How I became a St. James altar boy: The boat boy and the exploding censer

In his series “How I became a St. James altar boy,” Ralph Horner writes about growing up next to St. James Anglican Catholic Church in Goodrich-Kirtland Park and how he got drawn into being an altar boy and, eventually, “a high Anglo Catholic, but not under the Pope Pius XII.” In last week’s installment, Horner attended his first High Mass as an Altar Boy—and he liked it.

My first duty as an altar boy was called “Wood Pile.” That meant my station was way across the altar. It was far from the action and my job was to just stand there.

After I had mastered just standing there, they moved me to a position where I would hold a long pole with a candle on top and I continued to just stand there. After a few weeks they made me boat boy. Boat boy was a bigger deal. The boat boy assisted the server, who was an older, more experienced altar boy in charge of the cense. Yes, the server was in charge of the censer.

The censerThe censer For those of you who are not of the Catholic persuasion, let me explain the censer itself: It is a sort of ventilated pear-shaped pot on a complicated multi chained affair. It had a lid that moved up and down on the chain. When the lid was up it showed a pot kind of a thing that contained granulated incense.

At certain times during the mass the server and the boat boy would get together with the priest and he would put spoons full of incense on the burning charcoal—creating voluminous clouds of smoke. The priest would take the censer and swing it in front of him and bless everything in sight with the smoke.

After that, the server and the boat boy would get together with the priest again and he would put more spoons full of incense on the burning charcoal creating more voluminous clouds of smoke. Then the server and the boat boy would go to the altar gate and shake the censer at the congregation and bless the crap out of them.

I know this might seem a little strange and may be a little boring to non-Catholics, but it made us feel good and mystical. It made you feel good and kind of sanctified. Yeah, sanctified. That sounds good but, geez. I hope I am not giving away the mystical secrets of the Catholic rituals to any of you who might be of other religious persuasions.

I don't want to get in trouble with you-know-who (I won’t say his name out loud, I will just point up—way up)!

Besides, there is always confession and penance. I did something really dumb once while I was serving Mass as the boat boy. The boat did not really look like a boat. It was just an oblong sort of metal thing that had flaps that opened in the middle. One Sunday, while I was holding the boat, I got an uncontrollable and stupid urge to jump backwards. So, I did.

Unfortunately, the flaps on the boat flew open and the incense flew out and was all over the altar.

For the rest of the Mass the prayers and singing were accompanied by the crunch, crunch, crunch of our shoes stepping on the incense.

I thought, oh boy, I am going to really get chewed out by Father Pete and surely get excommunicated by the High Anglican Church Counsel in England.

After mass, back in the sacristy, all Father Pete said was, “Mr. Horner, would you please sweep that up and kindly confine your gymnastics to the church yard in the future.” 

I thought “Phew, I am still a Henry VIII high Anglo Catholic (but not under Pope Pius XII).”

Ralph Horner
Ralph Horner

About the Author: Ralph Horner

Ralph Horner grew up in the 1950s and 1960s on Whittier Avenue in the Central and Hough neighborhoods. In the 1960s and 1970s, at the age of 19, he managed a French Shriner shoe store on Euclid Avenue, where he got to know many of the people who hung out on Short Vincent.  A self-proclaimed juvenile delinquent living in the inner city, Horner observed the characters who were regulars in the neighborhoods he lived and worked in. Now in his 70s, Horner shares the stories of some of his more memorable experiences on Short Vincent with the FreshWater series, Rascals and Rogues I Have Known.