Being a brief and almost accurate account of my undistinguished career as an Acolyte
Come to the church by the wildwood
Oh, come to the church in the vale
No spot is so dear to my childhood
As the little brown church in the vale
(Well, it was white, and it was more on a hillside than in a vale…)
It was spring, 1956. I was 10-years old. My Dad’s work had brought us from Oklahoma City to Kingston, New York, the autumn before. There was such an influx of workers, 5000 of them, to man the new IBM plant, that housing was at a premium. After failing to find our family of eight a suitable home, my folks installed us in a cramped rental house in Kingston while they contracted to have a house built.
Our wonderful new house was in a development in the country six miles north of town. We were closest to the hamlet of Ruby, where our the volunteer fire department was; but the post office there did not have delivery, so our mail was addressed to Lake Katrine, which was much further away (2 miles!), so we came to say we lived in Lake Katrine.
Off to the southwest of us, over the rocky hills covered with spindly woods and pock-marked with abandoned quarries, was the settlement of Sawkill. It was way far away, four miles, and even was in a different township!
The Hudson Valley of New York was colonized by Holland in the early 1600’s. Indeed, at the time we moved there, some people still used Dutch, especially at Sunday services in what was then called the Dutch Reformed Church. Many of the place names are Dutch, and visitors are often struck by how many of them end in “kill”. To divest them of the impression that a great deal of murder went on in the area, natives will explain that “kill” is simply Dutch for “creek”. Thus, Sawkill means saw creek. My guess is that an early settler built a sawmill on that stream.
To add confusion to the term, many folks have taken the habit of using the Dutch name, and then adding the English “creek”. So when we first went to St. Ann’s, we found that it nestled on a hillside next to the “Sawkill Creek”. Redundant, of course, but that’s the way it was.
My folks were “good” (practicing) Catholics, so nothing short of dread disease or impassable roads kept us from Sunday Mass. Our first Sunday in Lake Katrine was a beautiful warm spring day. The whole bunch of us loaded into the ’53 Chevy station wagon, and Dad drove us down Ruby Road to the county road we called the “back way” to Kingston. When we got to the Sawkill, we turned up Sawkill Road and wound our way west, the creek on our left and a steep wooded ridge on our right.
Sawkill consisted of a random collection of small houses, some just tiny cottages, perched along the creek, and squeezed into niches in the surrounding hills. Among the few notable community buildings were the firehouse, the recently closed one-room school, and the church.
Dad downshifted the Chevy (He hated to do that) and turned up Halihan’s Hill Road, the steep narrow road that ran to the right of the church. There was room for our car in the tiny parking lot overlooking the cemetery, since many local residents walked to church.
I was about to follow my family across the crushed stone parking lot, when a firm hand grasped my shoulder, and a big, bluff man in priestly garb boomed out, “Tom! We’ve got a new altar boy! Get him suited up!" Thus began my somewhat questionable career as an Acolyte.
Tom, already in his cassock (a black, ankle-length over-garment that buttoned up the front) and surplice (a loose, frilly, white pull-over sort of a shirt that extended below the waist), led me, bewildered, around the back of the church, up the mossy bluestone steps, and through the creaky door that wouldn’t stay shut (more on that later) to the Sacristy.
"Sacristy." The very word bespoke of hallowed inner sanctum. I had never been in one before. To a ten-year old, a little intimidating. Smells of wax, incense, wine. Odd candlesticks, a censor, vessels of holy water. A great wardrobe with flat drawers to hold the priest’s vestments, and, for me, an upright wardrobe closet with cassocks and surplices hung on hangers. In essence, it was just a sort of store room where the priest changed into his vestments. This particular sacristy was quite small, which is why the altar boys were often seen outside before Mass, messing around in back of the church or running around in the parking lot.
Tom and his brother Paul got me into a cassock that wasn’t embarrassingly too long or too short and didn’t have too many wax stains. Likewise, the surplice wasn’t likely to garner much comment.
Soon, Father James Dunigan made his entrance. “Hello, boys! How’s our new man doing? Time to light the candles!” Tom took a strange, long-handled tool from the corner. The end split into two functions. One side was a split hollow tube shaped like a shepherd’s crook that held a wax taper, sort of a very skinny flexible candle; the other side consisted of a bell-shaped candle snuffer. The end of the taper that went in the tube first was bent when inserted, so that part stuck out the split in the tube. That way, you could grasp it to make the burning end longer or shorter. Tom slid the taper out a bit then lit it with a match. (This job began to look more interesting—you got to light matches!) “Come with me,” he said. We went through the door into the sanctuary. The church was full of people. We walked to the middle of the steps leading to the altar. “Genuflect.” We did. Then we climbed the three steps to the altar. Tom reached up with the burning taper and lit a single tall candle on one side of the altar, then he repeated the process for the other side. Each time we passed the center of the altar, where the tabernacle was, we genuflected again.
