Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for a long, long year,
Stole many a man’s soul and faith.
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ,
Had his moment of doubt and pain.
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate…
~Rolling Stones – Sympathy for The Devil
I remember the days of girlhood when I could run forever, jump high, skip rope, swim the lake and turn cartwheels. I was this little girl with black curly hair, green eyes, a few freckles and a quick smile. I was full of energy, giggles and good ideas. I knew the rules and I almost always followed them. I went to church on Sundays and sang all the hymns, firmly clasping hands with my neighbours at the peace of Christ. I was the good girl.
So, when my new parish priest made an announcement inviting girls to be altar servers, I was so happy. I really wanted to be an altar server. I wanted to ring the bell, on the altar, during mass with the whole congregation watching, like I had watched some of my brothers do so many times.
Training ensued with Father 0’Malley. There were ten of us and we needed to be taught what was what. How to wear the robe. How to prepare the altar. When to ring the bell. He was very strict and he taught us to be exact. Serious. Precise.
Then the day came for my debut as an altar server. It went well. I had been to hundreds of masses. I kinda had a sense of how it all worked, by then. I was on the schedule and looked forward to being the sole server during a week of early morning masses. I would ride my bike the mile to church, leaving home after breakfast at 7 am, making sure my school bag had my basketball uniform and shoes for practice after school. At 7 am the world wouldn’t even be awake yet. It was a fresh perspective. Funnily enough, it made me feel a little homesick. I shook it off an almost foreboding feeling and soldiered on.
Arriving at the church, I took a moment to notice the beautifully groomed grounds leading to the large polished oak door to the sacristy. The church was ultra modern, brick and wood with a non-steeple. Curved walk ways and parking lot surrounded by green, groomed lawns, shaded by tall mature hardwoods. I parked my bike. I didn’t need to lock it because my brother who regularly helped himself to my bike wouldn’t be in the vicinity so it was safe. I had tucked my pant leg into my socks to safeguard it from the chain. I righted this and as I did so, felt butterflies a flutter in my belly.
Opening the door I sniffed the familiar church scent of burning candles mixed with a slight residue of incense. On my left was a wall of smooth oak paneling. Or so it seemed. I found the hidden handle and pulled. Reluctantly, and with a sucking sound, the massive closet door opened and into it I put my school bag and jacket. As I closed the door, Father O’Malley appeared and somewhat startled me. He wore a big creepy smile as he approached, saying, ‘Good morning, Martha!’ He wrapped his large arm around my small shoulders, his hairy man hand landing on my budding chest. In slow motion and with an out-of-body awareness, I witnessed and felt his large hand squeeze my young breast. Then both hands took my shoulders and he propelled me to the next cupboard which held my gown and hastened me to prepare for mass, perhaps not wanting me to dwell on what had just happened.
Later that day, as soon as I could get Mom alone, which wasn’t easy with so many siblings, I told her about it, not wanting to go back the next morning. She said, ‘Oh Mart, you must be mistaken. Father O’Malley is a priest. A priest would never do that.’ Then she encouraged me to be a good girl and go back the next day.
Every morning was a repeat performance by Father O’Malley: the smiley greeting, the hairy man-hand grope, the hastening and physical propelling of my shoulders to mass. Years later, I began to wonder if he had orchestrated girl altar servers – the first in the history of the parish – so that he would have his pick of girls to fondle.
As soon as I could get away with it, I quit altar serving and eventually, I quit Catholicism. Any organization with forced celibacy is going to be a problem for someone.