If you’ve regularly followed my blog, you know that I primarily write about childhood and toys of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Sometimes I rewind or fast forward to other decades. For a panoramic view of childhood, I sometimes interview people who grew up in countries other than the United States in the 50’s and 60’s.
But my blog is mostly about toys. Although I grew up in a middle class family, I had two brothers and two sisters, and, therefore, our individual stash of toys was limited. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it taught me to appreciate my toys as well as all of my belongings. To this day, I still possess many of my toys because I cherished them. They grew up with me: my baby dolls, my Viewmaster, my homemade paper dolls . . . .
So, then, why am I writing about my first Holy Communion in 1959? Because the sacrament was a major milestone in a Roman Catholic girl’s childhood, especially when she attended a parochial school. We were finally considered old enough to welcome the Body and Blood of Jesus into our hearts through Communion.
What does first Holy Communion have to do with toys? Nothing, really, but I received a prayer book, a rosary, and a holy card, and I prized them as I did my toys. They were exceptional gifts—as were the resplendent white dress, the veil, the knee-length white socks, and the pristine white buckle shoes. I felt like a bride on her wedding day—or the closest I could ever be to the Blessed Mother or an angel.
Before that preeminent day in 1959 arrived, we first Communicants had much to learn. In my school, we all received first Holy Communion in second grade. Much like Moses, the second grade teachers—all nuns—had quite a mountain to climb to get us to the top.
Unlike today, when class size is a hot topic of debate and 30 students is considered an overcrowded travesty, there were approximately 62 kids in my class throughout my eight years at St. Bartholomew’s. There were 3 second grade classes at St. Bart’s in 1959, so there were roughly 180 students preparing for their first Holy Communion that spring.
Mass was quite a different experience back in the 50’s compared to today. The major difference, baby boomers and older may recall, is that the Mass was celebrated entirely in Latin. Curiously, as I think back, I don’t recall our teachers ever enlightening us as to the translation of the Latin. So, in essence, we didn’t know what the priest was saying. To this day, I remember the phrases “Dominus Vobiscum” and its response “et cum spiritu tuo,” which I thought was pronounced “et cum spiri tutuo.” We now know these as “The Lord be with you” with the response “And with your spirit.”
For more Latin words and phrases that every boomer Catholic and older should recognize, read here at epicPew. Latin Masses were mandated until the Novus Ordo (new order of the Mass) in 1969.
You may also remember that during Mass in the 1950’s, the congregation was silent—no responsorial psalms, no singing at all. And the priest had his back to the congregation as he celebrated Mass.
There were usually two altar boys assisting the priest. It wasn’t until 1983 that girls were permitted to serve. In our school, there were an abundance of altar boys, so there was never a last minute shortage that I can recall.
Besides Sunday Mass with our families, we went with our classes during the week. I can’t recall exactly, but we went no more than once a week. And more than ever, in second grade, we observed how to receive Communion properly.
Long before our first Communion Day, we practiced in the classroom. We stood quietly in line, fingers pointing upward. One girl remembers the priest advising, “Don’t let the angel fall [off your fingers].” Another admonition was not to bite the host because it’s Jesus’s body. Sister Annette assigned Tommy D., altar boy and the teacher’s pet, to play the role of the priest. When it was your turn, you would kneel on a makeshift kneeler pad, tilt your head back, stick out your tongue, and Tommy would place a Necco Wafer “host” on it. It wasn’t often that we received candy in school, especially during religion class!
Sometimes one of our three priests would speak with us on the solemnity of the Mass, and when they spoke, you listened. We were in awe of their roles as emissaries with a direct line of communication with God. In The Catholic Collar and Tie, a first Communicant commented, “During my preparation for my first Holy Communion in the 1950s the parish priest explained to the children that when he reached into the tabernacle he was reaching into heaven because the Son of God was there. It was such an awesome description that I have never forgotten it.”
Here was our pastor with the first Communicants of 1958:
Until 1953, in order to take Communion, Catholics were required to refrain from eating and drinking after midnight. With the introduction of afternoon and evening vigil masses, congregants were leniently permitted to fast from food for just three hours and from non-alcoholic drinks for one hour before Communion. By 1957, that fast was made applicable to all Masses. I was aware of the fasting rules because at the time, I slept in a bedroom with two siblings, and on days that the family took Communion, my mother would wake them up at 6:00 with a tray of food. They would passively eat breakfast in bed and then go back to sleep for a few hours.
The strict fast was the reason that many people only took Communion once a month or less back then.
Adults and children dressed up for Mass. Most men wore suits. Women and girls wore skirts or dresses, and they were required to wear a hat or at least a mantilla or a lace chapel veil, which some of us called doilies.
Worst case scenario: if a girl forgot her chapel veil, she had to scramble to find a tissue and attach it to her head with a bobby pin. Invariably, at our school’s weekday masses, a handful of girls could be seen with Kleenex on top of their heads.
