by Joe Laufer
Continuing the story of my school days at St. Nicholas School in Wilkes-Barre, PA, I intend to share some specific memories that illustrate the uniqueness of my educational experience as compared to that of my children and that of my grandchildren. In the first segment, I described the community in which I was raised as a self-contained, homogeneous community of second and third generation immigrant families, primarily German, whose identity was defined by their common Roman Catholic Faith and the Parish where they worshiped. What I refer to as a German Ghetto served to both insulate and define us.
The early grades – 1940 – 1945
The classrooms for the first six grades were located on the first floor of the school. Starting at the far end of the building at the ramp at the end of the hall leading to the auditorium, grades 1, 3 and 5 were on the Church side of the building and grades 2, 4 and 6 were on the school yard side. The classrooms were relatively plain, but one of the things I remember distinctively were that in each of the lower grades, 1 through 4, there was a black sandbox on legs in the front corner of the room. The nuns would use the sandbox for rotating “dioramas” reflecting the various holidays and seasons. I remember especially around Christmas time when Nativity sets were placed in the sand — with sheep and other animals grazing in the white sand. I think it was in third grade that there were as many sheep in the sand box as there were kids in the class, each with our name on it.
All of the rooms had the alphabet, capital and small letters, in flawless cursive style across
the front of the room above the blackboard. There was always a crucifix on the front wall, centered above the teacher’s desk, which sat on a platform, so the nun had a view over the heads of the kids. There was always a silver bell on the corner of the nun’s desk which she would tap to gain our attention to stand for the morning prayer and Pledge of Allegiance. Our student desks had ink wells, and were screwed to wooden rails, so that several benches in the row could be moved at once, if necessary.
I remember clearly the lined penmanship books we used in the early grades. My favorite school book was our reader. Some of the stories and the illustrations are still a part of my active memory, especially the one about the little Christmas tree freezing in the field, wishing to be cut down to become someone’s Christmas tree. And who could forget Dick and Jane and Spot. The Baltimore Catechism, with its questions and answers and the major source of our knowledge of our faith, was one of the important texts used each day. The math books were mazes of numbers in problem formation. There were no illustrations in our math books.
All our classrooms had “Holy Childhood” posters on the wall, where we pasted cut-out images of the pagan babies we adopted with our donations. Some nuns were better than others at encouraging us to bring in our money for the Holy Childhood. Every Lent we were given mite boxes in which to deposit our monetary sacrifices for the Holy Childhood. I imagined having adopted brothers and sisters running around Africa and China.
I remember my respective first and second grade teachers, Sister Lucina and Sister Herman Joseph as being very kind nuns. However, I never seemed not to understand the assignments they were giving us. I remember being confused a lot in the early grades.
The highlight of 2nd Grade was preparing for First Communion. We learned how to go to confession — I remember the little “Examination of Conscience” booklets which jogged our memories about the sins we may have committed, commandment by commandment. In those early days the big one was disobeying my parents — gradually being taken over by “impure thoughts” as I got older. We practiced receiving the sacred host at the hands of Sister Herman Joseph. When the big day, May 3, 1942, finally came around, we gathered in our classroom, the girls in their white dresses and veils, the boys in their blue suits, each with our little first communion kit that contained a missal, rosary and scapular. Those were the days when you had to fast from the previous midnight if you were to receive communion. To make sure we didn’t accidentally take a drink of water before our first communion, the water fountains in the school hall were wrapped in a white cloth. The nuns thought of everything! And how the heck do I remember that little detail from when I was only 7 years old? We then lined up, two by two, for the procession over to the church. It was really a major milestone in our lives.
Some of my favorite early grade school memories center around the Christmas holidays. Our last school day before the Christmas break was always very special. The entire student body would go to the auditorium to welcome Santa Claus. We all received song sheets to sing a variety of Christmas songs. When we walked into the auditorium, all across the front of the stage there were boxes of hard candy neatly piled up for distribution to each child in the school. Father Staib and the other priests were there to greet us — it was one big party atmosphere. This annual ritual never changed in my 12 years at St. Nicks, as I recall.
Also, in the days before Christmas, as we attended morning Mass in the Church, we would witness the gradual construction of the elaborate Christmas Creche on the St. Joseph Altar. The Germans are especially adept and creating realistic Nativity sets. The transformation of the St. Joseph Altar was an engineering feat. First, a large wooden framework was constructed to hold the dozens of live Christmas trees that created a typical alpine forest as the background for the stable. The trees extended well up to the ceiling over the side altar, and there were so many of them, the odor of pine filled the church. Each day leading up to the Christmas break we would see additional construction take place, until finally a white sheet was strung up concealing the Nativity scene until it was unveiled on Christmas Eve. I’m convinced that this annual ritual planted the seeds of my total immersion in the spirit of Christmas and the many things I have done throughout my life at Christmas time, from elaborate interior and exterior house decorating, to playing Santa Claus for children.
