Life In My Tuscan Village – Chapter 15: Working at the Church as an Altar Boy

In our village, there were two churches managed by one priest. His name was Carlo Santini. Carlo Santini was a very nice priest and managed all of the Catholic Church affairs for the village.

One of his jobs was to train boys to work in the church and understand all of the functions of an altar boy. Of course girls were not allowed to work in the church; and in general, women were not allowed near the altar.

At around the age of 8 and after their first communion, boys were required to report to the priest to learn Latin and the duties required during the various functions in the church.

I remember when it finally was my turn to start learning to be an altar boy, it was very exciting and all very new to me.

During my training, our group would meet in the priest’s house next to the main church and we would work on the required Latin phrases that were part of specific functions such as a mass, vesper, rosary, etc.

The bulk of the work was always for the mass service. During the mass, the priest would recite the required readings and chants all in Latin and we as altar boys would respond accordingly also in Latin. It was only in the mid 70’s that the mass service was allowed to be recited in the local current language of the country.

During the late 50’s and early 60’s all this was in Latin.

The group of altar boys training with me consisted of 4 other boys, and the 5 of us attended all the functions in church in order to learn the various duties.

The best and most coveted position of an altar boy was the keeper of the incense. This position was bestowed upon the top altar boy and the one with the most seniority.

I remember Gianpiero, was the top altar boy and was in charge of the incense. During the service, he would be in the back of the altar waiting for his turn. Before coming out with the incense urn, he would sneak out by a secret passage under the altar and walk to his house to fetch hot coals for the urn.

Back the same way, he would wait behind the altar for the right signal for him to come out.

After a specific chant or prayer preceding the blessing of the altar, he would come out with the incense urn and present it to the priest.

The incense urn was very decorative made of stainless steel or silver, it opened at the top and inside was red hot coals kept hot by constant motion. This was done by using the long chains attached to the urn and constantly swinging it side by side.

Gianpiero would present the incense urn and the priest would open the top, place one or two spoons of incense on the hot coals then ask Gianpiero for the urn. With a swift movement, the priest would use the incense urn to bless all four corners of the altar and the center. He would then bless Giampiero and give him back the urn. Giampiero would then use the urn and with the same swift movement would use the urn to bless the priest. Then he would turn away from the altar, walk over to face the entire congregation and with the same swings, he would bless all by starting with one movement to the left, one to the center, and one to the right. He would then walk and exit, going to the back of the altar.

I remember thinking that this is exactly what I wanted to do as an altar boy.

Once my group was ready, we were assigned weekly tasks. Our village priest recited mass every day and very early; usually 5:30 AM. Altar boys were required to serve and maintain the schedule assignments as given by the priest.

I remember the hard time I had trying to get up so early and go to church before mass even started. As altar boys our job included helping the priest with his special frocks he had to wear in order to have a mass service.

Usually it required two altar boys for each service, but it could be done by one under emergencies when the other boy simply could not make it.

In church at that early hour, I saw the same few old women attending, including my grandmother. She was the one that made sure I got up in time. On very few rare occasions, if both altar boys were missing, one or two of the women would recite back the Latin prayers to the priest as required. Of course, the women would have to do this from the back pews and not approach the altar. Women were not allowed to sit in the front pews; this area of the church was strictly reserved for men. An ornate marble pillar fence about four feet high divided the back of the church from the front.

Eventually my job became so routine I could recite the Latin phrases even if half asleep. Often times, I was the one that would serve alone and did the job of two.

This would eventually be rewarded and as the older altar boys would leave, you were required to leave at around age 14; I was assigned the main job of incense carrier.

I remember all of the altar boys looking up to me and hoping for that same position some day. Now I was the one sneaking out to find hot coals; and since my uncle lived across the street from the church, I would go there to get them.

The art of blessing by using the incense urn had to be learned and it needed to be performed with the outmost grace. After genuflecting, I would use my right hand to pinch at the delicate chains holding the urn at about one foot above and raise it to eye level. I would then pinch and hold near the end of the long chains with my left hand. Now, with a swift movement, I would rock the incense urn using as a pivot the pinched chains in my right hand. When done correctly, the chains would hit the urn making a distinct sound with the smelling incense smoke pouring out from the many tiny holes that adorned the urn.  I would repeat this movement exactly three times and move to the next position. First the priest, then the congregation from left to right.

That was what I remember about being an altar boy. That top position, once learned was easy and short. I didn’t enjoy genuflecting at the base of the altar for an entire mass service reciting Latin phrases very foreign to me. The incense job was definitely the coolest.

As a gift to his altar boys, Carlo Santini would take us on a trip each year.

I remember my very first trip to Collodi. He rented a car and driver; it was my very first time in a car and it was fantastic. Collodi is about 75 to 100 kilometers from our village and it is the home of Pinocchio. Pinocchio was invented in Italy near my village and later adopted in stories by Walt Disney.

I remember Collodi well; especially the fountains. Here these beautiful fountains were hidden and would go on at different times and locations where no one suspected.

Carlo Santini was a great individual; I saw him again on my very first trip back to the village in the late 70’s.

He has since died, but his teachings have remained with me. I have always remembered the fun and laughter we had as boys under his leadership.

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