So you can imagine how delighted we girls were to dress for one glorious day above and beyond anything that you would ever see on a given day in church.
I have good and bad remembrances of my years at St. Bartholomew’s grade school, but my first Holy Communion was all good. Well, except for one thing . . . CONFESSION.
At the tender age of eight years old, standing in line for our first confession set our bodies quivering right down to our bobby socks and saddle shoes. Though the church interior was vast, it seemed utterly soundless save for the click of the confessional door closing and opening, beckoning the next “victim,” in our eyes, to enter the unknown.
Our predicament ranked right up there with being called to the principal’s office—an unforgiving nun principal— or waiting for one of our three priest to come to the classroom to pass out report cards. Would it be Father M, the priest who would take a look at a bad report card, discover a “U” for unsatisfactory in classroom behavior, and throw the card in the trash, necessitating the beleaguered child to fish it out of the can, germy tissues and all? Even an “S-” would raise his eyebrows. He called it a “U” draped in mercy.”
So what if that very same Father M was on the other side of the confessional screen? That’s how the idea of first confession played out in our minds—fearing that Father would bolt from the confessional and send you straight to hell for stealing that pack of Teaberry gum from the A & P. Or maybe you’d just tell him about that sin the next time.
I’ve been a nail biter for as long as I can remember. It probably began on the day of my first confession.
Once that dreaded moment was over, the rest seemed easy. Finally, the day came—May 21, 1959. Here we were in the photo below just before the ceremony began—all 62 of us and our three priests. And that was just my class. Imagine 180 girls in dazzling white dresses and boys in dark suits walking slowly down the center aisle of the church, all of us with fingers pointed upwards in prayer so that the angel would not fall off, all of us anxious to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament for the first time.
Here is a close-up of me. I am sitting in the bottom row, 4th from left.
I don’t remember much else that transpired that day except that I received those three revered gifts: a prayer book, a rosary, and a holy card. Like my baby dolls, my Viewmaster, and my homemade paper dolls, I still have those religious items 56 years later.
Here is the prayer book below. It says on the top “My Little Heart Prays.” It was like no book I had ever received, not that I had many. The Wizard of Oz was the only other book I recall solely owning at that age rather than being communal family property. My prayer book is overlaid with a hard, shiny pearl-like cover that seems to be almost holographic when moved back and forth. As you can see from the photo, it is well worn, having been lovingly taken to Mass each week, probably until I received my Catholic Girl’s Manual and Sunday Missal for Christmas in 1962. In those days, most everyone brought their own missals to Mass rather than the standard missals that can be found in the pews today.
On the inside cover is a plastic church window with Jesus hanging on the cross, all in 3D.
Here are a few interesting pages that certainly identify the times:
Pay particular attention to the second paragraph here.
Here is my first rosary, which we often called rosary beads—an awesome first Holy Communion gift. I kept it in a bobby pin case. You can see the words “PATTI PINS” on it.
Although my husband Frank and I are only 2 months apart in age, he didn’t receive his first Holy Communion until 3rd grade, probably because he attended a public school while I attended a parochial school. So shortly after I received my first Holy Communion in May, 1959, he received his in a nearby community on May 8, 1960. Here he is with his prayer book and rosary.
Here is a 5-inch tall first Communicant gift that Frank received:
Although I have my class photo taken on first Holy Communion Day, I don’t have an individual one of myself. I do have this photo of my sister Sandy in her Communion attire taken on May 25, 1963.
Below left is the Mass Book that she received at her first Holy Communion, also well worn. On the right is the missal I received for Christmas in 1962. Both of these traveled to church with us countless times.
Those are my memories of first Holy Communion, a momentous day in the lives of Catholic boys and girls in the 1950’s.
I’m going to end with an anecdote by my friend Linda, who received her first Holy Communion in 1958 :
“This didn’t happen THE day but I had a statue of Jesus that I received. Our house was robbed several months later. My mom…not knowing if thieves were still in the house…said to pick up an object to protect ourselves. I picked up my Jesus statue to clonk the robber on the head…I knew that Jesus would protect me!”
Now that is faith in Jesus!
KAREN GENNARI is the author of The Crab Hollow Chronicles, a fictitious memoir based on her experiences growing up in a neighborhood full of boys in 1961/62. It also explores the merits and challenges of life in a Catholic family of seven.
Join nine-year-old Karen Schmidt in her attempts to navigate Crab Hollow Road amidst the overwhelming male majority who beleaguer her at every opportunity. Does Karen have the fortitude to weather toadnappings, midnight escapades, false impersonation, and more? Along the way, relive the people, products, music, sports, and headlines of the early 1960’s. Virtually every page references the 1960’s. Lots of your favorite toys are mentioned in these pages.