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Memories of an altar boy — warm bread and burning vestments


By Charlie Sacchetti

               At least you’d have to say that I’m consistent.  As I get older, I often realize that there are a lot of things I like more as they once were.  I like baseball without the designated hitter, the “closer” and the eighth- inning “set-up man.” I don’t like giving out “participation” trophies to everyone who happens to show up and not only for those who excel.  And last but not least, being a Roman Catholic, who actually goes to church regularly, I happen to prefer the Mass the way it used to be when I was a kid. 

               When I was about 8 years old, a few of my buddies and I decided to become altar boys.  We figured it would really look good on our resumes when the time came to make our way through the pearly gates.  Today both boys and girls can become “altar servers,” as in 1983 the rules changed and girls were allowed to participate.  Back then, as now, it was considered an honor to serve during the Mass and assist the priest as he carried out the age-old duties during that holy hour.  It was a blessing I thoroughly enjoyed and as with most things in my life serving at Our Lady of Loreto Church, at 62nd Street and Grays Avenue in Southwest Philly, provided more than a few memories worth sharing.

               Right off the bat, becoming an altar boy presented a challenge, primarily because back then the Mass was completely said in Latin.  That meant all of the candidates had to memorize many prayers and responses in a foreign language.  Most of the responses were short ones but then there was the “Confiteor” a prayer of more than 100 words that had to be memorized before you won your wings, so to speak. 

               Then there were the everyday issues that tested our resolve, like when I had to serve at the 6 a.m. daily Mass.  Doing so meant awakening at 4:30 a.m. and walking the six blocks to church without any breakfast.  Back then, one had to not eat or “fast” from midnight, in order to receive Holy Communion.  I was always hungry when I left the house, but that wasn’t the worst part of the trip.  Directly across from our church stood Mattera’s bakery.  As I rounded the corner at 63rd and Grays, I could smell the fresh bread baking.  The fact that the bakery was across from our church was more than fitting since the fragrance to this hungry, sleepy 8-year-old was indeed heavenly!  By the time I climbed the steps to the church I was starving and couldn’t wait to receive the blessed host for both the spiritual and physical nourishment.  As soon as Mass was over, I would run across the street to buy a fresh, hot roll for 3 cents and eat it on the way home.  That mini meal was worth a million dollars. 

               If you were lucky enough, the priest would assign you to a wedding.  I say lucky because serving usually meant that you would receive a tip from either the bride’s father or the groom.  One of the veteran servers took me aside one day and told me that you could do pretty well depending on how you did your job.  At first I wasn’t quite sure of what he meant but I soon came to realize that the tips varied proportionately with how happy you looked during the wedding Mass.  One time after a wedding I received a tip from the groom, followed 10 minutes later by a tip from the bride’s father.  I strategically chose to believe that these tips were gifts from two very generous gentlemen rather than a mix-up in signals. 

               And then there was the time one summer when my partner and I served the most-attended Mass at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday.  The priest’s name was Father Veneziale.  He was a short husky man who spoke with a heavy Italian accent that made our understanding of his English impossible.  When he officiated at the daily Mass, he would give his homilies in Italian and since those Masses were attended by elderly parishioners, his Italian was easily understood.  However, on this Sunday, he would speak to the congregation, made up of mostly kids and adults, in English.  As the priest walked to the podium to begin his homily, John, the other altar boy, and I took our seats on two folding chairs just inside the communion rail and next to the bank of votive candles.  I could tell that Johnny was a little tired by the way he had been performing his duties thus far.  I figured the break in the action and the little rest as the priest spoke would provide Johnny with his “second wind.”  About 10 minutes into the sermon I heard a noise that sounded like snoring.  As I glanced to my left I saw Johnny tumble into the lit candles, still snoring.  His surplice, the shirt-like linen vestment we wore over our gown-like cassock, caught fire.  Two of the men ushers immediately jumped over the rail and smothered the flame with their suit jackets. Johnny was unhurt and by now even awake!  Father Veneziale was shocked.  I looked into the congregation and saw two of my friends in the second row laughing.  I took one look at Johnny and we both started laughing.  It was a Mass to remember. 

               I’m sure that it is very unlikely that you’ll see an altar server have their vestments catch fire during Mass again.  Today, thank God, the “candles” are mostly battery-operated.

Charlie Sacchetti is the author of two books, “It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change,” and “Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch.” Contact him at worthwhilewords21@gmail.com

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