I started 3rd grade at a catholic grammar school, St. Brendans’ when I was 10.
St. Brendan’s was about a mile and a half away from Henry Street, on the “good side of town”. My mother decided I needed the discipline of a Catholic School and took me out of the public school I had started in after the 2nd grade. I’m not quite sure what exactly I needed the discipline for, but you never asked questions. You just did what you were told. In retrospect, I always thought she wanted me as far away as possible. The public school was ½ block from my house. Frankie, my half brother, went to the Public School right down the street from Henry Street.
Mr. Rose was the church sacristan and school handyman. He was an older Irish gentleman who spoke with a brogue. He always wore a Stetson hat, white shirt rolled up to the elbows and tie.
The kids were crazy about him. Whenever anything needed done, the nuns and the priests would ask you to “go find Mr. Rose.” He was everybody’s friend.
If chairs needed to be set up in school or the church hall, find Mr. Rose.
If the nuns needed a ride to anywhere- 2 of them at all times- find Mr. Rose.
If anything was broken, find Mr. Rose.
If the church needed setting up for funerals, weddings or baptisms, find Mr. Rose.
He was a gem.
If he walked into the classroom to drop off some piece of equipment, the class would singsong in their happiest voice, “Good Morning Mr. Rose, Good Afternoon Mr. Rose.
Mr. Rose would then smile, and tip his brown Stetson hat to the class. What a guy.
I thought the best part of Mr. Rose’s job, the most sacred part of Mr. Rose’s job, was laying out of the Vestal garments for the priest before the 8 o’clock mass.
This was a ritual in itself. Only boys and men were allowed to do this.
The sacristy was at the front of the church, next to the altar, in a room that was hidden from the parishoner’s view. It was a secret entrance and exit. The priest with the altar boys would enter from the sacristy to the altar to begin Mass and then leave the altar and exit to the sacristy after Mass. Sacred, mysterious and exclusive and out of bounds to girls and women.
Because St. Brendan’s was so far away my mother and my step father would drop me off at St. Brendan;s church before they left for work. This would have worked out fine, except for the fact that they dropped me off at 7:30am and school didn’t start until 8:50am.
I would wander the church and school grounds, just walking and thinking. In the warm weather it was ok. I could just stay outside. The cold weather was another story. Mass didn’t start until 8 am. On the cold days, I would take refuge from the cold by going to 8 o'clock mass. I could then avoid strange stares from people, wondering what a 10 year old girl, in a St. Brendan’s uniform, blue jumper, white (very) starched blouse, knee socks, and ugly leather oxford tie shoes, was doing walking around the street and hour and a half earlier than school started.
At least if I went to 8 o’clock Mass, they would think I was holy.
I would don my little blue beanie that matched the jumper, bobby pin it to my head, and walk in Church. In the 1950’s not only was Mass still being said in Latin, with the priest’s back facing the parishioners, but all women had to have their heads covered, hence the beanie. I would sit mid church, wishing time would pass quickly. It was lonely and I felt out of place.
On one particular day, Mr. Rose came over to the pew where I was sitting. In his lovely Irish brogue he asked me, “Girlie, how would you like to help me with the vestments for Mass this morning. The altar boy will be late,”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I think I might have even looked around to make sure he was speaking to me. He was. I got up from the pew and followed Mr Rose to the Holiest of Holy-the Sacristy! It was as beautiful as I thought. Shiny wooden floor, real wood paneling, not like the paper paneling my mother bought to stick on the walls of our Henry Street apartment to make believe we had real wood paneling.
There was a huge oak cabinet, longer than a car, higher than 2 six foot men, with cabinets that had gold handles and locks on them, containing the Chalice, the paten, that the host, the unleavened bread, is placed on during the offertory of the Mass, the cruets of wine and water and the most beautiful gold shining Cibroium, that is brought out at Benedictions that house the Consecrated particles for the communion of the people. This indeed was the treasure chest that only special people got to see up close.
It was then I learned how to set out the silk vestments the priest would wear for Mass with all the different colors of the Liturgical seasons.
White or Gold for innocence and celebratory events
Red for blood, and the Passion, the Holy Spirit, and Tongues of Fire
Purple for Penance and Lent and vigils
Black for death and mourning.
These symbols, vestments, colors, rituals, Sacred Vessesl are forever burned into my memory, like the 7 Sacraments of the Holy Ghost that are burned into your soul,and make an “indelible mark” on your soul, never to be erased by anyone or anything, Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony.
It was just like the indelible mark on my soul Mr. Rose made, after teaching me how to lay out the vestments in order. The alb, the white dress the priest wears, the cincture, the rope used as a belt to wrap around the alb, the maniple, the pieces of colored silk over the forearms, the colored silk stole worn around the neck and the chausable the outer colored vestment of the liturgical season, without arms, like a poncho.
After this ritual one morning, Mr. Rose, everyone’s favorite, changed my world.
Mr. Rose came to me, grabbed me by my two shoulders, drew me close and kissd me. He kissed me so hard, and so violently, my beanie fell off, and I remember thinking that I was committing a venial sin for not wearing a hat in church. As he continued pressing his tongue into my mouth, he began to tremble. He smelled of stale cigarettes. I felt something hard pressing against me. I tried to resist, but froze. Did he just want to thank me? What was going on? It seemed like forever until he stopped. When he stopped, he told me I was a “special girl” and this was our secret.
I tried hiding after that. It didn’t feel right. But Mr. Rose always found me. I would try and stay outside and not go to Mass. I would try and hide behind the bushes around the church or make myself less visible. But Mr. Rose always found me, with the excuse that Fr. Carlone or Fr. O’Neill wanted me to help in the sacristy or that the nuns didn’t want me hanging around outside before Mass.
So it continued for the school year. But Mr. Rose never ever talked to me outside of church or even acknowledged me when other people or kids were around. I was confused, sad and scared.
Wasn’t I special anymore?