of the main aisle and the sopranos on the other: “When the shades of night are falling,” they sang in their accented dirge, “Mary, mother, hear me calling…be thou with me when I die.”
Donnie, alas, died too early aged 59 in 2005.
His younger sister Cheryl McCraith Brozena, who now works as graphic designer at the University of New Mexico and lives in Alberquerque, recalls the St. Francis days:
“I cherish fond memories of Christmas midnight Mass: the chapel was dark and the first thing you heard were the nuns singing Christmas carols as they walked from the convent to the chapel, carrying candles so as they entered the sanctuary, it gradually filled with light. The last carol was “Silent Night” in German.
Mass began and as soon as the Gloria started, all the lights came on. The nativity creche (hand-carved from Germany) took over the side altar. The nuns filled the chapel with very few seats for visitors. I seem to recall reserved seats for doctors and nurses.
We went to the profession of vows Mass several times. The girls entering the convent wore bridal gowns; their veils were held in place with a crown of thorns (Mom asked Sr. Leone if she could get one of them to hang on a large cross that hung inside our front door), then changed
to a white habit. The soon-to-be novices changed from the white habit to the traditional brown habit but kept the white veil. Then those professing final vows replaced the white veil with the full habit.
They also celebrated milestone anniversaries. I think we were invited for Sr. Tharsilla’s 25th.”
“On their 25th anniversary, the nuns were given a crown of thorns painted silver. On the fiftieth, it was gold.”
James Croegaert, Evanston, Illinois:
“I really enjoyed being an altar boy at St. Mark’s in Peoria, though serving the 6:30 a.m. Mass was not my favorite thing.
However, one of my most memorable experiences as an altar boy was at that Mass, as follows: St. Mark’s had three morning masses daily in those days (itself an interesting point of comparison). They were at 6:30; 7:15; 8:00. I was serving the 6:30. We were not sure who the priest was, but when he was late, we figured that it was probably Fr. Higgins, a favorite young priest who tended to show up 6:29 or so.
However, time went on and still no one showed. We had no one to call, and even though the rectory was a short walk away, we did not feel comfortable knocking on the door there. The church had fifteen or twenty people waiting, mostly, like my dad, working people who were looking at their watches and getting increasingly restless.
Finally, at close to 7, Fr. Naab came in, preparatory to the 7:15 mass he was to celebrate. Fr. Naab, an ex-Marine, was never lacking in punctuality. He came in, quickly assessed the situation and immediately returned to the rectory. In what seemed a very short time indeed, Fr. Higgins came flying in, not completely put together from a grooming point of view, but compensating for any such shortcomings with sheer rapid movement. The vestments were on in a flash and suddenly we were on the altar.
The next few minutes were breathtaking for me, as the responses we had learned so meticulously as altar boys were interrupted a couple of words in by our erstwhile priest, who was making his way through the essential parts of the Mass like Minnie Minoso touching the bases on an inside-the-park home run. I was doing my best to keep up, realizing all bets were off as far as the usual format. When we actually began serving Holy Communion at 7:11 (according to my Longines watch, a cherished gift that had belonged to a great-uncle), I realized I was part of something memorable, and wondered whether The Guinness Book of World Records had a category for this, as I did my best to keep from being run over by Fr. Higgins as he levitated his way down the altar rail dispensing the hosts which had been rapidly consecrated just minutes earlier.
Soon we were exiting the sanctuary, Fr. Naab and his servers almost passing us as we did so, on their way in for the 7:15. Fr. Higgins exhaled, smiled and thanked us, and went back to the rectory. We took off our cassocks and surplices being as quietly as we could, as Fr. Naab wanted no noise in the sacristy when he was on the altar. As I rode my Schwinn three-speed home, I was not entirely sure what had just happened. But I thought, ‘Boy, was that fun!’ And it was. It really was.”
Tom Burson, Rochester, Minnesota:
“I started out as an altar boy at St. Mark’s in Peoria in fifth grade. Sr. Bertrandine taught me the Latin.
Brother Dave and I were scheduled for the 7:15 Mass for my first week. One day that week, I was riding to church on the handle bars of Dave’s bike and the chain
broke. Dave kicked the bike and we both ran to church arriving at the Gospel. The 6:30 altar boys were serving in our place. When I told Sr. Bertrandine, she exclaimed. “The Gospel!”