Back in the sacristy, Father had put on a long white robe. “There you are! Tell me, what is this I’m wearing?” “An alb,” the other boys said. “What does that mean?” “It means ‘white’.“ Father laid a fancy neck scarf sort of a thing over his shoulders. I believe it was green. That was the stole, the symbol of his authority. Around his ample middle, and over the ends of the stole, went a braided white cord, the cincture. “Like a belt, to hold the alb up if it’s wet or muddy. The old-time priests often traveled long distances to see their congregations.” Then came a fore-and-aft garment, like a poncho that didn’t cover his arms. It was green too, and it had a big cross on the front and back. “This is the chasuble. It means ‘little house’. It was the priest’s overcoat. If he was caught out in the bad weather, he could use it as a shelter.”
Of course, in my bewilderment, all this was going in one ear and out the other; but as time passed and the lessons were repeated, I began to remember.
Father put on his black priest’s hat, a brimless thing with three upright veins or wings and a black, furry, pom-pom in the middle of the top. He picked up the chalice, which was draped over with a decorative cloth that matched his vestments. Tom said, “You stay by me” and opened the door. We “processed” into the sanctuary, organ music started to play, and the congregation stood up.
In front of the altar, we all genuflected; Father handed his hat to Tom, who set in on the step in front of him. Father arranged the chalice and its covering on the altar so that it made a perfect little tent then returned to the floor level to start the prayers. I was the third wheel, in the apprentice position, to the right of Tom. My job was to do nothing but watch and learn. Paul was alone to Father’s left.
The Mass was divided into parts. First came the introductory prayers, the pleas for God’s mercy, the admission of our sinfulness and request for forgiveness, and the profession of faith. Next came the readings from the Bible that were specific to that day. Following that, Father gave a sermon, and made announcements. Next came the holiest part of the Mass, where the never-changing ancient prayers of devotion led up to the Consecration, when Father, a “priest forever, unto the order of Melchisedech” would recite the sacred words that brought Jesus Christ physically into our presence in the form of bread and wine. More prayers, then the “Our Father,” the “Lamb of God,” then one last profession of our unworthiness before the communion bread was shared with the congregation. A few winding-down prayers, a final blessing, then it was all over. Soon Father was back in the parking lot, sharing smiles and handshakes with his parishioners.
The trick was, almost all of it was in Latin.
Latin was used in the Mass, and many other services, in all Roman Catholic churches everywhere in the world. There were also Catholic churches that were not “Roman” rite and used such other languages as Greek, Russian, Aramaic, Syrian, and some of the Indian languages; but we had no contact with these. For us, Latin was it. The advantage was that any priest could say Mass anywhere in the world, and any layman could attend any Mass, and it would be the same. The disadvantage was that, for 99% of the people, they only had the vaguest idea what was being said.
Many people bought “Missals,” which were books that had the Latin printed on one side and the English translation on the facing page. The readings in Christian churches change, year-to-year, so the missals were soon outdated; but it made a nice business for the publishers. Some folks just kept their old missals, and some couldn’t afford to buy one anyway; so there was a portion of the congregation that attended but didn’t understand.
For the altar boys, it was a different matter altogether. Many of the prayers of the Mass were a sort of give-and-take: the priest made a statement, then the altar boys responded. For example: "Dominus Vobiscum!" (the Lord be with you), responded with "Et cum spiritu tuo!" (and with your spirit). Easy enough, after a few tries; but how about a big ol’ prayer that takes up half a page in a book. In Latin. From memory. Ten-year-old kid.
Well, this is the way it worked for us. Father Dunigan was a World War I vet and mostly deaf, maybe from the shell concussions. So, for instance, when it was time for us to say the Confiteor, we would loudly say, “Confiteor Deo...” then bend almost to the floor as in prayer. Experience gave us the right amount of time to stay bowed, mumbling ersatz Latin, then we would straighten up and say, “Amen!” Father never caught on; and if God has a sense of humor, He must have known our hearts were in the right place.
My Family and St. Ann’s
To the quiet, and mostly elderly, parishioners of St. Ann’s, our family of eight, with our Southwestern accents and my sisters’ fashionable clothes, must have seemed like an invasion from Mars. If so, they never let on. We were welcomed. My Dad was a friendly guy, and got along with everybody. He also was ready to pitch in whenever work needed to be done. My Mom was gregarious, and she had the broad smile and pixie eyes of her Irish ancestors. She also had a way of introducing new ideas in a non-challenging way. Friendships developed quickly.
The music at Mass was provided by an elderly lady who played the organ and sang. She was certainly a faithful servant of the church; but her voice had weakened with the years, and it was sometimes difficult to make out what she was singing. My three older sisters had great singing voices (still do) and could harmonize at the drop of a hat. After “suffering” with the church music for a few weeks, they went to Father and volunteered to join the “choir.” Next week, they climbed the little iron spiral staircase to the miniature “choir loft,” where they squeezed in around the organ. Thereafter, we had angelic music at St. Ann’s.
