Church Back in the Day

Going to church today is vastly different from my childhood, and from what I have read, 1964 was when a very large line was drawn in the sand between the old and new mass. That was the year priests turned and faced the congregation, and parts of the service were now recited in English. As a young child,I recall going to church and not understanding a word the priest said because it was all spoken in Latin. Mass began with the words: “In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti”, which is translated as the familiar “In the name of the Father, and Son and Holy Spirit”.

This was all so mysterious and confusing to me, yet the entire congregation all knew how to respond with the familiar “Amen.” I remember hearing random phrases uttered and translating them into my own words. When the priest would say, “Dominus vobiscum” (The Lord be with you), the congregation would answer, “et cum spiritu tuo” (and also with you). In my head, I was absolutely convinced that we were being told God’s telephone number, “EC-220.”

I need to digress a bit. Growing up, all phone numbers began with an “exchange.” Ours was “Deerfield 4”, which was shortened to DE4. So our early telephone number began with “DE4”, followed by four digits. (No area codes then) So if you follow my logic as a little girl, you may understand why I thought the priest was informing us of God’s phone number. (Did I think it was in case of an emergency when prayer wasn’t fast enough to reach Him?)

I remember the aroma of incense permeating every corner of our church. On one occasion, I announced to the congregation in my playground voice, “I smell carrots.” Hearing that, and imagining those words coming from a small child’s mouth, I laugh now and hope Grandma felt the same way.

Back then, everyone dressed for church. No one ever crossed the threshold of our church wearing jeans, sneakers, sandals, or shorts. Such irreverent behavior would have you escorted to the nearest door. Men wore ties, and women were clothed in dresses, white gloves, and always, always, always, a hat. The hats were not simply a matter of style, but rather a requirement. If, by chance, you somehow did not have a hat, you would take a tissue and bobby-pin it onto your head. (I am not joking!)

No one was permitted to receive communion without fasting. I believe that the early rule forbade all food for three hours, and no liquids, except water, for one hour prior to receiving communion. That was difficult and was probably the reason Grandma was able to get us all out the door so early. Get up, go to church, and hurry home to have breakfast. And those were the days before Saturday evening masses were allowed to fulfill your “Sunday obligation.” No one considered complaining. You just did it because those were the rules.

First communion and first confession happened in first grade, and like your first communions, we all wore our little bridal outfits. I remember being so afraid of confession, and back then, they made you go often. How many sins does a six year old actually commit, and did you really keep track of the number of times you committed each sin? (Kelly, I am so sorry about literally pushing you into the confessional. I still harbor some guilt about that moment.)

As I recall, I would recite the commandments in my head, skipping over “thou shalt not commit adultery” and “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” because, well, I didn’t comprehend the meaning of adultery and I had no wife.  However, I did have parents to honor, but did I really know how many times I committed each crime? So I would decide on my list of sins to confess, and then add at least one more sin, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (translation: don’t lie) to compensate for not really knowing how many categories of sins I committed.

One final thought about religion did not occur in church, but is definitely church-related. Every day at school, either before or after the Pledge of Allegiance, we would all recite “The Lord’s Prayer.” My interpretation was that God’s name was Harold (“Harold be thy name”), and someone was taking us all to Penn Station (“lead us not into Penn Station”). I am confident that I was not alone with those beliefs. I was just taught to memorize the prayer but never given an explanation. Certain things you just accepted and never questioned.

You could always tell who in the class was Catholic and who was not, because the Catholic children would always stop short of reciting the prayer at “deliver us from evil”, while the rest would continue with “and thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” I was always confused, but that was how it was taught to us. Several years ago the Catholic Church finally decided to join the parade and now recites the little thing at the end like everyone else.

In 1962, just after the end of second grade, prayer in public school ended. I am not pointing this out to begin a political discussion or a discourse on the Constitution, because I only want to give you all a window into what life was back when I was young. No debates, please. Church was just different.

Karen and Maureen with grandmothers after first communion- 1962.

Karen and Maureen with grandmothers after first communion- 1962.

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