In high school I started singing for and played the organ for daily Mass. This was good practice for my rock and roll career.
Joe Burson , my dad often told about the high moment in the church liturgy for him. When he served for Holy Saturday with Father Eyreaud at St. Peters in Reserve Louisiana. Father chanted “Lumen Christi” and my dad responded “Deo Gratias”. I always loved ringing the bells for the Gloria at the Holy Saturday Mass. Father Fitz often broke up the “Gloria……..in excelsis ……….Deo.” It was very dramatic.
I served one Mass in Florida with my cousin Allen in 1956. I was surprised that we used the same liturgy.”
Tom Connor, San Carlos, Ca.:
“I began my career as an Altar Boy at St. Philomena’s Church in Peoria, Illinois. I continued to serve at Mass throughout high school and college, and even occasionally volunteered at Mass while in the Navy.
My favorite nun in grade school, Sr. Thomas, a wonderful woman from Ireland, encouraged our sixth grade class boys to learn the Latin responses we would have to be able to recite, even drilling us while we stood in line for potty breaks. She wanted all of us to succeed in this endeavor.
The priest I most enjoyed serving was Fr. Robert Reynolds. He was an enthusiastic singer. At Mass, when prayers like the Gloria were sung by the choir and congregation, he did not take his seat on the sedilla [priest & acolyte’s chair] to contemplate. No! He would stand front and center and sing — nay, lead the singing. And the altar boys would be right beside him. And if you, as an altar boy, were not singing loud enough for him to hear you, you would hear about it from him afterward. But for me, it was a joy to sing with him.
During Holy Week in seventh grade, we were in the choir loft preparing to sing at one of the Easter Masses. Sr. Crown of Thorns, the principal, was leading the practice. I was in the back row, near the large window that graced the front of the Church, singing along with a hymn about the glory of Easter, when a fire engine came down the street that led into the church parking lot. (I thought that perhaps Sr. Fires of Hell might have lit her hair on fire while again disciplining a rowdy fifth grader.) But I had only glanced, out of the corner of my eye at this distraction while continuing to sing forth. But Sr. Crown of Thorns thought otherwise, and I was banished to her office for not fully participating in the practice, and made to wait there, contemplating this gross injustice. As a result, I missed all but ten minutes of the noon recess.
Dear Sr. Thomas stopped by and consoled me. “ ‘Twould be OK,” she said. Well, my punishment was to be that I “would not be allowed to sing with the class at the Easter Mass!” said Sister Crown of Thorns. At least she didn’t condemn me straight to Hell!
Well, Sr.Thomas was right. This did have a happy ending for me. On Saturday, a fellow altar boy called to ask a big favor. He was scheduled to serve Mass on Sunday and his family was going out of town. Could I take his obligation? It turned out to be the Mass my class was singing at. Did I jump on that opportunity? Yes, yes, yes! And while my classmates were singing away in the back of the church, way, way up in the choir loft, their efforts there were much diminished by my absence, I was serving at the Altar, singing with all my heart next to Father Reynolds.”
“Both Jim Croegaert and Tom Burson are liturgical musicians. I played guitar with one or the other Sunday groups at St. Mary of Lourdes in Germantown Hills on and off from 1985 to 2014.
“These days, women are welcome on the altar. My wife Jo is a lector, Eucharistic minister, and sometimes an acolyte. Girls as well as boys are servers. I look forward to seeing the debut of my elder grand-daughter Madeleine Grace Campbell in two years or so, when her grandmother and I are 70.
I served my last Mass in 1989. During Lent that spring, I would attend weekday Mass before going in to teach at Illinois Central College. On one morning of wintry weather, I pulled in at 8:01, a minute late. There were no other cars in the parking lot, but regular attendees living nearby often walked.
However, the church was empty, and our Franciscan pastor Fr. Robert Hoffer was walking off the altar.
I coughed, and he turned and saw me.
‘Mike,’ he said. ‘I’m glad that you’re here. The rule is that we can’t say a Mass if nobody’s here. Come on up and serve.’
So I did. My Latin was obsolete, and my English mastery was not as good as my Latin had been forty years earlier, but I went unto the altar of God, and once again, God gave joy to my youth.”