The church was small and dimly lit, the smell of wax and wine prevailing, with a little mustiness to accentuate the venue. St Joseph the Worker church was a small old place, which served as a summer missionary church for many years. The priest traveled by horseback to say the Sunday mass for a handful of worshipers at the turn of the century, well into the 1950’s.
Now a young and thriving parish with the inclusion of many new homes that were built, accommodating a growing influx from New York City, Queens and Brooklyn, St. Joseph the Worker was on the move. Predominately an Irish and Italian American parish, the little church, situated on Montauk Highway was the centerpiece of the Catholic community.
It was there, in East Patchogue, or Hagerman, depending on what you wanted to call it, that I started to make a real mark on the world. My buddy, Jerry Murray was an altar boy, and invited me to join the small group of altar servers. On a spring Sunday morning, Mom had invited all my aunts and uncles, and my grandmother from Brooklyn to come out and join in on my first mass as an altar boy.
Being an altar boy was a big deal in Mom’s eyes. Having studied the card that had all the Latin I would need to know, memorized, I was ready to serve. After a few months of service, I think Mom came to believe, maybe if this nut case is serving; it isn’t such a big deal. Mom prayed that I would become a priest, and be swallowed up by the diocese, never to be heard from again, until my ordination, and final election as a Pope!
Being how the altar boys were just a handful, the priest had no choice but to let me serve, and became even more prayerful. I gave him reason to pray.
On that faith-filled Sunday morning, the altar was stocked with two old pro altar boys, and two new for the first time, making their debut’s as God’s attempted reclamation of two possible wayward souls, altar boys. From that Sunday onward, the solemnity of the title; “altar boy” somehow lost it’s luster.
Whenever I was assigned a mass, it was with another altar boy. Usually you did one of two things as a responsibility. You either rang the bells, or you assisted the priest with the paten or communion plate. I always wanted the plate. Why? Glad you asked. With the plate, I could: stick it into someone’s Adam’s apple if I didn’t particularly like them, tease a girl by raising the plate under her chin, seeing if I could make her stand a little, or if I liked her, rub the plate under her chin, softly almost teasingly!
When I had the bells, I had the power! Yes, ring the bells and people stood, knelt, or if you wore a white coat and had a truck, bought ice cream! When I rang the bells, I would try to make the other altar boy laugh by mouthing the words: “Ice cream.”
I was once almost thrown off the altar boys because of my marketing skills! After Sunday mass, we would sell the tablet outside the main entrance of the church. As the congregation left the portals of God’s house, we would hold a bunch of Catholic newspapers called the Tablet and call out: “Tablet.”
One Sunday I felt a little stupid calling out: “Tablet”, and since the church was changing over to the vernacular, I thought I’d get a little more enterprising.
“Tablet, read all about it, Pope changing his religion!”
It was true, I sold all my papers, and when I returned to the sacristy, the priest was waiting for me.
“Joseph, please refrain from salesmanship, and just sell the paper, or you will be reading about your own change of religion! DO I MAKE MYSELF, CLEAR?”