Bless Me Father

It was the first Friday in May of 1955 and eight year old Pat Fournier was going to confession… but what would he confess to? In this eighth installment of his memoir “Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville”, Pat recalls the story of how the misfortune of another child from his neighbourhood lead to his own predicament with Father Nowlan on confession day.

BLESS ME FATHER
Written by Pat Fournier

May 1955 – eight years old

The First Friday of the month.

I hated first Friday of the month!

‘Cause it was a rule that Catholics had to go to confession on the first Friday of the month.

And I don’t think anybody liked going into that little confessional booth in the church and telling old Father Nowlan their sins.  I know I sure didn’t!

But our mother was a strict Catholic, and made sure that me and my brother and sisters learned our prayers, went to mass every Sunday morning, and went to confession on the first Friday of the month.  And there was no getting out of it!

Oh, yes, Mom really was a strict Catholic!  One time me and Johnny and Marjorie and Katharine walked down the hill to go to Sunday mass, and we knew we were late, so we were rushing.  But when we got to the big front doors of St. Raphael’s church, we could tell that mass had already started, because the choir was already singing the Kyrie eleison!

We looked at each other, wondering whether we should go in or not.  And while we all thought it would be embarrassing to be seen going in late, we also knew that if we didn’t go to mass that Mom would be mad at us.

“Are you going to go in?” asked Johnny, as he looked up at Katharine.  Katharine was the oldest, so we often looked to her for advice on what to do.

“I don’t think so”, she said.  “They’re already singing the Kyrie eleison, so I think it’s too late to go in now.”

“Yeah, but what will Mom say?” asked Marjorie.

“Well”, Katharine replied, “she knew we might be late when we left home, so maybe she won’t say anything.”

All the while I just stood there silently, and, being the youngest, really didn’t know what I should do or who I should follow – – to go into the church, or to go back home again.

Finally, Katharine decided that she would rather not be embarrassed by being seen going into church late, and started walking back home.  And Johnny decided to go with her.  However, despite the fact that the choir had now finished singing the Kyrie eleison, Marjorie and I went into the church, and slipped into a seat in one of the back pews.

Rosary Beads
Rosary Beads

When mass was over and me and Marjorie went back home and went in the house, we found that Mom was not happy at all with Katharine and Johnny not having gone to mass!  She punished them by making them kneel by the couch in the living room and say the rosary!  Oh yes, Mom was a strict Catholic!

And besides being obliged by our mother to go to confession, if we didn’t go, then we couldn’t go to Holy Communion at Sunday’s mass.  And if you didn’t go to Sunday communion, then everyone in church would know, because they would notice that you didn’t leave your seat to get in line in the aisle to go receive communion.  So then they’d know that you’d sinned, and that you’re hiding something and afraid to tell the priest!  And everyone would wonder what bad thing you did!

And I remember seeing someone actually being refused communion once!

The churches of Blackville have always played an integral part in nurturing the village’s population, whether through the words preached from their pulpits, or in social events held at their halls and outdoor grounds, and St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church was certainly no exception.  The church was built in 1890, and the parish rectory, which was residence for the priests who served the parish over the years, was built five years later.

It was remarkable that the modest Catholic population of the small village of Blackville had erected such a beautiful little church, with its impressive interior and altar.  It was indeed a beautiful little church that was surely built, as they say, “to the glory of God”.

The altar area inside the church was a highly-polished wooden floor that was raised a step higher than the rest of the church floor.  And a recessed cavity had been built into the back wall, and that was where the main altar had been erected.  The altar table attached to the front of the altar’s backdrop always had a nice clean ironed altar cloth on it, with golden candle sticks placed on each side.  And there was a little door in the center of the altar, right behind the altar table, where Father Nowlan would reach in and retrieve the chalice that held the Blessed Eucharist.  The ornate backdrop to the altar table was a marvel of white panels, columns, and spires topped with gold fleur-de-lis carvings, and with statues set into insets along the way.

A stained glass window, typical of what would be seen in St. Raphael’s Church
A stained glass window, typical of what would be seen in St. Raphael’s Church

The church had three rows of dark-stained oak pews, with attached kneeling benches, erected from the back of the church to right up close to the railing that separated the raised altar area from the main church floor.  The wide main set of pews advanced down the center of the church.  Then across the aisle on each side of the main row of pews was another narrower set of pews, which abutted the white painted walls.  Stained glass Gothic-arched windows were inset along the walls, and when the sun shone brightly through the windows, beams of coloured light shone into the church through the pictures of the saints and the biblical scenes.

A series of varnished round mahogany pillars spaced beside the side pews supported an upstairs balcony, which held a number of tiered pews on each side, as well as the organ and choir benches at the back.  The balcony was “U” shaped, with the altar up at the open end of the “U”.   And while the pews downstairs were sensibly arranged to face toward the altar, the pews upstairs on each of the side balconies faced the pews on the other side!  And that was such a weird arrangement, because only the people sitting in the front balcony seats could look over their railing and see the congregation in the pews below, as well as look forward and observe the priest serving mass down at the altar.

The balcony was accessed by a set of stairs that angled upwards at the rear entrance of the church, near the large double doors.  Upstairs, behind the choir benches, a door led into the belfry, and if it was left open, you could see Mr. Donahue pulling the rope that rang the church bell.  With two hands he would pull the rope down to knee level, then let the receding rope pull his arms back up over his head, then he’d pull the rope back down again, with the bell all the while tolling for the mass that was about to begin.

Well, every family in the parish had been assigned pews especially to them.  But our pew was not downstairs.  Our assigned family pew was upstairs!