The Altar Boys’ Job
The altar was set up so that it was against the front wall of the church. Father offered our prayers and sacrifices to God, standing before us as our leader. Thus, his back was to the congregation. The Mass ceremonial was full of ritualistic movements, and it was the altar boys’ job to help Father with these. As such, the altar boys were directly involved in the conduct of the Mass. During Mass, no other lay people were permitted in the sanctuary. There was a physical barrier in the form of an “Altar Rail,” a sort of a low fence, that separated the congregation from the sanctuary. It seems odd, doesn’t it, that Holy Mother, the Church entrusted the sacred duty of assisting at her most sacred ritual to a bunch of rascally, pre-pubescent boys.…
Along with lighting the candles and helping Father with his vestments if needed, we prepared the water and wine, and made sure the paten was ready for Communion as well as that everything else seemed to be in order on the altar. The water and wine went in two little cruets, like you’d use for salad dressing, which sat in an oval glass dish with raised sides. This all went, along with a little linen towel, on a small table to the left of the altar.
On rare occasions, we would be entrusted to carry the chalice or ciborium (a sort of chalice with a lid) to the altar or back to the sacristy. These vessels, which held the consecrated bread and wine, were plated with gold and were entrusted solely to the priest. If we needed to carry them, we had to hold them with a cloth so our hands would not touch them.
The ritual of the Mass was replete with symbolism, most of which was lost on us kids. For instance, some prayers were read from the priest’s giant Missal while it was on the left side of the altar, others when it was on the right. We had to know when the book was to be moved, and make it happen. The altar boy whose job it was (usually the one on the left) would go to the center of the altar steps, genuflect, proceed up the steps to the book, pick it up with its wooden stand, go down the steps, genuflect, take it up to the other side of the altar, go back down, genuflect, then return to his place. Not as complicated as it sounds, but a bit of a struggle with the heavy book and stand if it was a little kid. (Even worse, if the only cassock available for him was too long….)
In the part of the Mass called the Offertory, Father prepared and offered to God the bread and wine, which would be used in Communion. At the appropriate time, one of us would bring him the cruets of wine and water, held, damp and cool, one in each hand, handles forward. Father would take the wine cruet, pour some into the chalice, hand it back, then take the water, and put a little into the wine. (More symbolism…we didn’t know why, just that it was done,) As soon as he handed back the water, the boy would return to the little table, put the wine down, drape a small linen towel over his arm, pick up the dish that the cruets had been in, and return to the side of the altar, there to stand, like a waiter at the Ritz, waiting for Father to finish more prayers. Soon, he would come over and hold his fingers over the dish. The altar boy would pour a little water over them, while he “washed his hands.” The towel was for drying.
There were other things we did which I need not belabor here, but one I will mention is ringing the chimes. During the Consecration, father genuflected before the consecrated host, then raised it over his head, for all to see, then genuflected again. For each of these actions, there was to be a small bell rung. But in our church, instead of a bell, we had a small set of chimes, somewhat like a child’s xylophone, with five notes. Upon the first genuflection, the boy with the chimes before him on the altar step would strike: 1-2-3. When Father raised the host: 2-3-4. Then, at the last genuflection: 3-4-5. There were variations. Some boys got creative, and rang the chimes in descending order. Some preferred : 1-3-2, etc.. Some couldn’t handle the concept at all, and just hit one random note, and one enthusiast ran the mallet up the scale all at once, in a gigantic trill. This had a somewhat electrifying effect on the congregation. Father seemed not to care.
This operation led to a bit of altar-boy comedy and got me in a little trouble. I was in #3 (apprentice) position. The fellow next to me had charge of Father’s hat, with the pom-pom on top. During one of the slower parts of the Mass, he took the mallet for the chimes and made to hit Father’s hat, right on the pom-pom. He didn’t, really, but the feint struck me as funny; and I went into one of those laughing jags where the more you try to suppress it, the worse it gets. We had our backs to the congregation, of course, so all my folks saw was me in laughter spasms. On the way home, there was questioning, and chiding, and I felt worse than if I actually had done something wrong.
I have mentioned that Father was hard of hearing. He also had vision problems. He wore thick, dark-rimmed glasses, the lenses of which gave him a sort of goggle-eyed appearance. I didn’t know about these things as a kid, but looking back on it, he may well have undergone cataract surgery. In those days there were no implants, and the patient had to forever wear heavy corrective lenses. The upshot of this for us, was that Father had to be looking pretty much directly at something to see it.
There was no “schedule” for the altar boys, except for big holy days, like Christmas and Easter. Whoever showed up first, got dressed, and served at Mass. The usual maximum was three, so if I got to church, and there were already three boys in the sacristy, I went back to the pews and sat with my parents. Sometimes, there were only two, or sometimes one. On rare occasions, no altar boys were present, and one of the men in the congregation who had previously been an altar boy, would take over, strangely out of place on the altar steps in his “civvies.”
One Sunday, when I was a very new altar boy, I was faced with an insurmountable problem. Father owned a big, white dog, King, by name. In dog years, King was probably older than Father; and the two of them were constant companions . . . except in church. Father would leave King by the back step, admonishing him to be good, then go in to say Mass. King felt aggrieved and lonely, I am sure.
On this particular Sunday, no other altar boy had shown up, so I was alone, trying to remember all the things I had to do. I shouldn’t have been nervous, because if I forgot something, Father would just have nicely asked me to do it, but, there I was, trying to keep everything straight in my head, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw King peering around the corner of the sacristy door to the right of the altar..
