Rites of Passage 2: First Communion

July 27, 2015 at 8:33 pm | Posted in 1950s, Catholic Church, Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Memoir, Religion | 7 Comments
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I had made my First Confession. Now, my First Communion Day had arrived. Like the other kids, I was full of excitement, and more than a little nervous. I was hungry too, because we had to fast from midnight until after Mass. We weren’t allowed to have Holy Communion if we’d eaten; that would have been an awful thing to do. This was the first time I hadn’t been able to eat breakfast before Mass, and it was already nine o’clock.

First Comm catechism

Mum had fixed up my older sister’s white dress for the occasion. I had new white socks, and Dad had freshly whitened my sandshoes. Mum had cut my straight blonde hair short, so it wouldn’t get in the way of the white veil I had to wear – that had been Pauline’s too when she made her First Communion two years before. I felt very special in my white clothes, and I was very careful to keep everything clean.

There wasn’t much room in our little Triumph Safety 7 car when we all piled in. The four of us kids had to squash up in the back seat. Mum held on to my veil, and the elastic and bobby-pins to fit it on with, until we got to the church. I tried to keep my dress from getting crushed, but it was useless. When we got out, I saw that someone’s shoe had made a mark on my clean shoes. I tried to brush it off.

“Don’t worry about that now,” said Mum. “We have to go over to the school with the other children. Sister wants you to line up ready to make a procession into the church. Come on.”

The boys wore navy blue shorts, white shirts and the school tie, navy blue with yellow stripes. They also wore knee-high grey socks, held up with elastic garters, and black shoes. Some parents wanted to hang around and help, but the school headmistress, Sister Mamertus, shooed them off to find their places in the old, white-painted stone church.

“Make two lines,” Sister ordered us. “One for the boys and one for the girls. Hurry up now, we mustn’t keep Father waiting.”

Each girl took the hand of the boy in the other line, giggling.

“Stop that and make your line straight. Remember, Jesus is watching, and you will soon be receiving Him for the first time.”

Thus, suitably chastened and demure, we walked across the grass to the church door. Sister lined us up again so that, when we got into the church, the boys would go to the pews on one side and the girls to the other. Someone must have given Mrs Harris warning, because, up in the loft at the back of the church, she launched into a hymn, though I cannot remember what it was.

The altar was a mass of flowers, and Mrs Harris had probably helped the nuns to arrange them. The first two rows of wooden bench seats on each side of the aisle were decorated at the ends with big white satin bows and flowers. This was to show that the seats were set aside especially for us. It’s a pity the red aisle carpet was worn and patchy, but everything else looked beautiful to me

We joined our hands together in front of us, as if in prayer, and walk to our seats quietly and sedately. Each of us genuflected before we turned into the pew, respecting the presence of the Lord Jesus in the tabernacle on the altar. We tried to keep our heads bowed to show we recognised the miracle that was about to happen. Receiving the Body of Jesus Christ was a momentous thing at any time, but the first time was extra special.

The Mass began and Father Greely, brightly vested and attended by several altar boys, launched into the usual Latin prayers, along with other special ones for us. Later in the Mass, his sermon was all about the importance of this day and the difference it would make in our lives. He reminded the older people of when they had made their first Communion, and asked them to re-dedicate their lives to Christ. Then, the ringing of the bell accompanying his movements, he consecrated the Host. It was time for us to fulfil the preparation we’d been undergoing for the past few months.

Strangely, about the only thing I remember about receiving my first Communion was how the thin wafer of Host stuck to the roof of my mouth; my mouth was dry I suppose, from nerves. I kept poking at it with my tongue, trying to loosen it. I did wonder if I was doing something awful to Christ’s Body, and when the Host did finally come loose, I made sure not to touch it with my teeth. I didn’t want to be accused of chewing His Body! The hymn that Mrs Harris played and the congregation sang was “On Your First Communion Day”.

At the end of Mass, we were presented with a silver medal, which we wore about our neck, and a certificate, attesting that each of us had made out First Holy Communion on that day at St Paul’s church. My sisters still have their certificates, but mine has been lost somewhere along life’s way.

