I used to be Irish Catholic.
I used to be Irish Catholic. Now I’m an American—you grow. George Carlin
The single greatest influence in our lives was the church. The Catholic Church in the 1960s differs from what it is today, especially in the Naugatuck Valley, in those days an overwhelmingly conservative Catholic place.
I was part of what might have been the last generation of American Catholic children who completely and unquestioningly accepted the supernatural as real. Miracles happened. Virgin birth and transubstantiation made perfect sense. Mere humans did in fact, become saints. There was a Holy Ghost. Guardian angels walked beside us and our patron saints really did put in a good word for us every now and then.
Church was at the center of our lives. Being a Roman Catholic back then was no small chore. In fact, it was a lot of work. The Mass was in Latin, conducted with the priest’s back to the flock. (We were a flock. Protestant were the more democratically named “congregation.”)
Aside from Sunday Mass there were also eleven Holy Days of Obligation that we had to attend, and then there were the all-important sacraments of First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation, all ornate and dramatic affairs that happened within a few years of each other.
We dressed properly in a suit coat and tie for Sunday mass. Fridays were meatless as a means of penance. At school, there was prayer in the morning before classes began, prayer before lunch, prayer after lunch and prayer before we went home. There was also a half-hour of religion class every day. And there was fasting. In those days, Catholics fasted eight hours before receiving communion.
Then there was confession on Saturday, mandatory because Sunday Mass was also mandatory and so was taking Holy Communion, which could not be accepted without first going to confession. We had to go to confession twice in a week: once on Fridays, since the nuns were convinced none of us would go on our own over the weekend, and then once again on Saturday afternoons when Helen made us go.
When I made my first confession at age seven, we were taught that there were two types of sin: mortal sins, which were serious sins, and venial sins, which were lesser sins, lying and disobedience. The nuns said that we would have to narrow our selection to venial sins since we were far too young to have any mortal sins against our soul.
One of little girls in the group raised her hand and asked, “What’s adultery?”
“Nothing to worry yourself over, dear,” the nun answered, “It’s for adults, and it is a most grievous offense against God.” I liked the sound of that, “most grievous offense against God.” Sounded serious.
Confession was a big deal and involved a lot of formality—kneeling in darkness, foreign languages, and solemnity—and I didn’t waste all that somberness with unworthy sins, so when the priest slid open the little wooden door that separated us in the dark I began my prayer.
“Deus meus, ex toto corde paenitet me omnium meorum peccatorum—” In full, the words meant “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins because I fear the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”
Then the sins were confessed. I told the priest I had committed adultery.
“Adultery, huh?” the priest said.
“Yes, Father,” I answered as solemnly as I could. “Adultery.”
“So, how’d that work out for you?” he asked.
“Ah,” I answered, “you know.”
“No,” he said, “actually I don’t. So how many times did you do this, this adultery?”
“Like, I think, three times, Father.”
“I see,” he said. “And during those times, were you alone or with others?”
“No, Father, I was alone.”
“And do you think you’ll be committing this sin again in the near future?”
“Naw, Father,” I answered. “I’m pretty much over it.”
As the years went and I became more confessional-savvy, I learned that the dumber the sin, the lighter the penance, the prayer for forgiveness that one was required to say up at the altar after the confession had ended.
So in the name of efficiency, I developed a pre-packaged list of dumb sins, like “I disobeyed my mother,” or “I fought with my brother,” or “I failed to say my nightly prayer.”
Through trial and error, I learned that every now and then I would have to toss a more serious sin into the mix or the priests might get testy and tax me with a big penance. So I tossed in the fail-safe sex sin, “I had evil thoughts about _____” and would fill in the name of the girl who struck me at the moment. I rotated the sins and the priests, and, overall, the system worked.
One Saturday, Denny and his gang of desperadoes showed up for confession and slid into the pew with me and waited for our turn at the confessional.
Denny turned to me and said, “Johnny, you got any good sins?”
Feeling magnanimous, I shared my formula for a hassle-free confession, and in closing said, “And then you say ‘I had evil thoughts about Mary Puravich,’ or whatever,’” using the name of a pretty girl from my class.
Denny shared my sin system with his friends, who were always in a hurry to cut their way to the front of the line, have their confessions heard, and leave without saying their penance. I went in to the confessional and said my piece, ending with, “and I had evil thoughts about Mary Puravich.”
“You know,” said the priest, “I gotta meet this Mary Puravich. She must be some kind of knockout, because the last four guys in here said the same thing about her.”
For all purposes, school was an extension of church, and unlike the way we lived in Waterbury, school was no longer optional. We were to be at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic School, in uniform, Monday through Friday from eight a.m. until three p.m. No excuses.
Because I lacked almost any formal education at that point, I couldn’t read or write, so it was decided that I should start school from the beginning—first grade—making me roughly two years older than my classmates.
