Bill Kraft Shares an Altar Boy’s Tale of a Tail

Kraft, Bill. "Bill Kraft Shares an Altar Boy’s Tale of a Tail." Emmons County Record, 9 April 2009, 1 & 3.

Father Matthew Fettig, O.S.B., poised with the Altar Boys of Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in 1947.  Pictured are, back row, left to right, Ronald Keller, Ernest Borr, Jr., Frank Fischer, Michael Dosch, Jr., Thomas Kraft and Wayne Fischer; middle, Pat Fettig, Donald Miller, Robert Wagner, Donald Fettig and Richard Eberle; front, Arnold Feist, Robert Kraft, Henry Fischer, George Kraft and Alois Schwan. (Photo reprinted with permission of the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, NDSU Libraries, Fargo.)

(Editor’s note: This story is reprinted with permission of Minnesota Moments. It first appeared in the magazine’s January/February 2009 issue.)

In Strasburg, North Dakota, of the 1940’s, young boys shared a common heritage. It was a given, like the Yankees winning the pennant, that when you reached a certain age of about eight or nine you entered the sacred fraternity of altar boys at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church. 

Our group, though not bound by any formal structure or strictures, was a de facto brotherhood bonded by the common experience of serving Mass in the local parish

Though our group was informal, admission to it did entail certain qualification and requirements, nevertheless. One such stipulation was mandatory. Altar boys had to recite Mass prayers in Latin. It was linguistic barrier removed a decade or two later with the advent of the English Mass. In the meantime, however, it was a challenge so daunting it might have dissuaded the less fervent from pursuing it. 

We met the challenge with an eager naiveté so determined that nothing could thwart us in pursuit of our goal. In earnest we began the arduous task of memorizing Latin phrases that sounded like gibberish without the accompanying English translation at hand.

One such barrier, however, loomed before us like Mount Everest. It was the Confiteor, the lengthy prayer of penitence that struck fear into every aspiring altar boy intrepid enough to scale its summit.  Despite our most valiant efforts to master the Confiteor, we soon found ourselves, sinking in a syntactical quagmire from which only a practiced linguist could extricate himself.

Confronted with what seemed to be the irresolvable, we chose between two alternatives. One was to surrender. The other was to improvise. We chose to improvise.

Early into our recital of the Confiteor, our cadence took on a pace that accelerated with each mumbled phrase, each incantation more rapid and more unintelligible than the one before.  Presumably, our deception would pass as a prayer devout enough to elevate us into a "higher plane of communication" with the Divine. In practice, our mumblings were but the subterfuge of altar boys without even the most tenuous grasp of the Latin language.

I was never certain whether Father Matthew was on to our deception or whether, in the spirit of charity, he chose magnanimously to condone our "benign sacrilege." 

Altar boys were assigned to serve a given number of days. If you "had week," it meant you were to be at Sts. Peter and Paul’s about one half hour before services for the ensuing seven days.
In the sacristy we slipped into the traditional garb, a black or red cassock that extended from the shoulders to mid ankle and a white gossamer surplice that fell over the shoulder to the waist. The surplice was textured so finely as to leave the impression of fingers brushing over a smooth yet hard nylon surface. It was the sort of tactile sensuousness your fingers never forget. The surplice slipped over your head with a swishing sound and settled lightly onto the shoulders. I always thought it looked like the kind of flamboyant frippery of an Errol Flynn costume in The Sea Hawk.

In the sacristy, we filled the water and wine bottles for the offertory and then proceeded to a chore that filled me with trepidation. Someone, in front of the parishioners, had to light the candles on the high altar. What might have been a mundane task for a steady hand became a daunting challenge to hands like mine never known for their sure and precise dexterity.

From behind the altar I fetched a long pole with a wick on its end. The object was to reach high to the middle of the altar and gently touch the lighted wick to the candle until it blossomed into flame.  With my back to the congregation, I stood with tremulous hands in futile frustration and attempted to find my target high on the altar. Encroaching panic soon became capitulation when I fled the altar to take sanctuary in the sacristy.

If humility in an altar boy is indeed a virtue, it is a virtue I inadvertently cultivated every time I tried to light the candles. By week’s end I could legitimately lay claim as the humblest of them all.

On the other hand, I might have claimed a certain pride in having manifested the symptoms of new syndrome for altar boys. It never had a name, but maybe they should have called it Calamity by Candlelight Syndrome.

Once we had dispensed with the preliminaries for Mass, we waited inside the sacristy for the service to begin. The anticipated moment arrived when the priest tugged on a bell at the entry. The resounding clang in my ears and the sudden rush of my heart beat meant we were "on." There was a mild dizziness spinning in my head, a bit of panic-induced vertigo. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but years later I learned that actors called it stage fright.