At some point around 8th grade and beyond, we began the custom of the Advent Wreath in the school. This ceremony took place in the main hallway of the school over the 4 weeks of Advent. The nuns reminded us that this custom began in Germany. My children will recall that every Advent in our home we had an Advent wreath, the tradition I was first introduced to as a student in St. Nicholas school.
I have a unique story to share about one Halloween at St. Nick’s. It was somewhat traumatic for me. I mentioned how I sometimes was confused by the assignments and directives of the nuns. I’m guessing that this incident took place in 3rd or 4th grade. My parents had purchased a clown costume for me for Halloween. Somehow, with all the talk in school about Halloween, I told my mom that we were told to dress in our costume and wear it to school on Halloween afternoon. So on Halloween, I went home for lunch, dressed in my clown costume and walked back to school, arriving in the school yard only to discover that I was the only kid in a costume. I remember being very upset at being laughed at — and one of the Nuns consoling me. The unfortunate part of it was that I didn’t have street clothes on under the costume. The costume was my outfit for the rest of the afternoon.
I mentioned in Part I that as I went through the first several grades, I always dreamed of
becoming an Altar Boy like the older boys I would see daily at Mass. The new class of Altar Boys was chosen annually from among the fifth grade boys. No one was assured of being an altar boy, and I don’t recall that you “applied” for the honor. It was simply bestowed on you, based on good conduct, decent grades and, (I assume) piety. There was an “Altar Boy Sister” — one whose job it was to coordinate the whole altar boy program, from selection to training, to assignments. I think the Altar Boy Sister in 1944 was Sister Cletus (not one of my classroom teachers). When the names were announced, mine was not among them. I was devastated. I know I cried. It was probably the hardest blow I had received in my school career. In retrospect, however, it was probably one of the best life lessons I learned at St. Nick’s.
I was determined to do whatever I could to get that decision reversed. I can’t recall all the exact details of how I let the nuns know I wanted to be reconsidered for the next class, but I do remember one of my ploys: bribery! Each year my Mom and Dad provided me and my sister and brother with something to give to our teachers for Christmas — usually a box of candy. I remember asking my Mom to gift-wrap two boxes of candy for me — one for my teacher, Sister Arline,, and one for “the Altar Boy Nun”. I’m sure Sister Cletus was surprised when she got a box of candy from this kid she didn’t even know, but I think she got the message. It gave me the entry to let her know that I would like to be reconsidered for the next round of Altar Boy selections. I know Sister Arlene interceded for me — and I did attempt to improve my grades . It worked! I became an Altar Boy in 1945.
Ad Deum qui laetificat, juventutem meum
Being selected an Altar Boy was only the first step. Now came the training. The first requirement was learning the responses to the prayers in Latin. A new Altar Boy was given a 5″ x 7″ booklet with a red cover, with the Mass Server instructions, including the Latin prayers every Altar Boy must know. The Latin words were provided phonetically to assist you in learning them. The first assignment was the initial dialogue between the priest and the server (representing the congregation in those days before the liturgy reforms) known as “The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar”. The priest would say: Introibo ad altare Deo” (I will go to the Altar of God) and the server would respond “Ad Deum qui laetificat, juventutem meum” (To God, who gives joy to my youth), written phonetically in the training book as “Ahd day-yumm qwee lay-tee-fee-cott, you-ven-too-tem may-yum” (And guess what, I didn’t look this up — I still remember the Latin responses).
I found this part of the training very difficult. Not only did you have to learn the Latin, but you had to memorize it. One of the hardest prayers to learn was the “Sucipiat” – the response to the priest’s “Orate fratres” (Pray, brethren) at the end of the Offertory. I had developed a knack for mumbling that response so it sounded like I was saying it correctly. You also had to learn all the “moves” — when to move the book from the Epistle side of the altar to the Gospel side (the priest had a signal — he’d put his left hand on the altar when it was time). You had to know when to get the wine and water, when to get the communion plate, etc. And back then, there were certain very serious restrictions: you could never touch the sacred vessels — the chalice and the paten. If you Carried them, you had to use a cloth between your hand and the chalice or paten – they were sacred because they had contact with the body and blood of Christ.
The more the training progressed, the more I realized how really important my job was in
the drama of the liturgy. I finally passed all the tests and was ready for my first assignment. Just the fact that I could now enter the sacristy, behind the altar, where the priest prepared for Mass was worth all the preparation and anticipation. There were other jobs related to the actual setting up for the Mass. One was to light the candles on the altar. The older Altar Boys gave us special tips on how to adjust the wick of the candle-lighter, and what to do if you couldn’t get the candle to light. Another job was to assist the priest in vesting. There were rituals associated with holding the “cincture” (the cord that served as a belt for the “alb”) — and all kinds of other things.