Father was a reading from the left side of the altar, and with his narrow field of vision, did not see the interloper. Much to my horror, King came on into the sanctuary, obviously intent on rejoining his master. I didn’t know what to do! Finally, I got up and intercepted the dog. I grasped his collar to lead him out, when he promptly sat down! Now this was a big old dog. I’m thinking he probably had me by 30 or 40 pounds. I pulled. He sat. Might as well have been glued to the floor. After a few frantic attempts, I was rescued by one of the men in the congregation, who removed the miscreant.
After that, I took pains to see that the back door was shut tight. Trouble was, the ancient latch just didn’t do its job. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it only pretended to.
A few weeks later, kneeling alone in my #2 spot, ready to handle all tasks, I heard the sacristy door slowly creak, and there, again, was King! But this time, Father was on the right side of the altar. He saw King, and tried to shoo him out, without interrupting the prayer he was reading. It went something like this:
(normal reading voice) (latin-latin-latin) “King get out of here.”
King doesn’t move.
(latin-latin-latin) (a little louder) “King get out of here!”
King looks longingly at Father.
(latin-latin-latin) Father slams his hand on the altar, and booms out, “KING GET OUT OF HERE!”
Everybody in church jumped. Those who had been asleep were no longer so, and King tore out the back door like his tail was on fire!
After reading the Bible readings for the day in Latin, Father would be ready to make them understandable to the rest of us. The church was too small to have a pulpit, so one of us boys would retrieve a wooden lectern from the corner and set it on the top step before the left side of the altar. Father would face the congregation and repeat the readings in English, after which it was time for the sermon.
Father obviously gave considerable thought and preparation to his sermon, which usually only lasted a few minutes; but no matter what the topic was, his talk always seemed to end with the “Prayer of the Little Child.” Now, Father was a bulky man, and in his old age needed help at times standing for awhile. So he leaned on the lectern. But he didn’t just lean. He gesticulated to give emphasis to his words. In so moving around, his weight came on and off the lectern, causing it to begin to “walk” away from him. In the cramped space available, there was not much distance for it to creep before the edge of the step would be arrived at. I would often sit in my chair, off to the right side of the sanctuary, and watch, transfixed, as the lectern shimmied towards what seemed to be inevitable disaster.
The final prayer was supposed to be the gentle words of a small child, but by the end of his sermon, Father would have wound himself up into such a state that he boomed out the words, gripping the lectern, and sometimes pounding it for emphasis:
Take my body, Jesus!
Eyes and ears and tongue!
Never let them, Jesus!
Help to do Thee wrong!
Take my heart and fill it!
Full of love for Thee!
All I have I give Thee!
Give Thyself to me!
As the volume and intensity increased, everyone was stirred into alertness, not just because of Father’s booming voice, but because they knew, from years of experience, that the sermon was drawing to a close. I, on the other hand, was staring at the front leg of the lectern, which, by now, was more than half extended off the edge of the step.
Father blessed us all and turned back to the altar.
The lectern never fell down. Do you believe in Guardian Angels?
Sometimes after the sermon, Father would make some announcements, often of upcoming parish activities. Sometimes he would announce a “second collection,” for instance, if we were going to send money to help the missions. But for awhile, there was an additional talk, and a special collection, every week. Father, who was so frugal with parish expenditures, and so stingy with his own personal needs, had decided that we needed a new altar. Now, there was nothing wrong with the old one; but Father had seen this new model, and really-really wanted it. Who could deny him?
After weeks of his pleading, we arrived one Sunday to see this revelation, a masterpiece of Italian plasterwork. It had molded-in pillars at the corners, a modicum of gilt work, and, best of all, across the front, a raised-relief copy of “The Last Supper.” Father was in his glory . . . but the new altar was bigger than the old one, leaving even less room to work around it. Things got a tad trickier for the altar boys, and the lectern was even more in jeopardy. . . .
In the Bible, Jesus gives the Apostles the power to forgive sins. This power, by extension, continues to be exercised by the Apostles’ successors, the priests. Catholics are under an obligation to confess any serious sin and have it forgiven. In the 1950’s, it was general practice to go to confession frequently and confess all sins, even the tiny “venial” ones, as a way of keeping your conscience in good order. My parents were big believers in this practice and hauled the lot of us off to confession every Saturday afternoon.
The church would be oh-so-quiet. A handful of people would be waiting in the rear pews. In St. Ann’s, the “confessional” was located immediately to the right as you entered the church. Father Dunigan would put on a small stole, which he carried in his pocket, and take his seat in a little booth. The penitent would enter an adjacent booth and kneel, facing a curtained window, with Father’s cupped ear on the other side. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned....” Then a list of offenses. A word or two of encouragement from Father, the assignment of a “penance," usually the recitation of a few prayers, the words of forgiveness, and done.
As kids, our lives were full of venial sins. Yelled at my sister. Lied to my mother. Threw stones at Johnny. You know, kid stuff. Well, all this was to be cataloged and laid bare before the priest. Embarrassing, but we had gotten somewhat used to it. Then St. Ann’s threw us a curve ball: Father was (mostly) deaf.