After the priest announced, Ite Missae est (Go the Mass is ended), we processed down the aisle and out of the church. As we had not yet eaten, having had to fast from the previous midnight in order to receive the Sacrament, there was a Communion breakfast after Mass, at the school. There our families joined us to celebrate our special day. I, along with my schoolmates, tucked into the food, enjoying the sandwiches, cakes and cordial more than anything else.

A first communion group

A first communion group

Although I have copies of both my sisters First Communion photos, there isn’t one of mine as far as I know.

© Linda Visman

Rites of Passage 1: First Confession

July 20, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in Australia, Catholic Church, Family History, Memoir, Religion | 2 Comments

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This day in August 1956, was one of excitement and promise, the culmination of months of preparation at the hands of the Sisters of St Joseph. I would be eight in a few days time, but this day was even more important than that. Birthdays happened every year, but this day came only once in a lifetime. It was the day of my First Holy Communion.

The stress of making our First Confession was over. That had happened the week before. We had sat in the pews at the back of the old stone church – St Paul’s – waiting our turn to go into the dark, wood-panelled confessional box. We’d practiced, but that didn’t make it any easier. There was a central priest’s box, with a confessional box on each side. The shiny wood was dark with age, and the designs carved into the door frames were almost black. The wooden kneeler was worn smooth by thousands of knees, but it was still hard. When the person in one of the confessionals had finished, the priest slid the little door over the grille on that side shut, and opened the one on your side.

Confession child

The real thing was even stricter than the practice had been. We had to kneel and pray while we waited our turn. There was to be no fidgeting whilst we Examined our Conscience. Even though we were used to kneeling, it was hard to keep still. However, Sister Mamertus was there, so we did. I was both glad and scared when my turn came. At practice, when the priest slid the little door open on my side, I’d jumped, even though I’d been waiting for it. I jumped this time too.

We’d been well drilled in what we had to say, but I was flustered at first. Then Father Greely’s voice spoke quietly through the grille.

“Take your time, my child.”

Confessional

Then I was all right and I started the routine, first making the sign of the cross.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession, Father.”

Then I had to list my sins – how many times I disobeyed my parents, how many times I quarrelled with my brother and sisters, or didn’t pay attention in class – I don’t recall what I said. I was so relieved when I could finally say the Act of Contrition. Then Father Greely gave me absolution, told me to say three Hail Marys for my penance, and blessed me, telling me to go and sin no more.

“Thank you, Father.”

Then, his little grille closed and I could leave the confessional box, go to the pews on the other side of the church and say my penance. After that, I could go outside, feeling a great sense of relief that the ordeal was over, and that my soul was pure and white. I had made my First Confession. Now that I was pure, I could make my First Communion.

© Linda Visman

Being Catholic in the 1950s and 60s (3)

July 12, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in Australia, Catholic Church, Family History, Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Memoir | 10 Comments
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The Church had sodalities (clubs I suppose they were) for different groups of the parish. Men joined the Holy Name Society; women the Sacred Heart Society; girls the Children of Mary; and the boys could become altar boys, serving the priest during Mass. We three girls joined the Children of Mary after our Confirmation. Sodalities had their own Sunday each month, so, on the Children of Mary’s Sunday, the girls would attend as a group, all wearing our blue cloaks, white veils and medal, and carrying our Missal (Mass book).

Medal of Our Lady

Medal of Our Lady

 

Sometimes, our parents decided not to go to the main church at Albion Park for Sunday Mass, and instead, we walked the two miles or so each way to Oak Flats. There, an early Mass was held for the people of that area in the community hall. I know I loved that early morning walk, especially when we went on Christmas mornings. Then, there was the added joy of knowing that, on our return, as well as being able to eat at last, there were presents under the tree for us to unwrap. No matter that they were almost always gifts made for us in the shed out the back by our father in his rare spare time. The wooden scooters he made for my younger sister and me one year were prized as much as any bought ones – even if they didn’t last as long.

 

I was an avid reader as a child, devouring Enid Blyton and other adventure books as fast as I was allowed to borrow them from the local library. But I also loved to read the lives of the saints that were written for children. I often imagined myself in a perilous situation, being asked whether I would die for my faith – I always believed that I would. I absolutely loved the movie “The Miracle of Fatima”, and cried through it. I wanted to be Jacinta – she was the one with spirit. I believe it was the first movie I ever saw.

