When I was in grade school at Holy Name Elementary School on 1st Street, I was an altar boy. My brother was two years older than me, and chose a musical path and became a choir boy. You see, for the most part, if you were a little Catholic hunky boy in Duquesne, you were either an altar boy or a choir boy. It was our cultural duty!
I recall how excited I was when I found out I was to serve at my first Christmas Eve Midnight Mass during my very first year as an altar boy. Not only was I able to serve, but I got to carry one of those ja-gun-da sized candles down the aisle when it was lit! Then to top it off, I was also going to wear my regular cassock and white surplus AND the added accessory of a big ol’ buster brown collar and huge red bow! I WAS STYLIN”!!!
My first Midnight Mass turned out to be memorable for reasons beyond the candle, collar and bow however. Let me elaborate….
For those of you who have been following my blog so far, you are familiar with the traditional Velija that we attended each Christmas Eve. Well, the velija went on as usual for the Christmas Eve of my first Midnight Mass. My aunts and uncles were all fussing at me about my upcoming midnight soiree at Holy Name Church. I of course, was drinking it all in. Stardom suited me that night!
I recall that it seemed that the food tasted even better that evening. Although I enjoyed every part of the event, I couldn’t wait to get home and being getting ready for the BIG EVENT. My brother was rather apathetic about the whole situation. Being two years older than me, he had sung in the choir for the last two Midnight Masses, so it was not a big deal to him. Nonetheless, his lack of interest didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. Before I knew it,10:30 p.m. had rolled around and we were out the door and on our way to my debut!
When we arrived at the church, there seem to be a sea of altar and choir boys gathering in the vestibule. We all looked like Mini-Me seminarians. Sister Delores whisked the choir boys up to the choir loft to begin the Christmas carol serenade for the gathering parishioners. I remember Sister Emily and Sister Mary Daniel getting us all lined up for our big entrance. The excitement was overwhelming. The good sisters instructed us once again on how we were to proceed to the altar and where we were to go once we had arrived there.
I had the honor of being part of the first candle carrying pair that began the procession. How cool was that! Very soon, Paul Caston, our organist began the processional music and the choirs began their cantata!! The volume pumped up and the voices soared. With my little heart beating a mile a minute, I made my way down the aisle alongside my partner. As I walked down the aisle, my relatives who attended our church had positioned themselves at the end of the pews along the aisle. I remember seeing my Aunt Mary, Aunt Rose and of course, Mom and Dad all smiling as I made my path to the altar. It was so exciting.
I arrived safely at the altar and turned to the right just inside the communion rail as I had practiced and had been instructed. Along the communion rail were little brown wooded stools for us to sit on during mass. There were about five seats on each side of the altar for us to use. I don’t recall what happened to the candles we were carrying once we had arrived at the altar, but I do remember having them during the recessional at the end of the mass.
Although I had attended Midnight Mass with my parents before, I was usually too sleepy to recall how incredibly LONG the whole event was. It seemed to take forever for the mass to get started. The choir and choir boys had marched down the aisle behind us and when they finally made their way up to the loft, they began the litany of saints. Do you know how many saints there ARE!!! The adult choir had the task of chanting each saint’s name and the choir boy’s job was to respond with “Ora pro nobis.”
The litany seemed to go on forever. I remember that in later years, we would add names to the litany in our minds such as “Sister Mary Elephant” … “Ora pro nobis.”, “Sister Mary Holy Water” … “Ora pro nobis”, and so on. Sacrilegious by the standards in those days, but a heck of a lot of fun.
As the mass progressed that evening, things took a turn for the worse for me. I began to feel a little queasy. It seemed as if was getting awfully warm. The church was packed with parishioners, the altar candles and hundreds of little votive candles in front of each religious statue were burning, the incense was smoking. The wonderful food that I had at the velija all of the sudden seemed to be speaking to me.
You know that point when you realize that you are about to get sick and, well, heave?? I felt it fast approaching. I am sure I was as white as my starched Buster Brown collar at one point. As you as I was, I had the foresight to quickly look around to see where I could go when the inevitable happened. Imagine my relief when I saw the two containers that were tucked away out of sight near each side altar. I guess they had similar situations occur during previous events so they took precautions. BLESS THEM!! Needless to say, the big event finally happened and I rushed off to the side altar to make a deposit in the well positioned containers. Fortunately, with so much activity at the altar, my situation was pretty much a non-issue and unobserved. Of course, Mom saw, but that was expected.
I returned to my little wooden stool and resumed by devote gaze at the concelebrated mass. Aside from that one little hitch, all went well until collection time rolled around. The ushers descended on the attendees and began their collection duties. The baskets were thrust before each person in the pews who dutifully deposited their Christmas donation. There were collection envelops, cash and coins all being dropped into the baskets. This Midnight Mass collection historically was the largest collection each year. Once each usher finished their assigned section, the INTENDED purpose of those well hidden containers at the side altars became abundantly clear. Before I knew it, the containers were pulled forward and basket after basket of donations were dropped into the containers. Yes…THOSE containers!! How was I to know….? I was a kid!! I never did live that one down, and Father Shaughnessy always managed to fit it into any conversation that mentioned my name or midnight mass. Sister Mary Elephant…. Where were you when I needed you!