Assumption was already over fifty years old. Walter and his sisters had been schooled there in the 1930s and the building , basically unchanged, had nothing sleek or new. It had sixteen classrooms for two hundred and fifty students, no gymnasium or cafeteria, highly polished wooden floors, and enormously large windows that each had to be opened and closed with a long pole with a hook on the end of it.
Our teachers were members of the Sisters of Mercy, an order formed in Ireland in 1831 to aid the poor, arriving in America in 1843 to minister to the famished Irish flocking to the states. Several of the nuns who had taught Walter were still living at the convent and filling in as substitute teachers, and one or two of them were still teaching full-time.
Classes began with the ringing of an enormous brass handbell by a nun who was strong enough to pick it up and move it around. Boys and girls played apart from each other on different sides of the school yard. The boys were clad in white shirts and green ties with the letter A sewn into the middle of them, black slacks, black socks, and black lace-up shoes. Loafers and pointed-toe shoes, then all the rage because of the Beatles, were forbidden. The girls were required to wear black Mary Janes, white or green knee socks, and a green dress uniform with an under slip, and a white, button-down shirt. They were also issued green beanies to wear in church, although I can’t recall that any of the girls ever wore one.
Just beneath the schoolyard was Farrell’s Foundry. At different times of the day, the mill released its afterburn from the enormous smokestacks that dotted the skyline. Tens of thousands of black specks shot into the air, making it look like a black-snow blizzard had hit our little town. The specks rained down on our white shirts, ruining them forever with ink-black spots of burned iron.
Every school day started with a prayer, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance and then religion class. Sometimes one of the priests stopped by during religion class and opened the floor to discussions, wrongly assuming the questions would be deep and theological. What he got was, “Father, all right, look, if the Russians fired an atomic bomb at us and Jesus flies out of heaven and swallows it and it explodes in his stomach—will he be dead?”
The best one came from Peggy Sullivan, who asked, “If Jesus shaves off his beard, will he lose all his magical powers?” and then, pausing to catch her breath, “and if so, how screwed are we?”
One kid in the class, Patsy Sheehan, resented having to learn certain things about our religion the difference between venial sins and mortal sins, the Act of Contrition and so on. When the priest told us we that we had to choose a middle name for our confirmation, Patsy complained, “I got enough on my plate already.”
The priest insisted she pick a new middle name. Patsy asked, “What’s Jesus’s middle name?”
“He’s Jesus. He doesn’t have one,” the priest answered.
“So, what’s he, special?” Patsy asked.
Then there was Martin O’Toole, a wonderful, magnificent liar. He lied in such awesome, Herculean fashion that his tales were artful, Homeric. Our nun once asked, “Mr. O’Toole, why have you not turned in your homework?”
Martin waited until he had everyone’s attention and then stood slowly and dramatically from his desk, put his hands on his tiny waist and said, “Sister, last night I was in my back yard playing when I picked up a rock from the ground.” He then recounted the scene of him picking up what must have been a boulder the size of Rhode Island, “and as soon as I picked it up, oil! Bubbling crude came bursting out of the ground, millions of gallons of it! I was soaked in oil.” He paused and looked around the room and added, in hushed tones, “It took me hours to put that rock back on that oil and save this entire city.”
He returned to his seat and said, “And that’s why I didn’t time to do my homework, Sister.”
The nun’s jaw had dropped, and the silence of the moment was broken only when Micky Sullivan, a dense and gullible child, asked, “What kind of oil was it, Martin?”
“Esso,” he replied. “It was Esso oil.”
Many years later, Johnny became mayor of a small town in the Valley. An investigation of the town’s finances showed fifty thousand dollars missing from the treasury and all the evidence pointed to Martin. When asked to produce the town’s books, Martin said, that “The books are gone. Mice ate them.” He served two years in federal prison.
Then there was Ilene Flynn, a little red-haired, freckled-faced, fair-skinned girl who was more pious than the Pope. I knew a lot about her because the nuns thought we looked alike and paired me with her for all religious functions.
At our First Holy Communion, Ilene was so nervous her mouth went dry. Unable to swallow the host and forbidden to touch it—only a priest could do that—she ran around in circles crying hysterically, “Jesus is stuck in my mouth! Jesus is stuck in my mouth!” while the nuns flocked around her shouting instructions about swallowing, “Go like this, Ilene, go like this!” and then they did a swallowing demonstration that made them look a lot like penguins eating long fish.
Ilene’s Friday afternoon confessions were epic. She confessed to everything, I mean absolutely everything, and she actually said all of her penance, unlike the rest of us who negotiated a lighter-sentence deal with God before we got to the rail. My policy on penance was one for five. If I were given thirty Hail Marys as penance, in the deal God and I worked out, I said six.
Once, Ilene came out of the confessional in tears, wailing loud enough to wake the dead.
“What is it, Ilene?” Sister asked. “What happened?”
“Father O’Leary told me I’m going to hell on a lying rap,” she wailed, “and I don’t know what a rap is!”