|9. SAINT MARGARET’S SCHOOL part I
Although baptized at Saint Alphonsus Church in nearby Ballard our family celebrated mass at Saint Margaret’s Catholic Parish in the Interbay neighborhood and that’s where we’d attend grade school too.
My long walk to school took me across a bridge overlooking the switching yards of the Northern Pacific Railroad. My imagination would light aboard when the outbound train whistle pierced the morning sky and I waved greetings to the engineers, switchmen and passengers that I saw.
Under one end of the bridge, a fire was usually smoldering and groups of hobos congregated together and passed bottles and cigarettes around. I lingered safely above and watched them with curiosity and wondered at how they took up their marginal existence. They seemed to be refugees in their own country, outcasts from society and completely free from responsibility and obligation. Part of me wondered what it would be like to join them and venture beyond the safe parameters of my insulated life and feel the wild exhilaration of the unknown.
Without a word, a tramp or two would peel off the group, carrying their packs, a plastic gallon milk container of water and some sheets of cardboard. With expert finesse they would hop between the rail cars and disappear into an empty boxcar and within minutes the long column of freight cars would magically come alive with a reverberating shudder and begin to creep out of the yard.
Day after day for the next seven years of attending St. Margaret’s, I would feel more familiar with the hobos, recognize certain ones and wave at them along with the other railroad workers.
Two priests provided the ultimate authority at our parish. Father Ogradoski, a young, well-meaning man, showed great conviction to his calling and was respected by all as the embodiment of Christ's example of the Good Shepherd.
Father Corboy, on the other hand, was the exact antithesis. A stern, old, Irish Catholic disciplinarian, he evoked so much fear that he was avoided whenever possible. His masses were never as well attended as Father Ogradoski's and the lines to his confessional were always much shorter. Father Corboy was the senior priest, however, and his rule was law.
My first name, Victor, which I never went by, came from the Catholic priest who had converted my erstwhile Methodist father and married my parents. I wondered what it would be like to become a priest. It seemed natural to believe that they were closer to God and therefore received special blessings forbidden to the laity.
I duly received training to become an altar boy. The Latin was an extreme challenge to learn, especially the long prayer the "Confiteor". The genuflecting, candle lighting, ringing of the bells and administering of the Blessed Sacrament had to be done just right. After many practice sessions with a seasoned veteran, my first Mass was scheduled. The rookies served the least desirable Mass, 6:30 A.M.
Normally, the Wikstrom clan would attend the 11 A.M. Mass, occupying the first or second pew on the right side of the church, the boy's side. On this auspicious occasion, we all got up extra early so that I might be properly prepared. Father Corboy was to serve the Mass and my mounting fear was making me ill. I was the first to enter the sacristy from a special side door. The altar boys’ black, floor length cossacks and white blousy surplices hung on a rack to one side while the priests’ dressing area was opposite.
The holiest area to me was where the incense and charcoal were kept. Nearby was a gas burner, blackened by many years of use, that contrasted sharply with the glittering censor that would be ignited during benediction. The mingled smells of incense, gas and charcoal was enough to transport me out of the physical realm towards the utterly spiritual.
As this inner sanctum was only for the ordained, decorations were sparse. The most impressive being a huge, gold trimmed banner displaying the resurrected Christ. It was suspended on a long, wooden pole and would be shown in the sanctuary on special holy days. I trembled in the darkness, not knowing where the light switch was, and could not take my eyes off the banner. Traces of morning light began to filter through the yellowed window panes as Christ's delicate compassion returned my gaze, His hands presenting His flaming, Sacred Heart.
I was interrupted from my trans fixation by the abrupt opening and closing of the sacristy door and the scraping footsteps of Father Corboy ascending the stairs. He appeared somewhat alarmed to see me as he switched on the light and I was unable to say a word beyond "Good morning Father".
