Altar Boy Experiences: James

Figure 1.--

My First Communion

About my First Communion. Strangely enough, I don't remember my own first communion at all. My mother converted from the Episcopal Church to the Catholic Church when I was 7 or so. She and my brother and I were all re-baptized together, and she and I probably made our First Communion together, too, perhaps on the same day. Most probably I wore a plain navy blue suit with a white shirt and blue tie. My Mom was fond of this kind of outfit for me for dress wear, though I found it boring. (I still find men's buriness or semi-formal dress - suit and tie - to be boring.) Most other boys I knew dressed this way, too. All the boys I hung around with held strong aversions to anything fancier. We though fancy or fussy clothing sissyish or girlish (which to us was the same thing).

Altar Boy

On the other hand, I served as an altar boy for many years, and so I clearly remember other people's First Communions, Confirmations, Weddings, and similar religious dress-up occasions.

First Communions

For First Communion in our parish, St. Leo's in Pawtucket, RI, the traditional style for the girls was a white dress (often with lots of lace and frills; generally knee-length or floor length), white stockings or tights, white mary-janes or sandals, and a short white veil or mantilla - this was in the days when the Catholic Church still expected women to wear a head covering in church. Girls carried a white prayer-book and a white or pastel-bead Rosary. They also might carry a small spray of flowers.

Boys generally wore a dark suit with long pants, white shirt and dark necktie, and black lace-up shoes. They carried a black prayer-book and a dark-bead Rosary, and wore a flower on the lapel of the jacket. More than a hundred kids made their First Communion most years, since St. Leo's was a big parish with upwards of 3,000 families. A few of the boys wore white suits with long pants, white shirt and white tie and white shoes (usually lace-up shoes, but once or twice I noted white mary-jane instep-strap shoes). Boys in white generally came from new-immigrant families, and I suppose they observed "old-country" traditions.

Parishes in Rhode Island were generally ethnic. St. Leo's was an "Irish" parish; most of our parishoners were of Irish or English ancestry, or belonged to ethnic groups as yet not numerous enough for their own churches. There were Irish parishes, French parishes, Italian parishes, and Polish parishes in Pawtucket, often with overlapping boundaries--although all the Catholic clergy reported to the one Bishop of Providence, whose see included the whole state. St. Cecilia's church was only a block from St. Leo's. It was a French-Canadian parish, with its own school, staffed by French-Canadian nuns. The kids there had morning classes in French, afternoon classes in English. The boys wore white for First Communion, if I recall rightly.

When I was young, the Portuguese, as wll as Azoreans, and Cabo Verdeans (together witha few Blacks from Portuguese colonies in Africa), were beginning to immigrate in large numbers to RI and neighboring Massachusetts, and Portuguese-speaking parishes were springing up. Some formerly Irish or Italian neighborhoods were being taken over by Portuguese, and some parishes were changing their ethnic orientation. Portuguese boys generally wore white at First Communion, too.


Confirmations clothes were similar to First Communion clothes; girls wore more "grown-up" dresses in white, and often "little heels". Boys wore the usual dark suits, with white shirts and dark neckties. This was what I wore for Confirmation. At Confirmations I never observed any boys in all-white clothing. And I think that was the case at most parishes, of whatever ethnicity.


I often assisted as an altar-server at weddings. During the warmer months of the year I served at weddings almost every Saturday; sometimes I served at several weddings on the same Saturday. Altar-servers received a tip of a few dollars from the groom or best man, so Saturdays were very profitable for me. In those days (the late 40s and early 50s) in our working-class neighborhoods in Pawtucket few families could afford a really big wedding celebration.

Most weddings had a maid/matron of honor and two or three bridesmaids, and the corresponding groomsmen to pair off with the ladies. Many weddings had flower-girls, rather fewer had ring-bearers, and hardly any had pages.
Flower girls: If the wedding didn't have children in the party, the maid of honor handled the bride's bouquet, veil and train (if any), and the best man took care of the rings. Flower girls wore fancy dress in white or pastel.
Ring bearer: The ring bearer frequently wore a dark suit, or else a miniature rented outfit like the groomsmen. Less frequently, the ring-bearer wore a white lace-trimmed blouse, satin trousers or shorts (white or pastel), white knee-socks or tights, white or pastel mary-jane shoes. Occasionally, the boy wore a plain white shirt and dark shorts, white knee-socks, and black lace-up shoes. Black-patent mary-janes, apparently worn as dressy footwear by American boys in some places up until the 60s and 70s, were very rare.
Pages: The pages at a wedding dressed like the ring-bearer as a rule. Only once or twice in several years did I observe pages in what was considerd overly sissyish page-boy dress: short tunics, very short satin pants, tights, strap-shoes, and perhaps pill-box caps.

May Procession

May, in the Catholic Church, is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a "May Procession" was held on one Saturday during the month. (Saturdays were also traditinally dedicated to Mary.) All the parish school children organized by grades, with their teachers (nuns - the Sisters of Mercy staffed the parish school), the choir boys and altar boys, and the parish priests went in procession from the church to a statue of Mary on the parish grounds. At the statue hymns would be sung and prayers said, etc. For the procession the girls wore Easter or summer-style dresses in white or light colors, and the boys the usual dark suits. If the weather was warm (New England can be very cool in May) the boys might be allowed to leave off their suit-jackets. All the children carried a flower to be placed at the foot of the statue, and one older girl was selected by the nuns to crown the statue with a circlet of flowers.

Christoher Wagner

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Created: February 11, 2000
Last updated: February 11, 2000, 2000