Growing up in a blue-collar, mostly Catholic, close-knit neighborhood
where everyone knew everyone took on an aura and profoundness
that shaped me deeply. We lived on the same street that housed the
convent, rectory and elementary school under the umbrella of St.
Francis of Assisi and the good pastor in charge of it all, Monsignor
Valenti, a very odd figure, in my mind, but a true priest by way of the
honorable version of Catholicism. He would be considered a rare and
extraordinarily moral and celibate bird today.
One of his repeatable quotations was a slightly misquoted version of
Ben Franklin’s “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy,
wealthy and wise.” When he was brought in to distribute all the report
cards to the students of St. Francis elementary school, which I attended
from kindergarten through eighth grade, the monsignor would always
replace the first “early” to “late,” causing great confusion in my mind.
Then he would clap his hands together in front of his pursed lips,
making an echo sound that gave him some sort of inner satisfaction
that also confused me greatly.
The large, orange/red brick convent parked itself almost directly across
the street from us, an imposing structure that had a strangeness to it
primarily because we typically were never let further inside than the
foyer, as this awkward place was the private sanctuary for our good
nuns. The elementary school and rectory — also of the same brick —
located only four houses down from our home — stood out from
everything else on the street.
A newly built church towered behind the elementary school and
rectory, the combination of these two being the centerpiece that
straddled the expansive parking lots and school yards on both sides of
this Catholic compound.
The church’s most astonishing feature — its tall, surrounding stained-
glass windows — offered snippets of the life of St. Francis of Assisi in
angled glass shapes of varied sizes and colors. When the light shined
through, creating a hallowed presence, I felt pious. The captivating
windows spoke of the wonders of perhaps the world’s most popular
saint who gave away all his inherited riches to help those less
fortunate than himself. A holy man who walked with lepers . . .
At the front of the church a towering crucifixion of Christ in light-tan
colored, shiny plaster (marble like) bore down on all who entered,
captivating the entire church with a clear view from every pew. A regal
space for the altar and the holy tabernacle strongly present in its gold-
plated, swinging doors, protecting the holy hosts for the concentration
part of mass, and emanating a sense of enormous sacredness standing
solidly at the feet of the crucifixion.
I felt remarkably privileged to become an integral part of this as an
altar boy, starting, I believe, around 4th grade, if my memory serves me
For some reason the fluffy red cushions that lined the guard rail
separating the altar area from the rest of the church stick out most
clearly in my mind. Why? It was from this vantage point, with a statue
of Mary in clear view, you said your penance after attending
confession, a memorable part of the Catholic rituals of life that
thankfully I discontinued once I entered high school, never to
participate in such shenanigans again.
Confession, which every good Catholic knows, took place in a small
darkened indoor space that had a seat and a kneeler. You went in and
the familiar darkness had a confrontational and overpowering
presence that made you feel less of yourself immediately.
The dark screened window before your nose swooshes open, you see a
shadow of a figure, and you quickly say the words hammered into your
head from your first communion training: “bless me father for I have
sinned, my last confession was.”
“Go ahead son,” the shadow of Father Frank responds in a dull,
“Well uh, um, I ah, yea, uh….,” you fumble for a moment. You are on the
spot now, aren’t you, and you break out into a sweat because you don’t
want to tell a lie, especially before a priest on such hallowed ground, so
you blurt “I had impure thoughts, father.”
I hear some mumbling and vaguely see the father bless me with the
sign of the cross.
“Okay. Say 10 Hail Marys and come back in two weeks.”
I essentially had two lives: my Catholic life and my neighborhood life.
By the time I reached 8th grade, my Catholic life began its vanishing act
and I stopped going to church.
The times they are a changin’
Memories of the fifties, from birth to age seven, are mostly about
playful happiness. So, in effect, these were the best of times.
The sixties, however, became a much different animal that pushed
against my young innocence with the force of a new reality, a new
plateau for me to leap into.
Probably one of the most consequential days of my preteen life during
the 60s — that in hindsight seems almost moronic — is February 9,
1964 — when the Beatles played on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was ten,
glued to the Fab Four’s performance. It catalyzed a mind-blowing
transformation that took me far from the religious upbringing that
stifled all of my inner creativity and instilled a sense of fear and guilt
into everything. I jumped in headfirst. Now I wanted to be a rock star
instead of a priest, like millions of other kids.
Growing Up a Good Catholic
means you change
your mind so
deeply that it
- Bruce Wilkinson