The Role of the Alter Boy (All the Privileges that Come with the Duties)

Stephen Arch                        






Breaking away a bit from the Church Lady theme, of which I am sure that we will revisit many times, growing up Catholic meant that, particularly, only as a boy, one had to be an alter boy at mass. Think of the loyalty, think of the majesty, think of the honor, think of the status (being THAT close to the action and actually helping Our Lord on Saturdays, Sundays, Weddings, Funerals, and the very welcome 7 am and 8 am masses during the week - wearing a similar costume as the priest) .  But oh what fun it was to be an alter boy and finally gaining that reward. At that time, there was no downside of being an alter boy, and I often wondered why so many of my classmates turned down this extraordinary opportunity.  It did mean, however, that you had to serve at least one Sunday mass, but heck, if you were going to HAVE to go to church on Sunday, why not not only attend mass, but be a cool part of the mass also.


Of course, serving the 7 am and the 8 am daily mass, as well as at least one funeral per week, meant that the alter boys were able to get out of school for that brief period of time. Of course, the early daily mass was short in time because not many people would be in attendance and there was absolutely, so glorifyingly simplistic, NO MUSIC at these masses.  A good priest on a good daily mass could polish that mass off in 20 to 25 minutes if he really wanted to, and most of the time, he really wanted to. I've known even known a priest or two hit the fifteen minute record.  No singing, no homily, no refrains - get in, get out.  I knew a priest who was faster performing a 7 am mass than getting served at McDonalds.

But the funerals, oh, the lovely funerals.  Imagine getting to school in the morning and have Sister Christina - a young, stern, strict, masochistic, Boston accented woman - tell you that you had a funeral to serve that day.  And you know what that meant, don't you? Heck, funerals started usually around 11:00 am that morning.  That meant that you had to actually leave classes one hour early, around 10:00, set up for the mass, and then sit through an extremely long funeral mass.  Sorry folks, but all of the funerals I served at the time meant that the people for whom the funeral served as their final mass are all dead; so, I know this won't bother them, they usually took both an excrutiating one to one and a half hours.  That meant that the alter boys got to actually be away from school from 10:00 to 12:00 most of the time. 

Believe me, that two hours away from school was the ticket to heaven in a young alter boy's mind.  Getting out of class for that amount of time was THE BEST.  Plus, after the funeral mass was over, that meant usually that I had missed lunch.  So, when I got back to school at 12:00 noon, that meant that I had to eat, and for some strange reason, had to, after I ate, go out onto the playground for at least one hour to "play."  What a delight.  All of the classes I missed in school due to my alter boy status.

Yes, I know what you're thinking.  I actually prayed daily for funerals.  Think about this for a moment.  If I served the 8:00 am weekly mass, that meant that I would be away for the first hour of classes that morning.  Then, if that happened to be a day of a funeral, I would be able to miss not only the first hour of school that morning, but another hour and a half later in the day.  And the best of all worlds occurred when there were 2 funerals that day.  That meant basically that I missed most of the school day fulfilling my heavenly occupation of serving the needy.

What a boon it was to achieve top ranking alter boy status. I led the "Life of Riley" on those glorious days.  

But mind you, it wasn't all "wine and roses" at that time of my life.  In order to become an alter boy, we had to sit through hours and hours of after school "testing" to make sure that we were perfect alter boys.

That meant, at the time, that I had to sit with Sister Christina for hours after school learning the entire mass in Latin.  Yep.  I "learned" Latin.  Well, I actually didn't have a clue about Latin, but the mass at the time was in Latin, and, one of the main alter boy's functions was actually participating in the mass along with the priests.  All of the refrains and the prayers - usually for funeral masses, quite a few in attendance might not be Catholic and might not know the Latin mass.  It was the alter boy's duty to add refrains loud and clear so that the priest wasn't saying mass all by himself.  Well, he actually was because I had no clue what I was saying when kneeling on the alter those days.  My only memory was the priest singing in an awful voice "in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen" or "Dominus vobiscum... Et cum spiritu tuo." That's about all I remember, and in a singsongy kind of way.

The ONE DOWNSIDE was getting through Sister Christina, and that probably was the real reason why many of my classmates and friends didn't choose to be alter boys.  Come to think of it now.  I really had no say in the matter.  I was chosen by her; so, I am assuming one of two things.  I was able to earn alter boy status because I was saintly, or, the more clearer understanding of it was because Sister Christina thought I NEEDED more church in me.  The latter is probably the truer. I needed salvation badly in second through eighth grade.  (The only other reason that I can think of was that I lived only a half a block from the church and was available whenever they were short an alter boy, which was about ALL THE TIME). 

I recently read on a St. Mary's Help of Christian Facebook page a question about what ever happened to those "fine" sisters of Divine Providence.  I have to say, at this point, if I were to feel as I felt as a young person, I hope they are sitting in some level of Dante's Inferno.

  Dante Allegheri's Fifth Circle of Hell: Anger

Dante Allegheri's Fifth Circle of Hell: Anger

And please note that, as stated earlier, getting to be an alter boy meant getting through the process closely guarded and "taught" by Sister Christina.  If a boy was lucky to make the first cut, he didn't have to sit down with Sister Christina and recite and recite and recite again the entire mass, that meant gruelling hours after school sitting with her - who played the role of the priest - and go through the entire mass, line after line,   AND, you DID NOT become an alter boy without having memorized the entire Latin mass. Having to survive Sister Christina's battle field.  And when you passed, the weight of the world was off your shoulders. You were something.  You were an alter boy.

I remember staying after school, after studying the night before, practicing the mass with Sister Christina - making it through the entire mass, only to miss the last one or two lines. Which, of course, meant STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN FROM THE START, that day and many days to follow.  I didn't know it at the time, but I now know exactly why Dante wrote the Inferno - to get back at the nuns who made him practice and practice and practice until he got it right.  That, my friends, deserves its own layer in hell in my humble opinion.

PLUS BONUS FOOTAGE:  Father Feldmeier's antics in front of the congregation and how difficult it was to sit solemnly and not break into hilarity, driven to tears, over the mistakes he made during masses, particularly funeral masses.