In the wake of the recent celebration of Holy Week and Easter, I got to thinking about some of the times I experienced as a boy and young adult in upstate New York. In particular, I recall the years I was an Altar Boy at St. Martin’s Church in Port Leyden.
I started when I was in the fourth grade back in 1967 when all boys in my religious education class were invited to become Altar Servers. By the way, girls were invited to take part in a service club known as Sodality. It would be many years before girls were permitted to serve on the altar.
Sister Agnes Claire was our trainer and she was a tough taskmaster. We had practice once a week after school at the church. Our practice began with a prayer, then repetition of the elements of the Catholic Mass and our role in helping the priest on the altar.
We learned when to genuflect, how to genuflect, how to hold the book of priest prayers, when to get the water and wine, how to hold the gold-plated paten under the chin of persons receiving Holy Communion, and when to ring the bells during the Eucharistic Prayers.
Week after week, we’d go to practice. Week after week, we’d review each segment of the celebration while learning what to do and what not to do. But week after week, Sister told us we were still not ready to take our place at the altar.
Eventually, we would each be issued a black cassock and a while surplice. This was the official “uniform” of a server. We were told to take the cassock and surplice home and “have our Mom wash and iron them”. It was another step toward getting an assignment.
Finally, in February 1968, I got the call. One afternoon after school, Sister Agnes Claire phoned my home to tell me that I would have my first assignment on the altar. I was told I would be “serving on the side”, which meant that I wouldn’t have to actually do any of the things I had been taught during the past five months.
My only job was to show up with my cassock and surplice, process out of the priest’s sanctuary with the other “real” servers at the beginning of Mass, and sit on the side of the altar throughout the service.
I was nervous and recall being pushed out onto the altar from one of the senior servers when my feet seemed to be stuck to the floor at the start of the Mass. But I got through it. I think my Dad was in the congregation that first night. My Mom had not yet converted to Catholicism.
Within weeks, I would get my shot at actually serving as a “real” server. By the next year, I fancied myself one of the senior types who helped the newbies overcome their nervousness.
Over the years, I was tempted to give up my altar serving. Several of the boys who started with me that first year had already dropped out of the ministry. Some were not even coming to church anymore.
The temptation to end my stint as an altar boy was strong. After all I reasoned, I was a teenager and the cassock and surplice were not really cool. But with some encouragement from my Dad to stick with it, I persevered. By the time I was a senior in high school, serving on the altar was a badge of honor I wore proudly.
The last Mass I served at St. Martin’s was the day after my high school graduation. I still wonder if Sister Agnes Claire purposely scheduled me for that day so that I wouldn’t be tempted to overdo it on the partying after the graduation ceremony. I’ll never know.
Our priest during those late teen years was Father Lyddy: a kind man and a good teacher. As we continued to grow into our roles, Father Lyddy allowed my friend Phil and me to read scripture as a Lector during Masses when we were serving Mass. That’s where I got my first opportunity to Lector. Little by little, he was introducing us to other ministries in the Church.
Serving on the altar also cemented my friendship Phil. The two of us had known each other since kindergarten, but our time as Altar Boys at St. Martin’s created a unique bond that remains to this day.
I’ll always remember Holy Week when I was in my late teens. For an Altar Boy, this was the World Series of serving with three special celebrations followed by the Easter Sunday Mass. There were special rehearsals for these services. By then, Phil and I were always assigned the Mass on Holy Thursday, the service on Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday.
Many times after Holy Thursday and Holy Saturday services, Phil and I would just stand outside the church and talk for what seemed to be a good hour or more. While we both remained friends, both of us had expanded our base of friends to include others. But our service together as Altar Servers created a special bond.
Upon graduation from high school, Phil entered the United States Air Force Academy and had a successful career in the military. I went on to Herkimer County Community College and Syracuse University before embarking on my first career as a television journalist.
Throughout our professional lives, we both continued to serve our respective parishes in ministry roles: Phil was a Eucharistic Minister and I became a Lector.
I’m grateful for those eight years as an Altar Boy. I’m certain it kept me engaged in a church going culture that existed in my family during my years growing up.
My service built a foundation for my volunteer work in church ministry that continues to this day.
But most of all, I associate my time as an Altar Boy as a positive experience that I wouldn’t have traded for anything. It was indeed a blessing.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced and is a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Church in Merced.