The church is quiet. People are waiting mere feet away to go to confession.
(whisper) “Bless me Father....”
“You’ve got to speak up!”
(a little louder whisper) “I fibbed three times, and....”
“I can’t hear you! Speak up!”
(speaking tone) “I fibbed three...."
"Now, sonny, I can’t hear you!”
(much louder, in desperation) “I fibbed three times!” (you knew everybody could hear)
(kindly) “Well, that’s not so bad. You know Jesus loves you. Be a good boy from now on. For your penance, say three Hail Mary’s.”
After a few rounds of this, we kids started lobbying our folks for relief. They were sympathetic. We still had to go to confession, but they drove us to town, to a church with a hearing priest.
St. Ann’s Bazaar
To the right of and behind the church was St. Ann’s Hall. It, like many things in Sawkill, was built into the hill. You entered on the lower level, behind the parking lot, and went upstairs to get to the actual hall. At one time, it had been more of an active venue for local entertainment; but by the time we arrived, it sat, disused most of the time. Occasionally, the men of the parish, organized as the Holy Name Society, would be working in the Hall to make some repair. We kids would take the opportunity to explore and play. Along with a deal of running around on the noisy wood floor, we loved to pound on the piano keys and “play” the pump organ. If it was warm and the windows were open, I’m sure the neighbors loved it!
Once a year, the Hall came into its glory. On a summer weekend, the parish would hold it’s major money-maker, St. Ann’s Bazaar. My Mom and Dad were always involved. One year, I rode with Dad to a shabby place in downtown Kingston where he purchased quantities of the sort of cheap prizes that are usually handed out at these affairs. In addition, people would donate items; and, I believe, some merchants also gave things to help out.
There was food, of course, prepared by the ladies of the parish, and games for the children that were impossible to lose. But the big attraction to me was the gambling. As I recall, there was a ten-cent wheel and a twenty-five cent wheel. I received the princely sum of 35 cents per week as my allowance, most of which I saved up, so I was ready. Sadly, most of my fortune ended up in the church’s “coffers”; but one year, I won a dandy fishing rod and reel as well as a gigantic bottle of terrible hair tonic, which I used for months.
If you went out the back of the church and climbed the steep bluestone steps to the left of the Hall, you would pass into an unkempt “yard” and then to Father’s house. Like most homes in Sawkill, it was small, low, and unpretentious. There lived, in genteel poverty, Father Dunigan and an elderly lady who cleaned and cooked for him.
The house had been wired in the early days of electricity, when lighting was the primary reason to do so. As a result, there were almost no outlets. Each room had a ceramic light fixture in the middle of the ceiling. Father had provided the necessary plug-ins by the use of extension cords, which spread across the ceiling, and hung down the walls like the tentacles of an octopus. It was a fire waiting to burst forth. But it never did.
On the end of the house closest to Halihan’s Hill Road was a somewhat larger room, made into a chapel. It had a small altar and a few pews. Here is where, in bad weather, Father would say daily Mass for the handful of people who attended. Here, also, was where the parish records were kept, unsorted, in overstuffed cardboard boxes. Maybe Father knew where everything was, but I doubt it.
One day, when several of us boys were visiting Father, he offered to show us his field kit. By my estimate, he must have been about 40 when he was assigned as a chaplain to the American Expeditionary Force. To say Mass on the battlefield, he had a kit that came self-contained in a box the size of a smallish suitcase. The box had legs that folded down to create an altar, and inside the box was everything he needed, all in miniature: abbreviated vestments, miniature chalice, and so forth. This was quite intriguing to us young boys. It wasn’t until years later that I realized there was much more to being a chaplain than saying Mass. Accompanying his men into battle, to minister to the wounded and dying, he must have seen horrors he could never forget.
The Novena of St. Ann
In the hottest part of the summer, were set aside nine days in a row for St. Ann’s Novena. It was a period of great activity for the parish. People came from great distances to attend. So many came that the church could not hold them all. The windows were propped open, and the faithful stood outside to listen, if they could not crowd in. St. Ann was the mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the hierarchy of saints, she’s right up there near the top. She is the object of great devotion, and miracle cures have been attributed to her. One such occurred right there in Sawkill, many years before. At one time, the services for the novena were held at a bluestone altar, probably erected by the Irish quarrymen who mined the stuff, that was built into the steps that led up the steep hill to the front door of the church. During my brief tenure, I never saw that altar used, but was told that the churchyard and cemetery would have been filled with folding chairs to hold all the attendees.
Because my Dad worked, we could not easily get to the services during the day; but we did attend the evening service. One memory of mine of those hot nights was of a sound I had not heard before. The old varnish on the pews would get soft and sticky in the heat. People would sit there, sweating and praying. Then would come cause to stand. In unison, this small crowd would arise to the sound of their clothing pulling itself free of the pews. Velcro had not yet been invented, but that’s what it sounded like, only louder.