I think it was right before the offertory, the offering of bread and wine for consecration, that my partner, Jimmy Bauer, broke the tension. As Father Mathew carried out the solemn deliberations, Jimmy lifted his cassock, reached into his back pocket and pulled out three furry gopher tails. With a casual disregard for the solemn proceedings at hand, Jimmy ran the tails through his fingers like the affectionate owner of a beloved pet. Maybe Huckleberry Finn never did it, but he should have.  Life is better with some innocuous irreverence in it. 

More irreverence was forthcoming on liturgical occasions that called for All-Servers. The designation of All-Servers was reserved for grand occasions like Christmas or Easter Sunday and Holy Week, times when every altar boy took part in the service. Palm Sunday was one of them, and the dispensing of palms to each altar boy proved too much a burden on our self-restraint. What boy’s imagination can resist the temptation of transforming a palm into a sword or a spear?

With our imaginary spears and swords we pricked, with the éclat of a swashbuckler, the ticklish necks of altar boys lined in front of us in rows before the altar. I don’t know whether the Lord was amused, but I hope that when my time comes Saint Peter has a sense of humor at the gate.

Author Bill Kraft is a native of Strasburg and is the youngest of the 11 children of the late Pius and Agatha (Baumgartner) Kraft. Kraft graduated from Strasburg High School in 1958 and from St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., in 1962. He taught four years of high school English in Minnesota and spent 10 years working for the Central Minnesota Libraries Exchange at St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minn. His writings/commentaries have appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Bismarck Tribune and Minnesota Moments. Kraft is retired and living in Sauk Rapids, Minn.

At communion time those about to receive the host approached in single file to kneel at the communion railing. Ours was notable for its ornate magnificence and the loving craftsmanship that went into its intricate design. Maybe the hands that built it left it as homage to the glory of God.  Its removal years later left an aesthetic void that has never been filled in Sts. Peter and Paul Church. The current practice of dispensing the host to the congregation as it files by may be more expedient; but I, for one, having to choose between expediency and aesthetics, would choose the latter. 

Current services have also dispensed with an instrument once part of the proceedings at Communion time. At the priest’s side, the altar boy carried a paten, a circular shaped gold plate with a handle. The patent held firmly under the chin of the host’s recipient prevented consecrated crumbs from falling to the floor. 

On those occasions when a fellow altar boy knelt at the railing, I felt obliged to nudge his Adam’s apple with a slight shove to the paten. While a witness might have interpreted my prank as a mild case of hazing, I prefer to attribute it to a far nobler cause. I was merely nudging a fellow altar boy onto a path of spiritual progress.

Our journey on the path of spiritual progress was, depending on your point of view, also aided by the main event of the Sunday service. It was the homily, a lengthy discourse to a penitent congregation in need of redressing its transgressions. While a short homily may have its virtues, a lengthy one does not. Far too often, the ones I heard were delivered without benefit of Mark Twain’s observation that "Few sinners are saved after the first twenty minutes of a sermon."

It was customary for homilies to run a full hour. Had those sermons been more "virtuous," I daresay the departed souls from Sts. Peter and Paul might have found their way to Heaven in greater numbers.

If some of those homilies were distinguished by their inordinate length, others were remarkable for their portentous tone. Some of Father Matthew’s predecessors and successors in the pulpit seemed to have been taught in the Jonathan Edwards School of discourse. Their sermons descended on the faithful with a fulminating admonition that unless spiritual amends were made, the afterlife would be a blistering place, indeed. Those versed in early American literature might have assumed that the text of the homily was a paraphrasing of Jonathan Edwards’s "Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God."

Dire admonitions resounded from the pulpit with such force I might have fancied a slight trembling in the chandeliers overhead. But I was certain of one thing. The trembling in my soul was real. The spirit of Jonathan Edwards seems to have vanished from modern worship in the churches I attend. I prefer to believe that contemporary spirits are more schooled in the virtues of mercy and forgiveness.

In addition to daytime services, altar boys were occasionally assigned to serve at Saturday night devotions in the summer. On hot summer nights, boys have more pressing priorities. They prefer to be somewhere else. Like at the movies.

Though Saturday devotions ran but an hour, for me, that hour defined a familiar concept. Time is relative. An hour of rosary and confessions, though edifying for its participants, seemed not to end for a young boy with visions of Roy Rogers and his horse, Trigger, disposing of Black Bart at the local theater. It always seemed unfair that Roy’s heroics on the screen flashed by swift as a bullet while that hour of devotions seemed closer to my idea of the eternal.

I always thought those more concerned with their eternal rewards during devotions were missing too much fun. My rewards were more temporal. A young boy always thinks cowboys are more fun than prayers. That is why I bolted for the theater the moment I stuffed my cassock and surplice into the closet after church.

Summer had other rewards, too. That was when Father Matthew demonstrated his gratitude for our services. Our first reward was a trip to Wishek and a dip in the only swimming pool between home and Bismarck. The other was a ring with a gold band and a blue/white stone with a cross in the middle. You’d never find it at Tiffany’s, but it was a memento I would cherish for a long time.  Almost as much as the memory of gopher tails in Jimmy Bauer’s back pocket.

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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