Brian Doyle’s Memoir “Altar Boy”

Read an excerpt from Brian Doyle’s memoir “Altar Boy.” It appears in RESURRECTING GRACE: REMEMBERING CATHOLIC CHILDHOODS, a collection of essays edited by Marilyn Sewell and published by Beacon Press:

On mornings when I had the six o’clock Mass, I would awake in the woolly dark and leave my brothers snoring like bears and pedal through the empty streets with my fists clenched in my jacket pockets and my collar turned up against the whip of dawn. The church was silent and dark. The only light in it was the tabernacle lamp, and the only sign of human life the stray Styrofoam coffee cups filled with cigarette butts in the back entry of the church, the spoor of the Nocturnal Adoration Society, which met once a month to conduct a vigil before the Blessed Sacrament, which reposed inside a monstrance on the altar; teams of men would arrive every hour and replace the team in the church, each team yawning as it passed the other, each exchanging muted greetings, a handshake here and there in the dark air, the men checking their watches and settling down on their knees like old horses waiting for dawn.

There were seven lay societies: the Altar Society (for women), the Blessed Virgin Sodality (for young women), the Holy Name Society (for men), the Legion of Mary, the Mothers’ Club, the Nocturnal Adoration Society, and the Rosary Society (for women).

While my ambition was someday to join my father in the Nocturnal Adoration Society, my admiration was highest for the Altar Society, whose members worked like bees to keep the church and its accoutrements sparkling. “It was they who undertook the laundering of altar linens, communion cloths and surplices, the polishing of the brass candelabra and altar vases, as well as the disposal of withered flowers, ferns, and pot plants,” the Irish writer Mary Lavin recounts in her story “A Voice from the Dead.” They were an efficient lot, friendly but brisk, and the good Lord himself could not help a boy who got in their way when they were stripping the altar linens; more than once I was shouldered against the cold wall of the sacristy by a brisk Altar Society woman with an armful of God’s laundry, on her way purposefully, moving through the waters of the day like a battleship, toward her dank basement laundry room and the magic Maytag thundering away down there like the monstrous engine in a tramp steamer.