Last Wednesday, I shared with you the first of two memories of second grade. My second memory is of my First Holy Communion. Normally, children began receiving communion in first grade. However, I was a year behind because I’d attended first grade in a public school.
In early May, Sister Mary Anne helped prepare the first graders and me—a second grader—for communion. Daily, she’d march us over to the church. There we’d stand, the first graders, myself, and our chaperones—the second graders who’d received their first communion the year before.
This is a long story, so I’m going to establish only the setting in today’s posting. Then next Wednesday I’ll share with you what happened on the days preceding and the day receiving First Holy Communion. You’ll see why this memory has remained so vivid. It makes me laugh now, if not then.
Here’s the setting: Saint Mary’s Church. This brick building with its tall steeple has stood on Liberty Street since 1865—the year the Civil War ended. When I attended its grade school in the 1940s, cannonballs from that war were found in an adjacent playground.
Photo by Salvatore Vuono for freedigitalphotos.
Each day of our practice, the first graders and I and our chaperones processed into the church in two rows. We settled into several front pews on opposite sides of the aisle. Sister Mary Anne stood at the front and talked us through all the parts of the Mass until we got to the communion ritual.
Each day at practice, she said the Latin words we’d hear that would announce communion. We then rose and processed out of the pews and up the aisle to the three steps that led up to the communion rail. Standing about two feet high, it extended the width of the church.
Normally, Catholics wishing to receive communion would kneel on the wide top step in front of the linen-covered railing. The priest would pass on the other side of the railing and place a consecrated communion wafer on their tongues. Then they would return to their pews.
Contemporary photo of a child in Sicily
receiving First Holy Communion while standing.
For our First Communion celebration, however, we passed through the sanctuary gate in the middle of the communion rail. In practice, we processed through the gate and across the sanctuary. There we stood in rows at the edge of the steps leading up to the altar.
Row by row, we ascended the steps. A row of the first children who would receive communion stood on the top step. Behind them, on the second step from the top, stood another row of communicants. Behind them, on the third step, stood another row. Below this step stood the remaining rows, ready to ascend as an earlier row of first communicants received communion and returned to their seats in the nave.
Those on the top row stood momentarily. Then they knelt. Simultaneously each row behind the first also knelt as Sister Mary Anne—taking the role of Father Hennessey—walked past and placed a pretend communion wafer on the tongue of each child in row one.
The communicants in that row then stood and reverently returned to their pews. As they stood to leave, all the rows behind them stood, stepped up, and then, in unison, knelt again.
You get the picture: Row after row would stand, step up, kneel. Rise, step up, kneel, Rise, step up, kneel. This ritual proceeded until the final row knelt in front of Sister Mary Anne. The communicants, their mouths open like fledglings, modeled receiving communion and returned to their pews.
A 1949 group photo of children taken after Mass
on their First Holy Communion day.
The one thing I need to tell you so that you’ll understand next Wednesday’s posting is that our chaperones did all this with us. Each row consisted of eight children: four first communicants and four chaperones, kneeling, rising, and standing in pairs. My chaperone was my best friend—Barbara Ann—who remains my friend to this day. She and I together created a silent-movie slapstick scene on my first communion day.
That’s the setting. I hope to see you here next Wednesday for the plot. I’m wondering again about your childhood. Is there some setting or ceremony practice you remember this vividly?
PS: Yesterday, Melissa Ann Goodwin, who writes the adventurous blog "On the Road," posted her review of A Cat's Legacy: Dulcy's Story. This review had me giddy with delight. If you have time today, I encourage you to read it and also to note Melissa's enjoyable book The Christmas Village. I've read it and given it as a gift to friends. It's quite an adventure and would make a lovely Christmas gift for the children in your life.