This was serious business — and you couldn’t mess up. Once you got out on the altar, you had to remember when to ring the bells associated with the consecration of the host, and its exposition to the congregation. Heavy stuff! Then there was learning the knack of holding the communion plate under the chin of the people sticking their tongues out for Holy Communion. You didn’t want to get ahead of the priest, in case the “sacred host” dropped. You were there to catch it in the communion plate. And if your buddies were receiving communion and looked up at you as you held the communion plate under their chin, you had to be careful not to laugh. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but that was one of the occupational hazards of an Altar Boy.
Early on there was one practice at St. Nick’s that eventually was discontinued, even before the liturgical reform. All along the altar rail there was a communion cloth hanging on hinges (like a long, narrow curtain). Just before communion, two altar boys had to go over and flip it up over the top of the wooden altar rail — like a table-cloth. There was an art to getting in sync with your partner so you flipped it up and over at the exact same time. There were two of them, one on each side of the altar rail where the people came and knelt to receive communion. Each cloth was about ten feet long and about 2 feet wide. Only an altar boy from my time period can appreciate this unique and antiquated task. This was probably discontinued because it was a bit redundant, since the communion plate was used to keep the sacred host from falling to the floor. However, there’s more to it than meets the eye. These practices – the protective covering, the reverence for handling the sacred vessels, etc. – demonstrate the deep reverence the people had in those days for the Holy Eucharist. Critics of the Liturgical reform of the 1960’s consider the relaxing of these practices as the cause for the casual attitudes modern-day Catholics have towards the Sacraments of the Church.
Finally, there was the cassock and surplice — the official uniform of the Altar Boy. At St. Nick’s we had red cassocks and black cassocks. The black ones were mainly used for funerals. Then later on, by the time I got to high school, they introduced the cool white ones with the red sash and cape, and the gold fringe. In those days, being an Altar Boy was a great privilege. You knew you were a part of an elite group. We had our own “dressing room” in the basement of the priest’s sacristy. There were large closets with all different sizes of cassocks and surplices. There was a sink and mirror in our sacristy to make sure our hair was combed and our hands were clean.
One of the other cool things about being an Altar Boy at St. Nicks was the way you got out of class to serve a Funeral Mass or to serve a Mass for a visiting priest who slept in in the morning. You always knew when somebody died at St. Nick’s. The church bells would ring the mournful slow cadence announcing that another member of the parish had died. Our classrooms were right next to the bell tower, so we would always know what time it was, even if we didn’t see the clock – the bell would ring out the time on the hour, and then give a signal on the half hour. There were actually four big bells in the tower, each with its own tone. One of my favorite sounds was on a feast day or at a special holiday Mass where they would ring all the bells for about 5 minutes indicating that this was really a special occasion, like First Communion or Confirmation. On the day of my First Mass in 1961, they rang out that way for my own special celebration!
The “Altar Boy Nun” was responsible for making the weekly Mass Server assignments. The Nuns were the first “recyclers” I ever encountered. The Altar Boy assignments were written on small slips of recycled paper. They included Sunday and weekday Mass assignments, as well as assignments for special ceremonies, like Novena services which took place after school and into the early evening on Mondays (every Monday, as the last period of the school day, the entire student body attended novena in the Church. It was in honor of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and included Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament).
There were several things a good Altar Boy tried to avoid: forgetting to show up for one of his assignments (I slept in on Saturday mornings more than once!); being late for one of his assignments (it was embarrassing to walk out into the sanctuary after Mass had begun); getting a laughing jag during Mass, tripping on your cassock while moving the Missal from one side of the altar to the other, and messing up the Latin prayer responses.
Being an Altar Boy was a great honor at the time of the pre-Vatican Council Church. While I was a great champion of Vatican II, the liturgical reform of the 1960s, and the many changes that took place in the Church with the introduction of English, I lament the downgrading of the role of the Mass Server. At my present parish in New Jersey, during the 80s and 90s, the Altar Servers did not wear vestments — they served Mass in their street clothes. Many of their responsibilities were diluted.
As the prayer dialogue was taken up by the entire congregation, one of their unique liturgical roles was eliminated. None of my three sons ever demonstrated a desire to be a Mass Server, and I was never one to pressure them into anything like that. And, of course, my daughter couldn’t have done it even if she wanted to, because at that time girls couldn’t be Mass servers. I regret that none of them had the opportunity to experience that aspect of our Catholic tradition that I so eagerly desired and so dearly treasured in my youth. But by my sharing this story, they may get insights into my behavior, my spirit and my values that they never had experientially. And even if they had been a modern “Altar Boy,” it would never have been anything like my experience.
