Sep 9, 2007

Memoirs of an Altar Boy



St. John the Evangelist Church was a remarkable building, as I was to learn during my many-year tenure as a congregant, altar boy, and choir member. It was built at the turn of the twentieth century, when Schenectady was a growing industrial hub centered on the American Locomotive Company and the recently-founded General Electric Company’s main plant. The period was one of rapid growth driven by these flourishing industries. A flood of immigrant laborers and skilled artisans, mostly of European origin, supported the growth.

As with most cities of the day, people arriving in the city felt most comfortable with “their own kind.” So it was that Schenectady grew up as a collection of ethnocentric areas – “Goose Hill” was primarily Italian-American, Mont Pleasant become a center of Polish-American culture, and so on. Each ethnic group tried to prove its success by its surroundings. Homes were carefully maintained and yards were neatly groomed. And then there were the churches. In the 1950’s, I recall my Grandmother referring to the city’s churches as the “Polish Church” or the “Italian Church” or the “French Church.” We knew, of course, that she meant St. Adalbert’s or St. Anthony’s or Holy Cross.

Each ethnic group tried to outbuild the next in the lavishness and size of their house of worship. The Catholic Church of St. John the Evangelist was no exception, built on the corner of Nott Terrace and Union Street, across the street from Union College’s Payne Gate (named for John Howard Payne, an 1810 graduate of the college and author of “There’s No Place Like Home”). In 1892, the land was purchased for $18,000.00 after considerable negotiations, since nearby property owners were prejudiced against having a church for a neighbor. It was a prominent and prestigious location indeed. And the magnificent church that survives stands as mute testimony to the success, prominence, and devotion of the Irish-Americans who settled that part of the city.

Excavation was started shortly after the land was acquired but the soil proved unstable. Engineers determined a way to sink friction pilings deep into the sandy soil to form a stable platform for what would be a very large structure. Finally, the church’s cornerstone was laid on July 8th, 1900, after the parish accepted the plans drawn by architect Edward Loth, of Troy, New York, who designed several other impressive churches in the area. The first service was held on St. Valentine’s day, 1904.

The building has a main floor more than 120 feet square, can seat more than 1,700 worshippers, and rises an impressive 220 feet, topped by a 14-foot cross, of gilded galvanized iron. One of the more memorable features of this huge edifice is its red color. It was built using Medina sandstone brought down the Erie Canal by barge from western New York. In contrast, the interior is stark white, from the imposing Carrera marble altar and statuary to the sculpted plaster walls. In the daytime light floods in through tall “greenhouse” windows that are just below the central steeple.

The beautiful stained and painted windows were imported from the Royal Bavarian Art Institute in Munich (the architect, Mr. Loth, had studied in Germany and was familiar with sources of fine imported German stained glass). The Hutchings-Votey firm of Boston was chosen to build and install an impressive pipe organ of 51 stops and over 3,000 pipes. It cost $15,000, a handsome sum indeed when it was completed in 1904. An interesting fact about this beautiful electro-pneumatic organ is that it includes the first known use of a reed saxophone stop in a pipe organ. The Irish Catholics of Schenectady had much to be proud of.

The church had always had an Irish pastor and Monsignor Finn was no exception. He became the pastor in 1945 upon the death of his immediate predecessor, the Right Reverend Monsignor John L. Reilly, who had served the parish since its founding in 1904.

Now that I can see him from the perspective of an adult, I realize that Monsignor Finn was a small man. But when I was a small, newly qualified altar boy he was a giant and intimidating to a nine-year-old. He always seemed grumpy and in a hurry. He was a man of few words.

