That Friday, after morning mass, the priests visited our third grade and announced a meeting for prospective altar boys.
I went. Me, a girl. Why did I go? First, I was attracted to the theatrics: the costuming with the alb and the cincture, the stately procession down the aisle with the cross and the thurible (the censer filled with incense) that one of the altar boys (the thurifer) swung on its Jacob Marley chains. I wanted to arrange the credence table–the corporal, the cruet, and the ciborium. I wanted to hold the ewer of holy water into which the priest dipped the aspergillum and then flicked it, raining holiness on penitent heads. When the priest held the Eucharist up, I wanted to twist the cluster of brass sanctus bells, alerting the congregation to the mystery of transubstantiation, that moment when the gifts of bread and wine were miracled into Body and Blood. And clearly I wanted to fill the chalice of my mouth with the wine of those words. Thurible and aspergillium and ciborium. The purificator, the paten and the pall.
Also, I went to prove a point: I shouldn’t be excluded because I was a girl.
But I never got the chance. Before the meeting began, Father Mayer evicted me from the front pew. “I’ll be right back,” he told my classmates, then steered me by my shoulder to the sacristy where, behind a heavy door, a few bent old ladies were ironing. This is the altar society, he told me. These women care for the priestly vestments. This is where God calls you to serve. He fled, and I fled, and that evening I wrote a letter in my best penmanship tattling on him to Cardinal Joseph Bernadin–girls should be altar servers! Women should be priests! My mom loved the letter and saved it, how cute, the little women’s libber. It didn’t occur to me at the time that her saving the letter meant she’d never sent it.
Now, a grown woman with children of my own, back in Illinois at my mother’s table, I read in The Trib that church files released at last in 2014 show that Father Mayer sexually abused altar boys for decades. At each parish, accusations, followed by a new assignment. He’d been removed from St. Mary’s and sent to St. Edna’s, removed from St. Edna’s and sent to St. Stephen’s, removed from St. Stephen’s and sent to St. Dionysius’, removed from St. Dionysius’ and sent to St. Odilo’s. All those altered boys. Did the archdiocese, the Cardinal, know? Please. In the files, there’s a contract Bernadin made Fr. Mayer sign, promising that at St. Odilo’s he wouldn’t be alone with boys younger than twenty-one. Because by then two of his previous altar boys had committed suicide.
After St. Odilo’s, he was sent to jail.
You can look all of this up, if you care to. Father Robert E. Mayer, pastor of St. Mary’s, Lake Forest, Illinois, from 1975 to 1981. Call this fiction: I dare you.
I lay the newspaper down in a light that is no longer the light of my mother’s kitchen, but is the stained light of St. Mary’s, where solid pillars of dust used to prop up the clerestory windows, and in this light I see it all anew, I see it all anew, and clear as a bell, as we say, as if cued by altar boys twisting the sanctus bells, announcing that something has been transubstantiated into something else, forever. The meeting where Fr. Mayer shoved me into the sacristry where the ironing women lifted the blank communion wafers of their faces. The click of dress shoes as he rushed back to the meeting, his robes streaming behind him like wings. Followed by, a few years later, his sudden “sabbatical.” His goodbye pot-luck.
My outrage at not being chosen. My bad luck at being born a girl.
My classmate Donny O’Dell, who was chosen, during mass that unseasonably warm Easter—he was holding high the Bible, rigid and dutiful, when suddenly he toppled backward. The whole congregation heard the sickening thwack of skull on marble, and as one, we uttered the same surprised Oh!—as if it were part of the mass, as if a response had been inserted before the Agnus Dei,–Oh! we cried, in a single voice—and how quickly good Father Mayer was at his side, bending, lifting in his arms the small boy, Donny O’Dell, a boy even smaller than I was, Donny in his arms like Jesus removed from his cross, or, with his white alb flowing toward the floor, like a bride. And how Donny raised a hand to his head and opened his eyes upon the congregation and realized that he’d fainted and smiled a sheepish smile. How the ushers led Donny outside into the cool cool air. How the parishioners laughed a relieved laugh to see he was okay, and later, filing out into the narthex, laughed, relieved, again, with Mrs. O’Dell. Your son gave us quite a scare, Nance. For a moment, we thought he was a goner.
Printed with permission from Beth Ann Fennelly, copyrighted by Beth Ann Fennelly @ 2015. This piece, winner of the Fall 2015 Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction and selected by Finalist Judge Sue William Silverman, originally appeared in Issue No. 19 of the Los Angeles Review.