Saints and Sinners
Once a week, Father would put on his best black suit, and his veteran’s cap, and drive in his black ’53 Ford to Kingston to attend the meeting of his veteran’s group, where he was Chaplain. Heading down Halihan’s Hill Road, the cemetery in front of the church would have been on his right.
The cemetery was a great place for us kids. We would not have thought of actually playing there, but we did explore and read the old tombstones. There were blank spaces with no stones, and it was believed that long forgotten people had been buried there with only wooden crosses as markers. When the crosses rotted away, nothing visible was left.
One day, when the men were working at some parish repair, a couple of my fellow altar boys took me across the cemetery and down the creek bank. There, they showed me a “cave.” It was actually just a bit of an undercut in the shale, but big enough for three boys to climb into. At the back of the cave was a narrow opening, which, I was assured, opened into a large cavern, from the ceiling of which hung the skeletons of the people buried above! There was no way to see in there, and I didn’t believe the skeleton part, but I’ve always wondered if there really was more to the “cave”.
The cemetery was consecrated ground. Only Catholics who died with their sins forgiven could be buried there. Since, in your final throes, you could cry out to God for forgiveness, it was pretty much assumed that everybody who died was in a “state of grace.” There was one exception: suicide. Self-destruction was thought to be a Mortal Sin, and would send your soul to Hell. Mental illness was little understood back then, and no consideration was given to whether a person was in their right mind when they killed themselves. Such people could not be buried on consecrated ground. At St. Ann’s, there were two graves behind the church, right next to the stairs leading from the church to Father’s house. One was that of Halihan, for whom the hill was named. The other boys told me he was a half-breed Indian-Irish, who got drunk and killed himself up there on the hill. I don’t know if that was true, but the grave was certainly there, a reminder to try to stay in God’s grace, lest we be damned forever....
It was a small parish, so there were not a lot of funerals. When one occurred, it usually was on a weekday morning. Normally, only one altar boy attended. Father would say the Mass of Requiem, with its black vestments, before the casket, which would be squeezed up the center aisle. Afterward, he would change into a surplice over his cassock, put on his small stole and hat, and follow the funeral party out into the cemetery. The altar boy would carry a glass-lined bucket of holy water, with its “sprinkler,” so that Father could bless the casket before it was lowered into the ground.
Sometimes, the person being buried was one of Father’s veterans. Well I remember, standing in the wet grass in my cassock and surplice, holding the holy water for Father. Solemnly, he would intone the final prayers to commit his comrade to the hereafter, then sprinkle the coffin with holy water and bless it in the name of the Trinity. As he stepped back, the honor guard would shoulder their World War I rifles, and fire a final salute. Before the crashing echoes had died from the rocky hills, the bugler would play “Taps.” Another hero gone.
On the north side of the hill from Sawkill lies Ruby. As the Irish quarrymen settled in Sawkill, the German quarrymen settled in Ruby. By the 1950’s, they all seemed the same to us, except for the different family names, and the gentle brogue that lingered in the speech of some Sawkill residents.
If you left the neighborhood where my family lived, and drove up “Main Street” (known to all as Ruby Road), you headed up a steep, winding road, lined with little houses built into the hillsides, then “leveled” out in a small settlement with a firehouse, post office, tiny Lutheran church, and a road house with chow and drinks. Once you left this “downtown” area, the houses became more scattered and the land more wooded. Partway up another steep, winding stretch was St. Wendelinus Church. Continuing past the church on what was then known as “the back road,” you went through woodlands where the roadway was just dirt, then eventually joined Halihan’s Hill Road, thence down the hill to St. Ann’s.
St. Wendelinus was part of St. Ann’s Parish. It was even smaller than St. Ann’s; but it had a bell, and a pump organ, and a heater in the corner. Each Sunday, there would be a Mass in Sawkill and a Mass in Ruby, scheduled to give Father sufficient time to comfortably complete one service and travel to the next.
Father would putter over the hill in his ’53 Ford. Now, a word about Father’s car: there was no way he could have afforded a car on his meager salary. But it was customary, in those days, for certain well-to-do people to let the church authorities know that they would provide a car for priests who needed one but couldn’t afford the price. I’m sure that Father benefited from such an arrangement. The cars, by the way, were always black.
One day, when speaking of making his weekly trip to Ruby, Father told this story, in his best stentorian and theatrical way of speaking: “I used to walk to Ruby. But one Sunday, on the Back Road, there appeared before me a bear !” (dramatic pause) (he solemnly shook his head) “There was NO MASS in Ruby that week!”
Just south of Kingston, in Esopus, there was a seminary for men studying to become priests in the Redemptorist order. Unlike priests like Father Dunigan, who normally worked within one diocese, these men could be assigned anywhere in the world where their Order needed them. Every June, a new class of priests was ordained. Many of them stayed at the seminary for a time, awaiting their assignments. Somehow, word got to the Redemptorists that Father Dunigan could use a little help. So, for the summer months, it was not unusual for one of the young Redemptorist priests to come up to say Mass in Ruby. This relieved Father Dunigan of the responsibility and gave the young man some practical experience working in a parish. This also gave my teenage sisters an often handsome young man to look at during Mass, which considerably relieved the boredom of routine for them.