The three rows of pews on the upstairs balcony were tiered, with the pews closest to the balcony railing being lower than the pews stepped behind.  And for some unknown reason, our family had been favoured with being assigned the pew at the front of the balcony railing, and at the front end of the “U”!  So we could look down and see most of the people downstairs, and we could see what was going on down at the altar, too!  The Barry Ross family was assigned to the pew behind us, and I always sensed that they were mad about that, because they couldn’t see anything that was going on at the altar!  They could hear the priest as he said the Latin mass, but they couldn’t see him at all!

Anyway, on this one Sunday, after having already received communion, I went back upstairs to our pew, and was kneeling down on the kneeling bench and looking down at other people receiving communion at the altar railing.  And I actually saw Father Nowlan refusing someone communion!

An altar boy carrying a golden platen preceded Father Nowlan, and held the platen under each person’s chin as they knelt at the communion railing.  Father would say a prayer in Latin as he placed a Blessed Eucharist on the person’s tongue:  “Corpus Domini nostril Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam, Amen”, which meant:  “May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life everlasting, Amen”.  But when he got to Donnie MacKenzie, he nudged the altar boy forward, and went to the next person!  Father Nowlan intentionally ignored Donnie!  Then Donnie blessed himself, in the pretense that he had received communion, and went back to sit in his pew.  I don’t know if anyone kneeling next to Donnie noticed what happened, but from my vantage point at the edge of the balcony upstairs, I sure did!  So somehow, Father knew that Donnie had sinned at something, and that he hadn’t gone to first Friday confession!  I wonder what Donnie did?

Donnie MacKenzie and his family lived just down and across the road from us, and they were not a nice family.  Their family was poor, but there were other families who were having hard times too, so that was no reason to be like they were.  Donnie was known to be a bully, and I know that he bullied my two sisters on their way home from school.  And teacher Laurie Baldwin even ejected Donnie from school one day for being bad in class!  And his brother Dale once brought a bag of apples home to his mother, and when she asked him where he got them, he said:  “Just cook them, Mom.  Never mind where they came from.”  So I think they stole too.

But whatever Donnie did, Father Nowlan knew about it, and had intentionally refused him communion!  It sure must have been something serious!

Well, I wasn’t going to be embarrassed and be talked about for being seen not going to communion.  No way!

So on the first Friday of the month, after returning home from school, I left my books in my room and turned around and walked back down the road to St. Raphael’s to go to confession.  But all the way there, as I walked down the hill, then across the road at the corner of the Station Road by Fred’s Irving, then across the road opposite Ivan Quinn’s store, and through the iron gates at the walkway to the front door of the church – – all the way there! – – I kept wondering:  What am I going to confess?

Did I break any of the Ten Commandments – – that I was having trouble remembering in their proper order?  Well, I didn’t swear, I hadn’t killed anyone, I didn’t miss Sunday mass, I didn’t disobey Mom or Dad, and I don’t think I committed adultery – – whatever that was!  No, I couldn’t think of anything to confess, but I knew that I had to go to confession and confess to something!

The confessional booths were in the back of the church in the same room where Father and the altar boys put on their robes and prepared for mass.  I climbed up the cement stairs to the side door that had been propped open to let in some summer breeze, and stood behind the last person in one of the two lines heading toward the confessional booths.

Most everyone in line was like me, kids who were basically ordered by their parents to go to confession.  We all stood silently in line, watching as one kid came out of a booth and another kid went in.  We could sometimes hear whispers and mumbling from inside the confessional, but try as we might, we could never clearly hear what was being said.  And no one came out of the confessional booth with a smile on his face – – they always looked sullen and repentant.

A confessional booth similar to the one in St. Raphael’s church
A confessional booth similar to the one in St. Raphael’s Church

The line shuffled forward and eventually cleared in front of me, so that it was my turn next to enter the booth.  I went inside, pulled the door shut, and knelt down on the little kneeling bench that faced a screened panel.  After a moment, the little wooden panel that blocked you from seeing into the priest’s booth scraped back, and Father Nowlan leaned toward the screen that separated us, to hear my confession.

“Bless me Father, for I have sinned” I whispered.  “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, Father”.  Then I added:  “It has been one month since my last confession.”

“Yes, go on”, he urged.

What was I going to confess?  I still didn’t know!  But I had to come up with something, and quick!  Finally, I blurted out in an unsteady whisper:  “I stole!”

“And what did you steal?” he asked.

Uh oh!  Now what do I say!?

“Uh, I stole toy cards from my friend” I lied.

“What else?” he asked.

“That’s all, Father.”

I could see him, his profile, as he leaned toward the little screened window that separated our darkened booths.  But could he see me?  Did he know who I was?  Maybe just from my voice, from attending Catechism class?  I’m betting he knew all the kids from their voices.  So if he knew it was me, did he know too that I was lying when I said that I stole?  Would he refuse me communion at Sunday mass?

“Say five Hail Mary’s and a good Act of Contrition” he ordered.  Then he made the sign of the cross with his hand, mumbled something about absolving me from my sins – – my sin – – and closed the little screened panel.

I got up and walked out of the booth, and looked contritely down at the floor as I walked past others who were waiting their turn in line.  I rushed out the door, down the steps, and up the sidewalk by the side of the church, to the front door.  Inside, I knelt in a pew at the back of the church, and silently said the prayers, as ordered.

It was a beautiful hot sunny day.  But as I left the church and walked back up the hill towards home, I was not enjoying the day at all!  Because I had gone to confession to tell my sins, but instead I had sinned – – right in the confessional!

I lied!

To the priest!

In church!

I hope God understood!

Darn it all, it’s hard being a Catholic!

Click here for more installments of “Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville”.

If you have any comments or questions about Pat’s stories, you can contact him at his email address at pfournier@eastlink.ca.

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