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Once, when I needed an altar


Long ago, 20 years before Vatican II, before they decided it was OK for the priest to face the people at Mass, before they decided the Mass prayers in English were as pleasing to God, a feisty nun taught fourth grade in a brick schoolhouse in a small town on the edge of the Dakota prairie.

Long, long before that, decisions had been made that would plunk me down, pigtails and all, in that school. In the late 1800s, Bridget Ann, my father’s mother, heard about the school, the first Catholic grade school in North Dakota, and persuaded her husband, Dan, to give up their western Minnesota farm and move the family 25 miles further west, across the state line, so their 10 children could attend “the sisters’ school.” Dan liked farming, but he loved Bridget Ann, so they moved.

And that was one of the many factors that determined that I, at age 10 an eager little Catholic fascinated by the magic -- the chants, the strange words, the incense, the bowing, the parading around in flowing vestments -- would be one of Sr. Aquin’s students.

Sr. Aquin grew up on a farm with a lot of brothers. She loved to play baseball with the boys at recess. When she ran the bases, yards of black serge flapped. One sturdy arm pumped rhythmically. One hand clapped her veil to her head.

She reserved part of Friday afternoon for art class. She taught us to float a dab of watercolor on dampened paper and admire the swirls that created themselves. She gave us a little square of screen and a toothbrush and taught us to spatter paint. At Thanksgiving, she helped us build a Pilgrim cabin of laths and wrapping paper painted to look like logs. She was, Mama said, a thinker-upper.

When Sr. Aquin was transferred at the end of that school year, I cried all the way home. It was the first great sorrow of my life.

One of Sister’s assignments was to teach the fourth grade Latin -- enough so we could answer the prayers at daily Mass with the altar boys. Early in November, she announced a plan. To help us learn the prayers and all about the Mass, each fourth-grader was to ask his or her father to build a small altar to bring to school.

Sister was a Benedictine from St. Joseph, Minn., close to the largest Benedictine monastery in the world, where the liturgical movement was even then percolating.

Altars, Sister declared, should be plain to focus attention on the important action happening there. No statues in niches. This was news, since the big, two-steepled church across the street had three life-size statues gazing down from tall niches.

Our parents were to supply not only an altar but also a tabernacle, a priest and vestments. I suppose there was consternation in homes throughout the town that night. My mom, I knew, would be easy. She taught in a one-room school south of town. She knew that when a teacher said bring something to school, you were supposed to bring it.

My dad was a different story. He could build anything if he wanted to. He was a lineman like two of his brothers, the ornery one who lived next door and the one who died high on a pole the year before I was born. But power companies hadn’t strung much line in Depression years and still weren’t stringing much with the nation was gearing up for another war. The power company called Daddy out only when sleet storms took the lines down. Mostly he drove Mama to her school in the old Buick in the morning and picked her up at the end of the day. Sometimes he drank too much.

Daddy was reading a cowboy novel after supper when I told him about needing an altar. I could tell he thought it was a dumb idea. “I don’t know, Patty,” he said. “We’ll see.”

My brother, Buddy, had a doll named Jimmy who had green pants and a little zipper jacket. Buddy liked toy cars and trucks and airplanes, and didn’t play with Jimmy much. But Buddy said no. Absolutely not. Mama said she’d talk to him.

And that was it. I didn’t hear any more about it. I coaxed and wheedled and made a fuss at mealtimes. But nothing. No signs of building. No sewing. We were supposed to bring our altars to school right after Christmas vacation, and I was worried.

My family didn’t seem to see how much I wanted to be like everybody else, how much I wanted to do what Sister said.

Well, Christmas morning came, and you can guess. Underneath the Christmas tree was the most wonderful, cream-colored altar mounted on two broad steps. Altars were supposed to have three, because Jesus fell three times, I think, but the steps didn’t matter. The tabernacle was made from half a wooden codfish box and painted gold. Its door swung open on tiny hinges and it had a pearl nailed on for a doorknob. Jimmy stood there, wearing a white satin vestment with a gold Christmas ribbon cross on the back.

When I took my altar to school, I had the second best altar in the room. Jerome Miller had the best. Jerome had heart trouble and everybody always thought he was going to die, but he didn’t. Jerome had a whole church with electric lights and a tabernacle. He had a priest and two servers. And he had little brass candlesticks and altar vessels his parents ordered from Minneapolis

We kept our altars on the ledge in front of the windows, and when it was time to practice the Mass prayers we would bring them to our desks and move the priest dolls from the epistle side to the gospel side and to the center, where the important stuff happened.

Many years later, after I had raised children of my own, I met a nun who knew Sr. Aquin’s address. I visited her in a convent in Wisconsin. She was old and achy and had arthritis in her knees. She said she liked to go to garage sales in search of cartoon books from which to clip artwork to paste on cards and letters sent to relatives and friends. After that I received one of her creations for every holiday. She died a few years ago, but she’s carefully wrapped in my Christmas memories.

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999