Monday, May 14, 2007

First Communion (Plus Forty Years)

As we all know, yesterday was Mother's Day in the United States. Forty years ago, however, May 13 was a Saturday, the day before Mother's Day. It happens that May 13, 1967, was also the day of what Catholics call "my First Holy Communion."

Those who do not grow up in Catholic families within largely (ethnic) Catholic communities like Milwaukee will probably find it hard to understand what a milestone a First Communion is for Catholic kids. In most families, a First Communion is celebrated with a big party, with extended family and friends invited. I should add that baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, and weddings are all excuses for large celebrations, while funerals also usually merit a party, if a more subdued one. It seems that the only one of the seven sacraments that goes unmarked by food and drink is penance.

Receiving one's First Communion is seen as a step toward maturity, and -- since most first communicants are about 7 or 8 years old -- it is an acknowledgment that a child has reached the age of reason. All in all, for Catholic families, a First Communion is a big deal.

It was no different in my family. My parents threw a huge party for relatives and friends. I received many gifts (mostly in the form of cards and money). I still remember the real prize that day: My parents gave me my first wristwatch, a Timex that was required to be wound at least once a day.

I dug up a few remembrances of that day in 1967, and one that surprised me by its very existence.

That's me in the center, at the edge of the second pew. Note that all the boys are dressed alike, in black slacks, white shirt, and black (clip-on) tie. We look like mini-Mormon missionaries. The girls are not quite in the same cookie-cutter outfits, but white lace emulating a bridal gown was the rule. Why do all the girls seem to be seated behind the boys? I couldn't say.

Here's proof -- the official record of the event, signed by the pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Butler, Wisconsin, Father David Wilbur. The typewriting bears evidence of the existence of an IBM Selectric in the church (or school) office.

And here is verification that the next day -- May 14, 1967 -- was Mother's Day.

Now comes the archival surprise.

Note how the record of my First Communion has all the artistic hallmarks of the early post-Vatican II era, with its stylized images of wheat, chalice, paten, and grapes, and its sleek lettering. It goes without saying that my First Communion Mass was one of the first using the vernacular, though it was largely a translation of the Tridentine liturgy; the Novus Ordo was implemented over the next few years.

I found something in a box of old photographs and newspaper clippings that was totally unexpected. Look below to see how the record of a First Communion was rendered 25 years earlier than mine, when my own father was just 8 years old:

This memento from St. Boniface Church in Milwaukee, dated May 31, 1942, is so ornate that it verges on baroque. The evocative picture is dated 1939, but it matches much of what I saw in books -- including those first- and second-grade readers featuring David and Ann (the Catholic equivalent of Dick and Jane) and their families -- and in church as a very young Catholic just before and during the Second Vatican Council. Within a few short years, though, it was a different world.

(Click on any of the images to embiggen.)

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