My Altar Boy experience was unique because it took place at St. Nicholas and at that time in the history of the Church. There, where religion and education were so intertwined, being an Altar Boy was different from being one in any other setting. I am grateful to the Nuns and Priests of St. Nicholas for making this such an important and memorable part of my life.
The Priests of St. Nicholas
I didn’t intend to spend practically this entire segment on my Altar Boy experience, but as I got into it, it pretty much took on a life of its own. So rather than get into some of the specifics of school life, I will close out with a commentary on the priests who ministered to the faithful of St. Nicholas and who played a big role in my life.
In addition to Father Staib, the Pastor, about whom I wrote in Part I, there were about ten other priests who served St. Nick’s during my school years, 1940 through 1952. The earliest ones I recall were Father Joseph Luksic and Father Joseph Meier. The priests garage was just off the back part of the school yard. I think it was a three or four car garage. Sometimes the priests would walk over from the rectory near the end of lunch hour to get their car. I remember whenever Father Meier came into the school yard, all the kids would gather around him. He had a great smile and the kids had a high regard for him. We were disappointed when he was assigned to another parish, but he returned again about twenty years later, in June, 1969 as the fifth pastor of St. Nicks and oversaw the major renovations of the Church in compliance with the liturgical architecture dictated by the Second Vatican Council. I have always been impressed by the way the church was modernized without losing its historical features. Fr. Jacob Wideman was my second cousin, and he was assigned to St. Nick’s as a young priest. He was very popular with the students. Perhaps the most popular priest during my days at St. Nicks was Father Gerald Bischof. He was the most down-to-earth priest the parish ever had. He was loved by everyone. He had been a chaplain in the army during World War II and I remember once seeing him in his military uniform. I recall that after he was transferred to a church at some distance from Wilkes-Barre, my parents took us to his parish for a summer bazaar.
Father Mikus was a very serious and scholarly priest. He was respected, but not very popular with the students, as I recall. During my high school years I was personally very close to two of our parish priests, Father Carl Ulrich and Father Francis Kramer. Father Ulrich had a lot of responsibilities related to the school. He was more or less the spiritual adviser to the Basketball team, and was at all the games. I didn’t play basketball, but I attended most of the games. Father Ulrich also was in charge of the Friday night dances
held in the school auditorium. In my Junior year he recruited me to be the disk jockey for the dances. My job was to open up the auditorium on Friday night, and to play the records at the dances. Little did I know that some day I’d actually be playing records over the air as a real disk jockey at WMMN in Fairmont, WV. He became very upset with me when during the summer between my Junior and Senior year, I told him I took a job at the Paramount Theater as an usher. It required that I work on Friday nights, so I couldn’t DJ any more. Fr. Ulrich was also the “BINGO” priest, in charge of the very popular Tuesday night bingo at St. Nicks. He recruited me as a “Bingo Boy”. Several of us, boys and girls in the high school, would “work the room” every Tuesday night selling bingo cards, verifying winners, and being touched “for good luck” by the ladies who bought a winning bingo card from us. Fr. Ulrich would reward us with a ski trip to the Poconos in the winter and an outing at Penn Lake in the summer. On occasion he took a couple of us to Levittown, PA to visit his married sister and her family. He was also the chaperon on our Senior trip to Washington, DC in May, 1952. I felt honored to be a part of his “team.”
Finally, Father Francis Kraemer became a very close friend of our family. He was a great Yankees fan, and would go to New York with my Dad to see them play. He and my Dad became great friends, and he was a frequent guest in our home. During the summer of my Junior year he was assigned to take the parish census, requiring him to drive to the homes of each parishioner.
He recruited me to be his driver — driving his car — because he wasn’t as familiar with the neighborhoods as I was. He would also visit us at our summer cottage at Falls. I was in both the Junior and Senior play at St. Nick’s, and Fr. Kraemer was the drama coach. I thought this was a big joke, and I told him so. He actually didn’t know anything about drama — and he agreed! We Seniors had a nickname for Father Kramer. He always wore a fedora — and we called him “Harry the Hat.” He was a fun guy. The last time I saw him was at my 25th class reunion in 1977.
While all of our teachers at St. Nick’s were Nuns, in our Junior and Senior year, the priests taught us Religion. Father Kramer was my Religion teacher. The integration of education, religion and family and social life in the parochial school setting was a positive experience for me. Again, the first steps in my multi-faceted career path were taken right here at St. Nick’s. In Part III of “It takes a Village…” I plan to conclude this topic by relating some additional educational experiences at St. Nicks.