It was almost too much to take in.
The Mass had just ended, and I sat with my wife and girls in the back pew as we waited for the christening of my friend’s baby to start. The alter boy strode down the aisle, his oversized and untied shoes making a loud clumping sound with each step he took.
He had synchronized each step with the chewing of gum. He stopped in the middle of the aisle and high-fived a friend of his who had just sent a text from his pew.
Thank God Sister Helen was dead, because this display would have killed her! Sister Helen was the nun that was responsible for managing the schedules and appearance of the altar boys at St. Ann’s Jersey City when I was a wee tyke there in the seventies.
I was on the young side of the altar boy range and was terrified of Sister Helen, a zaftig old Polish nun who taught the higher grades. She was impeccably dressed in a smart blue suit with neatly trimmed nails; those hands would be the last thing you’d see in an explosion of range that would ensue if your appearance didn’t cut the mustard.
I remembered one morning when I was serving a funeral Mass. I was very excited because it was a plum gig not only because you got out of some classes, but you also got between $5 and $10 from the distraught families for your service.
I had the audacity to wear my “Gass Shoes,” these soft tan suede things with the large yellowish rubbery sole that were sold at Kinney’s back in the day. These were THE shoe in the fifth grade, but St. Helen’s expectation was more on the laced-up leather than the suede number I was sporting.
“Come here,” she would say, her fat and wrinkled finger curling in front of her face as she beckoned me over. I stood in front of her and she looked down like I just tracked dog crap into the sacristy.
“Might I remind you, young man, that you are in the House of God,” she hissed, her jaw clenching.
“St. Peter will turn you away if he gets a load of those hideous things on your feet. I’m surprised your mother let you out of the house looking like that, and you can tell her I said that!” Of course I did no such thing. My mother needed convincing at the cash register that these shoes would adhere to the strict dress code guidelines of our school.
If my Limerick-born mom found out I lied and a nun thought less of her parenting based on this poor choice of footwear, she would not be able to darken the door of the school ever again over the embarrassment of it all.
A slap upside the head was administered on the spot. My clasp hands rubbed the cheek that she hit as I kneeled in the pew and prayed I was sent away to seats near the confessional to reflect on what I had done. I kneeled and began mumbling these prayers at her request to “ask Jesus for guidance.”
I never thought the Son of God was a poor shoe shepherd to his flock, choosing to run barefoot or with cheap sandals as depicted in the images of him on our stain-glassed windows. Where is the example in that?
The idea of chewing gum or playing with a device in the pew would have sent Sister Helen over the edge. I channeled the old nun in my pew, scowling disapprovingly at the boys throughout the Christening ceremony.
These altar boys today don’t have the spit-shined look and feel that we did when the fear of a nun’s wrath kept us on the straight and narrow and that is sad.
Mike Farragher’s humorous essays can be found in his two essay books. Visit www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com for more information.
The history behind “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”