As a new altar boy, in the winter of 1949, I was assigned to serve the earliest mass – at 6:30 A.M. That was the one that Monsignor John J. Finn said every day (back then, a priest “said the mass;” nowadays, he “celebrates the mass.”). At two minutes before the scheduled start of the service the Monsignor would come flailing into the vestry of the church, sweeping off his red-lined woolen cape as the snowflakes drifted around him. One of us (there were always two altar boys at each morning mass) would catch it as he flung it aside. He would simultaneously kick off his rubber galoshes and begin putting on his vestments, which we altar servers had carefully laid out in a certain order – the alb, amice, cincture, chasuble, and all the rest. With a single motion he would don the vestments, pick up his chalice and paten, and head through the door that led to the altar, with or without us. He was about his business, and just as he emerged on the altar steps we would hear the distant tolling of the Westminster chimes in one of the corner steeples. The Monsignor was always on time.

We altar boys had been trained by Sister James Edward of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, an order of nuns founded in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century and dedicated to teaching. We must have tried her patience as she undertook teaching us the Latin responses to portions of the Mass. “The priest says, “Introibo ad altare Dei,” and what is the response?” she would ask. Altogether, we would say, “Ad Deum qui laetificat, juventutem meam.” “And what does that mean?” she would ask. And , again in unison, “I will go unto the altar of God. To God, the joy of my youth.” After what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality only a few weeks of daily training, we had committed the Latin to memory. We were ready to go up on the altar to learn more of the sacred ritual that we were to be part of. We were all aware that the altar was a very special place and that we were among the select few that would be allowed to participate in the Great Sacrifice of the Mass.

This was the pre-Vatican II church. The priest faced away from the congregation while “saying” mass. The altar boys knelt or stood at the foot of the altar most of the time during the mass. And there were carefully choreographed movements that the altar boys had to perform at specific times. They started out with a specific routine for lighting the candles (start on the right side with the candle closest to the tabernacle…) and ended with the proper procession off the altar at the end of the mass. Sister James ran us through our paces repeatedly until we could have served mass blindfolded. Only then were we ready to be officially welcomed to the honored fraternity.

Being an altar boy was considered a privilege reserved for an elite few. Girls could certainly never be allowed to directly participate in the mass. I recall being told that the only time women were allowed on the altar was for cleaning and changing the altar linens, and of course for Sister James to do her training. There were ranks and privileges among the qualified altar boys. In addition to getting the best assignments (the altar servers’ list was posted on the wall in the vestry behind the main altar) the more senior boys got to serve High Mass or even Solemn High Mass on special occasions. Some had titles for their special qualifications. Jimmy Early was the “Master of Ceremonies” at Solemn High Masses for example. And best of all, the most senior boys got to serve funeral masses, where the bereaved survivor often slipped each server a five dollar bill at the end of the mass.

Our parents were very proud when we got to serve our first mass. I recall bringing my cassock and surplice home for my grandmother, who lived with us, to wash and press. I recall that the parish provided the cassocks but my parents had to buy the surplice. We maintained them very carefully. Each altar boy was assigned a tall wooden locker behind the altar in which to store his vestments. When we came in the vestry doors of the church it felt like any other locker room, full of boys and the bustle of changing clothes and sprucing up. We shared the vestry with the members of the boys’ and men’s’ choirs as well so it was often a crowded place before the high mass on Sundays.

To the best of my recollection, only parochial school students ever got to be altar boys. There was a constant undertone of competition between the parochial school system, including the high school adjacent to St. John’s, and the public school system. Extremists on the playground would sometimes take the position that if you went to public school, there was no way you could ever go to heaven. It’s no wonder we still use the term parochial to mean “narrow-minded: concerned only with narrow local concerns without any regard for more general or wider issues.”

My brother Bill was 4 years older than me. My sister Ann was 1 year older. They both had preceded me in attending St. John’s school. At the time we went to the school, it was housed in two Victorian homes that stood on the church property. One was almost directly behind the church and had originally faced Eastern Avenue, which formed the rear boundary of the church’s property. This building had once been the residence of the church’s first organist, Bert Curley. I know this because I sang in the boys’ choir and we used some of the original hymnals that had been specially printed for the church in its early years. They had Choirmaster Bert Curley’s name printed inside the front cover. My grandmother told me he had lived in the old residence on Eastern Avenue.

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