Oh, For Pete’s Sake!
By: Irene Sutherland
I remember the day that I received my First Holy Communion well. It was during a spring snowstorm on Sunday, May 8, 1966 at Holy Rosary Church in Rochester, NH. But it being my long awaited First Holy Communion Day, the snow didn’t seem to squelch my excitement. To me, my being only six years old at the time, the snow seemed to add to the excitement and beauty of the day. I would finally get to wear my pretty new white dress, use my new floral white purse and my new shiny white rosary. I could hardly wait to wear my veil too, which made everything look so pretty together like a bride on her wedding day. Even if I had to wear my new dress under the gown that made us all look alike with our new clothes underneath didn’t bother me much. I guess that’s because the outer gowns kind of made us look like angels with their large bell sleeves and the gold vertical stripes that were on either side of the Kairo. If you flapped your arms while wearing them, they looked rather cool, especially when flapping your arms up and down all in unison! We tried that at practice and it was fun! But, Sister said that we were supposed to walk up with our hands together pointed heavenward with our rosaries draped over them and walk reverently for Jesus, two by two. I guess that is the way that real angels are supposed to behave.
My mother had laid my clothes out the night before so that getting ready would be a little simpler for me. But, I was more excited to look out at all of the snow coming down outside while wriggling into my new clothes with my nervous mother’s help. I really didn’t understand why she wasn’t as happy about this snowy day as I was. After all this was supposed to be special and different from all of the other Sundays because I could finally receive Jesus. My grandmothers were both coming to Mass with us. My uncle who was also my godfather was coming in from Fort Bragg that day as well and I couldn’t wait to see him again! I was excited about everyone coming to Mass and later coming over to visit and celebrate. I hadn’t realized that the spring snowstorm posed all kinds of issues for both of my parents, which was why they were so nervous and serious about everything even though nothing could dampen my excitement.
My mother was quite concerned about the slush and wet snow making a mess of my new shiny white shoes and white stockings. I wasn’t supposed to step in any puddles all dressed up and didn’t realize myself, the challenge that would be once we arrived at church. I was too excited to think about that. I wore my coat to protect my dress and used my mother’s umbrella to protect my finger curls from getting flat or straight. My veil and gown were under plastic to keep them dry. They were hanging off the hook in the car’s back seat.
One of my grandmothers, actually my recently widowed step grandmother, lived close to the church. But, my other grandmother, who was also my godmother, had a long drive down a steep hill, Rochester Hill coming down from Somersworth. In the snowstorm, she got stuck coming down that hill which was going to make her late. She must have had someone call our landlord to tell my parents because we didn’t have a phone at the time, something hard to imagine today with e-mail, text messaging and cell phones. But, we actually lived in a time when phones weren’t in every home. So, a neighbor with a phone would get the call and relay the message by coming to your door. Which was why my parents weren’t so happy about the snow falling and getting deeper and deeper as we drove out to the church.
That same snowstorm also affected my uncle’s travel to join us too. But, I wasn’t aware of all of this on the way to church that morning. My parents both concentrated on getting there in time for us to line up which was going to take place downstairs in the church hall. Sister wanted us to be there early to get our outer gowns on straight, fix our hair which got sort of tousled as we slipped those gowns over our heads and don our veils straight before we lined up. That meant a lot of mothers fussing over us to make sure we got everything on right so that we wouldn’t be embarrassed. Even the boys would need their mothers to help them.
So, off we went to the church, the windshield wipers going back and forth really fast and the car splashing along and slipping now and then on the compacted slush and ice. Once we arrived at the church I was warned to wait in the car for my mother to come and open the door for me. She didn’t let me out of the car, but insisted on lifting me out and setting me down only when we reached the church door, avoiding all of the puddles and slush! Wearing my boots wasn’t an option that morning. She accompanied me inside to make sure that I was properly attired for the line up. I still got to show off my new dress to my friends and classmates as they showed theirs off to me as each of our mothers, helped us to get ready. It was a little chaotic during that time, but we still turned out looking like little angels in a fairly straight line. We sure couldn’t stand still for very long as we waited for the time to walk up the stairs and into the church the long way around since we couldn’t go outside like our original plans were during all of our practice sessions. We had to pay attention to the changing plans and instructions as we fidgeted.
One reason for our being so fidgety wasn’t just about waiting to go upstairs but because of our concern for our friend and classmate, Pete. Poor Pete, we were really worried about him and his receiving his First Holy Communion with us. Every time we practiced how to come up to kneel at the altar rail to receive our First Holy Communion, whether Sister had us practice in the classroom or closer to our special day at the church itself, Pete had a hard time with the host. None of us really thought that it tasted all that impressive. But, we tolerated it and back then you couldn’t touch it with your hands or your teeth. Once you received it on your tongue, you had to slowly dissolve it in your mouth and swallow it, not chew it like we can today. Poor Pete had a real poor gag reflex and he got sick on it. Every single time he tried to swallow the practice host, the janitor had to come in and pour sawdust on what came up from poor Pete, and then we would all have to try to practice again later. We were all six and maybe some of us were seven years old then so, we didn’t know why this happened all of the time but we were really worried about him this morning and if he would make it.
While we waited in line downstairs in the parish hall, the tables were being set for the breakfast reception that would follow our Mass. The smell of muffins, and bacon and eggs was beginning to fill the air creating another excitement as we thought about how fun it was going to be with our families and relatives joining us for the breakfast reception afterward. Not only that but our First Communion Day was during the period of time when there was no eating from midnight until after attending Sunday morning Mass and receiving Holy Communion first. So, we were getting pretty hungry as well as feeling nervous and excited at that point. It was a good thing that we were receiving our First Holy Communion at the early Mass!
The time came for us to go upstairs and process into the church, coming up the side aisles and joining with our partner in the hallway to process down the center aisle together two by two filling the front few pews on both sides of the church. I am not sure if we all looked like angels because we could only see spots as cameras flashed and some of us dared to smile as we walked proudly and nervously to the front rows of the church. I couldn’t see if my grandmothers or my uncle were there in the row my parents sat in with all of the people that were gathered. Instead we all searched without moving our heads, but only our eyes for where Pete was sitting.
During Mass, we stood perfectly still in the church, and we sat attentively too. Sister was behind us with her clicker and we best keep as still and attentive as we could be if we knew what was good for us. Then came the moment we had been so patiently waiting for. It was time for us to file out of our pews, one row at a time to kneel at the altar rail to receive Jesus for the first time ever, and this time with the real host that Father blessed.
Receiving Jesus each of us, one at a time was very special for us and for our parents and for the two Sisters who worked very hard to prepare us for this day. We went back to our seats, again with our row, one row at a time and the next row filed up. We all watched Pete from our seats in great anticipation as we knelt in thanksgiving to Jesus. I think Jesus heard how nervous and worried we were about Pete. When it was Pete’s turn to receive, he received Jesus like the rest of us did, and he didn’t even get sick! Jesus blessed him on our special day, as He blessed each of us. We all wanted to cheer, but we settled for a sigh of relief in our excitement, smiling at each other and at Pete as he returned to his seat. I’m sure that his family all experienced the same relief and offered their thanksgiving to Jesus for Pete.
After Mass we all filed downstairs to join our families for the breakfast reception. There was a lot to celebrate with the delicious food, our families and our friends. We even took turns getting our pictures taken with Monsignor as he handed out our certificates. It sure was a very special morning. It was a perfect day on the inside even with the weather being so horrible on the outside. Horrible for the grownups that is. But, in spite of the weather and its havoc when we got home after the breakfast reception we saw that my uncle made it home safely too adding to our celebration.