The Redemptorists weren’t the only ones graduating priests. Two years after our arrival in the parish, Father William O’Donnell came to St. Ann’s, fresh from the seminary at Dunwoodie. He was young, tall, dark-haired, and intelligent. His arrival was immensely pleasing to Father Dunigan, but problematic for us altar boys. You see, Father O’Donnell could hear.
As a result, on Saturday afternoons, the bunch of us would sit on the bluestone steps by Halihan’s grave, pouring over the Latin prayers we were supposed to be saying at Mass. There was no chance of us actually learning Latin, so it was a matter of rote memorization. Some of the prayers were, for us, lengthy, so Father O’Donnell had his work cut out for him. I’m not sure how much success he achieved, but we did improve, somewhat, and eventually he seemed satisfied, or maybe he just became resigned to the sorry state of affairs.
Father O’Donnell quietly undertook to reach out to all the Catholics in the parish who did not attend Mass. His brand-new ’58 Plymouth (black, given to him by a Jewish automobile dealer in the Bronx) became a familiar sight on the back roads of Sawkill and Ruby. One time, he mentioned to me that he had visited a family who lived not too far from my house. I was not even aware that these folks were Catholic. They ran a shale bank from which they dug shale to sell. They also ran a refuse collection business, and used the hole left from excavating the shale as a dump. I was curious as to why these people didn’t go to church…. after all, I had to. Father O’Donnell explained that they had to work on Sunday, and couldn’t make it. I didn’t say anything more, but I knew they didn’t have to collect garbage on Sunday. I felt like they were being given a “pass” that would not have been extended to a “good” Catholic.
Sometimes, I would be asked to assist at Mass in Ruby. This was no problem for my family, since it was not far from our house, but I had to remember to bring my cassock and surplice from St. Ann’s the week before. Mom would take the opportunity to get them washed and ironed, and I would head off to church with them carefully held on a hanger.
There was no plumbing at St. Wendelinus (even the outhouse had long since rotted away), so Father O’Donnell, who now normally made the trip to Ruby, would bring a bottle of water with him for use in the Mass. One Sunday, after I had put on my altar boy garb, he said he had no water and told me to take the cruet, walk down the steep road to the first house on the left, enter the yard, and draw water from the well. I was not to knock on the door. After that, every Sunday in good weather, I (or whoever else was serving) would go down the road, open the gate to a tiny, overgrown yard in front of a tiny, unkempt cottage, and draw water from the old stone well, using the galvanized bucket and chain which were there. Father O’Donnell told us that there was a person living there who could not go out of the house, and that was their way of helping the church.
If you are Catholic, or high-church Episcopalian, then you will understand the role of the Deacon at Mass. He is an ordained minister who directly assists the priest. Usually, when two priests are at Mass together, they “concelebrate,” or say the Mass together. On the occasions when Father O’Donnell was on the altar with Father Dunigan, he often, instead, took the role of a deacon, standing with Father Dunigan and assisting him. He was thus in a much better position than we were to observe him.
One day, during one of our altar boy training classes, he told us that when Father Dunigan pronounced the sacred words of consecration, he became transformed, that his very face seemed to change. He said that it reminded him of the Transfiguration recounted in the Bible and that Father Dunigan was a very holy man.
Now, the first year we were at St. Ann’s, my Mother, bless her heart, got the idea that the altar boys should dress up like Christmas-card choir boys for Mass on Christmas. Enlisting the other ladies of the Altar Rosary Society, she soon arranged for us each to have a stiffly starched Buster Brown collar and a voluminous red bow. We were used to seeing men and boys wearing cassocks, and other things you wouldn’t be caught dead in, outside of church, but this was way too frilly and uncomfortable!
Protest was to no avail. Christmas came, and there we were, red bows hanging from itchy necks. Sigh.
On important Holy Days, Father would sing a high Mass. We would light six candles, instead of two, and make ready the incense. The things we had to do were not that much different than for an ordinary “low” Mass, but there always seemed to be more movements involved, at different times, and, just to confuse the issue, every possible altar boy was included in the proceedings. The ceremony took longer, too, because Father would chant many of the prayers, and the choir would sing others, along with various hymns. The chant, itself, was interesting to see, printed in the Missal. At the time, I was making a half-hearted attempt to learn to play the piano, so I knew what music looked like. Chant, however, used a staff with four lines instead of five and the notes were square.
One Holy Day service that I especially liked was Easter Midnight Mass. For one thing, we got to stay up late. But it also was the most elaborate function of the year. Many objects that were used throughout the year were blessed, and special prayers were sung. Part of the service was the blessing of the new fire. (Boys love pyrotechnics.) The church would be darkened. Outside on the front step, Father would burn, in a special receptacle, the old palms from Palm Sunday. From this fire, he would light a giant candle called the Pascal Candle. (Most churches got a new one every year; but to save money, at St. Ann’s, it would be used year after year, until it was just a stump.) Entering the dark church, with this single candle flame, Father would chant, “Lumen Christe!” (Light of Christ). A little way into the church, he would repeat the call, a little higher, Then once again, on the way to the altar, still higher. Each time, the people would sing in answer, “Deo Gratias!” (Thanks be to God). As the slow procession went on its way, we altar boys would light candles we held from the big candle, and, in turn, light the candles held by the people who were standing closest to the aisle. They would light the candles of their neighbors, and so on, so that by the time Father got to the front of the church, the whole building was alight with the combined glow of many candles.