 

Our family, like many other Catholics, were devoted to Our Lady – Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Every evening after the dinner dishes had been washed, dried and put away, we knelt as a family to pray the Rosary. It meant a great deal to us, especially to my mother, and I particularly remember saying the Rosary on my own in the lounge room when my father came down with polio in the epidemic of 1961. It was the only thing I could think of to do in that time of powerlessness.

Rosary beads

Rosary beads

 

We would never consider eating meat on a Friday. Eggs were the closest we ever got. But anyway, for me at least, Friday meant a break from those awfully tough mutton chops that Mum fried so often, and which usually took me so long to chew that I was the last one to leave the table. Instead, we could buy fish from the local fisherman – usually mullet from the lake because that was the cheapest. But, best of all, we were sometimes allowed to go to the local fish and chip shop to buy cooked fish in batter and chips. That was a real treat.

 

Religion permeated every part of our lives as we were growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those were the days when the Church was at its height in the Australian community. For the first time, Catholics were no longer persecuted and discriminated against. It was a period when we felt safe and secure in the practice of our ancient traditions. Our religious upbringing certainly helped to keep us kids on the straight and narrow. It provided us with a basis for living a moral life, but in the process lumbered us with an overwhelming sense of guilt and inadequacy that many people were never able to overcome.

 

 

 (c) Linda Visman

Being Catholic in the 1950s and 60s (2)

July 5, 2015 at 2:52 pm | Posted in Australia, Catholic Church, Family History, Religion | Leave a comment
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School was, apart from home, my security. I was good at my lessons, which usually involved rote learning of facts and passages. I was good at spelling, maths and Social Studies, and at Catechism. That was the ideal in the system – no questioning, just blind acceptance of what you were told. I was good at that, so I did well. I strove always to please and, mostly, I did.

The nuns schooled us in our religion, and we were expected to know our Catechism by heart. I can still picture the little green book we used that was set out in question and answer form (“Q: Who made the world? A: God made the world.”), and I knew every answer to every question. We were taught the importance of the Sacraments, and were prepared for receiving them at the appropriate age by the nuns. We made our First Confession just before receiving our First Holy Communion when we were about seven or eight. It was scary, having to confess my sins of fighting or being disobedient to Christ’s representative. I was always petrified that God would see me doing something bad, like sneaking a penny from my mother’s purse to go buy a lolly at the local shop. It didn’t always stop me from doing it, but boy, I sure enough felt so guilty about it that it was a long time before I did it again! I made sure I went to Confession every time too, so that I would be forgiven and not go to Hell if I died.

St Pauls Catholic Church 1959

St Pauls Catholic Church 1959

At about ten or eleven we were Confirmed by the bishop; in our case, Bishop McCabe of Wollongong. I took the name Bernadette as my Confirmation name because I loved the story of St Bernadette of Lourdes. We attended Benediction at the church every Friday, and visited at the day-long Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament[1] on the First Friday of every month.

The Latin Mass was an ongoing institution, and we attended every Sunday. We also went with our parents on Holy Days, like Ascension Thursday and All Saints Day, as if they were a Sunday. I think the kids from the state school were jealous that we had those days off school. On Sundays (and Holy Days), as we often didn’t have a vehicle, we went to Mass on a special bus. It cost sixpence (6d) per school age child and a shilling (1/-) per adult – 4/- for the six of us. Dad received about eight to ten pounds a week wages.[2] Our parents were also supposed to pay for our schooling. But, as we were poor, there were many times when Mum didn’t have the money, and we were treated as charity cases.

There were two money collections taken up at Sunday Mass – one assigned to the maintenance of the parish priest, and the other for the church and its operations. Everyone, no matter how poor, was expected to add coins to the collection plate. Whenever we saw a ten shilling note in the plate, we were amazed that someone had so much money to give away. From school, we also attended Mass on other special saints’ Feast Days, e.g. St Paul (as our church’s dedicated saint) and St Joseph (the nuns were Sisters of St Joseph).

[1] Exposition is a manner of honouring the Holy Eucharist (Christ’s body, in the form of the consecrated Host), by exposing It, with proper solemnity, to the view of the faithful in order that they may pay their devotions before It.

[2] One pound was equal to twenty shillings.

(c) Linda Visman

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