LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — St. Mary’s Knight of the Altar

J.T. Knoll
Sister Anaceleta and Gary Gleason’s 2nd grade class.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Wichita were called to Pittsburg in 1895 to operate an elementary school in Our Lady of Lourdes Parish. From then until 2008, more than 200 nuns served the parish. This week’s column by Gary Gleason, which relates some of his experiences at St. Mary’s Grade School, is excerpted from his essay “Boyhood Days in Pittsburg, Kansas.” Gary is now retired and living with his wife in Gainesville, Georgia. — J.T.K.

I was 7 years old in 1954 when Dad got a job at Mid-States Manufacturing just west of Pittsburg and moved us from 30 miles east of Parsons to a house on Lindburg Street, just off South Broadway across from Kansas State Teachers College (KSTC), now Pittsburg State.   

Living in a small college town was fun; I got to see the homecoming parade floats on Broadway, then sneak into “The Pit” (Brandenburg Field) to watch the Gorillas — what a colorful and wonderful spectacle!

For an impressionable boy entering 2nd grade, Pittsburg was the big city. The Hotel Besse towered eleven stories into the Kansas sky, the tallest skyscraper I had ever seen. When walking to school, I would stop on the sidewalk and look straight up. Amazing how they could stack all those bricks that high.

My boyhood imagination was in high gear. I was The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, ‘King of the Cowboys,’ ‘Stan the Man’ Musial and Mickey Mantle. I pretended to be Superman by pinning a towel around my neck and jumping off the garage roof, busting an ankle. I was a Cub Scout, Boy Scout, a school crossing guard, and an altar boy.

I went to St. Mary’s from 2nd thru 7th grade. My favorite subjects were recess and lunch. I lived to hear the three o’clock bell so I could run out the door and slide down the banister. We always managed to get a game of marbles in before boarding the bus.

I was an altar boy, a crossing guard and I got to hoist the flag. I was a “Line Leader” for fire drills (until I led the line down the wrong hallway).

My 2nd grade teacher, Sister Anaceleta, was my first encounter with a strict disciplinarian. When any of her pupils stepped out of line, she paddled them in front of the whole class. I was one of her main targets. I clearly recall they weren’t soft taps on the butt either, she hit hard. I sat directly in front of Sister Anaceleta’s desk so she could keep an eye on me. 

I had a hard time memorizing the Latin prayers and remember having to stand in front of Sister Caroline and recite all the Mass prayers in Latin before I was allowed to go to the altar boys picnic. I barely made it; she let me slide. 

I developed a case of stage fright early on as an altar boy that has never completely left. It began one morning Mass before the school day. My job was to light the candles.  There were six candles approximately 8 feet high above the altar. 

I was in front of the entire congregation of fellow schoolmates trying to get all six candles lit so Mass could begin.  It seemed like an eternity; I couldn’t get them lit.

To reach the candles, you used a long wooden pole with a flaming wax wick on the end. Because I was failing, I extended the wax wick out further to get a larger flame. I must have pushed the wick out too far because it produced a HUGE flame. Too much wax melted which created a large fireball that dropped down onto the pristine white cloth that covered the altar. From my vantage point it looked like a comet falling out of the sky, it splattered on the altar cloth and caught fire. 

Two nuns jumped out of their pews. One tended to the blaze while the other, Sister Delores (who was in charge of all altar boys) grabbed the pole out of my hands to prevent further desecration. I could hear my classmates in the pews, gasping, and giggling. Sister Delores had a look on her face that assured me my time as a Knight of the Altar was over. The priest and the other altar boys were looking on from the vestibule with dropped jaws.

What a spectacle. I just wanted to disappear. Staying in school the whole day was hard. I thought my altar boy days were over, but the nuns showed me mercy, I was allowed to continue as a Knight of the Altar, but I wouldn’t be lighting any candles before Mass.

I served many more Masses without incident and regained a level of confidence to the point of getting cocky. It was a Sunday Morning High Mass, (the big one) and I was the “Paten holder” altar boy, which gave me ample time to stare out at the congregation and daydream.

My only function, besides kneeling down and standing up, was to assist the priest during communion, which meant walking alongside him holding the Paten plate under each person’s chin as they received Holy Communion. This required very little concentration, which gave me time to tap a few of my buddies on the chin with the Paten as I passed by along the communion rail.

As Father Stremmel got to the end of the rail and made a quick turnaround to head back to the other end he caught me off guard (as I was still admiring a few members out in the congregation). I jumped out of his way and, as I raced to catch up to him, my foot caught his heel. He stopped and I ran smack into the back of him. Fortunately, no host fell out of the Chalis … but I got a look from Father Stremmel like Curley got from Moe before his eyes were gouged.

After these indiscretions — along with skipping a few 5th grade harmonica classes — I was removed from the altar boy force; no longer a Knight of the Altar. Fired at the age of twelve! Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. 

I didn't tell Mom.

— Gary Gleason

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309.