Catholic priests – notes from inside the tribal compound

Probably the biggest scar I carry from those days of Catholic school and church is a metabolic revulsion to getting out of bed before the sun’s been up an hour. Blame it on my altar boy days serving 6:45 Masses where I walked on icy roads in freezing rain to unlock an unheated, barely candlelit church before I knew how good coffee could be. Once things were set up – and before the priest arrived – we did learn how that tooth-decay sweet altar wine was a helpful antidote to the cold. Other than that, I survived in pretty good shape.

Lots of priests passed through our lives in those days, some left their images on my developing brain –

Pastor John – an ancient [to a 9-year old] autocrat with an emphysemic cough who always wanted us to pour him more wine. My most vivid memory is him sending me back to his rectory room one morning to get something. On his dresser was a mostly empty bottle of Jamieson’s, looking like the full one in my parents’ cabinet. The century-old rectory was reputedly haunted with other spirits, too. They’d occasionally appear or simply be accused of creating random havoc on the premises. I remember our parish going from just him to him and his assistants. Plus all the nuns. And all the active parishioners wanting one organization or another to lead.

Father Jim – first of the new assistants to make an impression on me. To us kids, he was always full of fun. I can’t imagine how he affected our habit-bound pastor. Sounds like a Bing Crosby movie. Anyway, Father Jim was transferred to the city parish where most of our cousins and extended families lived, so we all kept in touch. What I remember from living there a few years earlier were the kindergarten nuns who saw the world in Dominican black & white. Drawing on their tradition as major players in the Inquisition, they brooked no digression from their color-only-between-the-lines, no background shading and only straight lines without any waves, tones or any other features in our coloring books. I only stayed in their school for a year. Actually, not even that long. Maybe it’s why I became a copywriter instead of an art director.

Then we got Father Will. He bought us pizza when we worked on charity projects, took us to hootenannies and to see Lilies of the Field. He pissed off a lot of parents when he started helping a Negro family buy a house in the parish – an old place adjoining a four-lane highway across from the weed-enmeshed barbed wire fence of a mental institution. He was transferred. The family never bought the house. A while later, he was making headlines in another – more remote – parish for helping poor people and unwed pregnant teens. Somewhere along the way, I heard that he’d left the priesthood, so he could practice what he preached.

Following him, the singing padre. He wasn’t around long enough for me to remember his name. Parents – and even the nuns – said he was trying to make us sound like Protestants with all these new hymns, in English, too! He was transferred to prison, where he became a chaplain.

Finally, an immigrant priest with lots of traditional values from Malta. That was close enough to Rome for most people – and his mumbling was close enough to Latin for them, as well.

And after him? I don’t know. It was my turn to move on. Oh yeah, along the way our 100+ year old little country church burned down. And more recently, in the last decade or so, I heard that the new school building our parents worked so hard to get built is no longer functioning as an elementary school. It’s now a pre-school, sans nuns.

12 Comments on “Catholic priests – notes from inside the tribal compound

  1. Jim, One who comes to mind was Father Borgognoni at Newman Chapel, S.U., back in our day at the school. His “more music, more often” masses, and his individual showmanship were considered revolutionary, if not outright heretical, at the time. Then those techniques were simply appropriated by the evangelicals, with great commercial, if not spiritual, success.

    Another of your great installments, this one.

  2. I’m surprised they didn’t all have almost empty bottles of whiskey strewn around! Quite a non-life many of them had & have.

    • And I’ve since found out that not only did he commute his own sentence in the church, but he’s happily married with children.

  3. Lunar Eclipse Postscript – April 4, 2015
    While I no longer get up at dark-thirty – or any other time – to go sit and be talked at, I was up and out this morning for the lunar eclipse.
    Saw a dog just staring at it. Rabbits hopping in and out of their bushes. And lots of people rushing to places, alone, in their cars, doing whatever it is people do in the pre-dawn hours when they’re not sleeping or being part of our nature.

    • Then – and to a large degree, still now – the continued existence of the institution was more important than fulfilling its mission.

  4. An-mhaith, Jim. Well-chosen images, to accompany your skirt with those of the cloth.

    • Grazie. È meraviglioso vedere come stanno migliorando le tue abilità linguistiche!

  5. Hi Jim,

    Great story telling! I was an altar boy for a couple of years, but nothing like your involvement. Where were you during these years (where the church burned down, or did it burn up)?

    • I was off learning how other cosmologies use burnt offerings. And thanks for a good question worth pondering – I guess you’ve added me to the cohort of people trying to sort out the difference between up and down. . .

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