Master of Ceremonies
For some reason that is still obscure to me, Father O’Donnell decided that I was to become Master of Ceremonies. I still served as an altar boy, but had additional responsibilities.
During the Mass, I was to place the Missal before Father, open it to the appropriate passage, and gesture to it with my finger tips, palm up, thumb folded. Since I couldn’t read Latin, Father O’Donnell would help me find the passages before Mass and I’d mark them with the several colored ribbons that were sewn into the binding of the book.
On special occasions, Father Dunigan would wear a heavy, brocaded cape over his other vestments. When it was time for him to raise his hands over his head, it was my job to hold the edges of the cape up and away from his arms, so as not to impede his movements.
Lastly, and the most fun, I was in charge of the incense. I seems odd to me, now that I am allergic to incense, that I liked it so much then. I thought it smelled great. Anyhow, before Mass, I would light a little disk of charcoal and place it in the censor. The charcoal always lit up without any trouble, and sparked a little in the process. I think it must have had a tiny amount of gunpowder or some such in it.
During High Mass, Father would incense the altar. This was to represent our prayers ascending to Heaven. When it was time, I would bring the censor and a little bowl of incense to him. When he took the incense, I would raise the top of the censor, and he would spoon a little incense on top of the charcoal. Immediately, smoke would rise. Taking the censor from me, he would walk around the altar, incensing front and sides, then he would look up and incense the cross.
When he was through, he would hand the censor back to me and stand, hands folded, while I incensed him. Then, I would turn and proceed to the opening in the altar rail. I would bow to the congregation. They would stand up, and I would incense them from afar, as it were.
As far as I can recall, my other duties consisted of helping to teach the younger altar boys, but there was nothing new about that: we always had shown each other what to do.
The Last Gathering
Life rolled on. Being an altar boy was only one of the many things I did, growing up. I went to school, delivered papers, grew a garden, roamed the hills with my friends, and went fishing with my Dad. My association with our church continued much as I have described.
Then, one summer day in 1960, came the word that Father Dunigan had died. I can’t say that it was a shock. I knew he was old, and I was at an age when you can care, but not feel deeply affected by things. Suddenly, though, for us altar boys, there was a crash course on. In the short span of a couple of days, we had to prepare ourselves to serve at a High Mass of Requiem, said by a bishop! Everything we had learned about Holy Days was compounded, and I for one was nervous about it.
The day before the big event, Father O’Donnell helped me find and mark the passages in the big Missal that would be used at Father Dunigan’s funeral. I went over in my mind what I was to do and when. Mom spiffied up my cassock and surplice, and Dad took me for a haircut.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. The altar boys had gotten dressed, and they were messing around outside the back of the church, because there simply wasn’t room in the sacristy. People had crowded into the church, and now the windows were being opened for those who had to stand outside. The Knights of Columbus were there in their capes and fancy hats. And just to prove that no occasion is without humor, some of them chased us around a bit with their swords drawn.
Father O’Donnell called me out into the parking lot. There was a white-haired priest there, and he introduced me to him. He was a bishop, a classmate of Father Dunigan’s, and he had traveled from India to attend the funeral. I had never met a bishop before and didn’t know what to do, so I knelt down. “No, no,” he said, grasping my hand and pulling me up. “Get up!” He spoke kindly with me for a few moments.
The Archdiocese sent up one of its many spare bishops to say the Mass. I had never heard of him. He had a small retinue with him who crammed into the sanctuary, making it almost impossible for the many altar boys to get around. I remember almost nothing of the ceremony, except for one thing....
It was time for one of the readings. I produced the Missal, set it before the New York bishop, opened it to the passage, and gestured to the beginning phrase. His Excellency looked at me, quietly said, “Thank you,” then flipped the pages until he found the correct reading. I had somehow messed up! Oh, well, Father Dunigan would have understood.
Epilog: Father’s Guns
A few days after Father Dunigan went to join the ranks of the many priests and soldiers who had preceded him, I was helping straighten things up in the rectory. We found there, in the bedroom closet, two guns.
One was an old, long-barreled Army musket, of the type used to fight the Indians out West. I later researched things, and found that returning World War I veterans could buy such a rifle from the Army for $1.25. I believe that Father picked this one up as a memento of his service.
The second gun was a cheap, single-barreled shotgun, the kind that poor farmers would have to take care of “varmints.” When I saw it, the memory of one of Father’s stories came flooding back: (all this in his booming, but humorous voice) “One day, the crows had gathered in great numbers in the trees, so I took my shotgun, (here, he raised his arms as though holding a gun) and fired it into the air, to chase them away!” Then, he grinned.
Memories of St. Ann’s Church
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