Disregarding me, he went about his functions, kissing each item as he donned his vestments. Again, the side door opened and closed and my partner came running up the steps. "Get dressed immediately,” he nearly shouted as I realized that Mass was to begin in five minutes. I still had to light the candles and make sure the water and wine cruets were filled and in place. It was at this point that I made a fatal error; I put the heavy cossack and the surplice on over my shirt and sweater.
At first, there wasn't much of a problem, but when I entered the illuminated altar area to light the candles the overhead lights started heating me up. My telescoping pole could barely reach the highest candles but the first three lit right away. My family smiled reassuringly as I carefully genuflected in front of the tabernacle before lighting the three candles on the other side. Whoever had snuffed out the candles previously had smashed the wick into the melted top and I couldn't get the thing to catch fire. I was really getting hot now with beads of sweat lining my brow. Finally, the other altar boy appeared with his own light and we got it sparked.
We were late in beginning so I didn't have time to redress. Father Corboy gave me a scowl as I hurried into position and we were ready to start the service. With majestic dignity, we preceded him into the sanctuary and everyone rose to their feet.
This being the early Mass, there was no choir. The organist made up for this by playing with extra vigor. With the notes ringing in the back of my head, I assumed my place and tried to mimic the actions of my partner. The congregation had the luxury of sitting occasionally but we were obliged to kneel or stand for the first half of Mass. We then got a break during the sermon and sat on richly carved chairs flanking Father's more opulent throne. During the long sermon I was able to catch my breath but I continued to cook under all my clothes. I still had to recite the Confiteor and Communion lay ahead as well.
At one point I had to transfer the large unabridged Bible from one side of the altar to the other so that Father could read the incantation during the consecration of the Host. It rested on an ornate podium that unknown to me was collapsible. Instead of reaching under the whole thing, I reached under the Book and it unfolded onto my knees. With concerted effort I made my way to the other side, only managing a slight bow as I crossed the tabernacle this time.
My partner was off to the side, preparing the water and wine for consecration and couldn't witness my dilemma. I lifted one knee to raise the base to where I might reach it but my Cossack kept getting caught on my heels. The Bible began to slip off and I nearly dumped the whole thing. Finally, I decided all I could do was kneel with it and reposition my hands.
My partner hurried over and helped me hoist it upon the altar properly. I was nearly faint as I descended the steps and knelt on the bottom step to await Father and the other boy in recitation of the Confiteor. Father looked rather hot under his collar too and came to his place between us. He began the prayer, "Confiteor Deo Omnipotente...” We both joined in along with those few parishioners who knew Latin and the nuns. "Beate Maria sempre Virgine... ". About half way through this long prayer Father Corboy started speeding up and I couldn't stay with him. I lowered my voice and began mumbling in a Latin dialect until I was virtually speaking in tongues. The heat, the stress, the height of spiritual uplift was all carrying me well beyond my limits and I thought I was going to pass out.
The senior altar boy would assist the priest with Communion, holding the brass paten under the chin of the communicant in case the Host fell from the outstretched tongue or crumbled in any way. Parishioners began lining along the railing to receive the Body of Christ. At first I knelt in my space by the altar and even sat back on my heels a bit. The dizziness was getting worse and I finally rose as quietly as I could and retreated back into the sacristy. I sat myself in the Father's large chair and put my head between my legs.
Deep breaths quieted the ringing in my head and relieved my nausea. Slowly, I looked up and rested my eyes on the Banner. A serene peace filled my soul and a Loving Presence restored me to calm.
Through a small peephole, I could see that Communion was nearly over, so I gathered myself and rejoined the congregation. After the last person had received, the other altar boy and I came to the center and took in the host. Kneeling there, as Father put the chalice and other instruments back into the tabernacle, I turned inward and meditated on Christ within me, dissolving against the roof of my mouth.
We spoke our final prayers and re-entered the sacristy on the other side. The most complete feeling of relief overcame me and I hurried out of my vestments and rejoined my family, happy to return to normal. I served many masses after that one but with that went any further desire to become a priest.