We learned Latin and were known as Altar “Boys.”

mass, processional, dress like a man for mass, altar boys

By Larry Peterson

Recently I found an old picture from my grade school days. It was taken inside the church in the parish where I grew up (circa the late 50s to early 60s).  Just like that, it escorted me back in time.

In the picture, the church was filled with all the kids from the school and many parishioners. The photo was taken from the church balcony, but what the occasion was, I do not know.  As I stared at that picture, however, my memory jumped into overdrive.

They called us Altar Boys

 Back then, I was part of a unique group of young men called “altar boys.”  Boys historically served at the altar during Mass to encourage priestly vocations.  Traditionally boys became acolytes (altar servers) as the first step in the “minor orders” of a seminarian’s training for the priesthood. This changed in 1972 when St. Pope Paul VI issued the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam.  (Also, see here for more information.)

In 1994 the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (CDWDS) issued a ruling saying that the correct interpretation of Canon 230.2 allows for girls to be altar servers.  The CDWDS further clarified the ruling in 2001 saying “that diocesan bishops could not oblige priests to implement a diocesan policy allowing for female altar servers.”  (See here for more information.)

I began my tenure as an altar boy in fifth grade. We were around ten or eleven years old. This was the earliest age Father Hyland would allow us to enter “service to the Lord.”  Recruiting and training altar boys was serious business to Father Hyland. If you wanted to become an altar boy you had to let your teacher know.  Your teacher would then inform Father and he would personally interview you.

We were youngsters, and Father Hyland, in his wrinkle-free, black cassock and shiny black shoes, was an intimidating figure. His white, cellulose priest collar seemed so tight that you thought he might choke at any moment. And the aftershave lotion he wore was so intense that it took several seconds to get used to the powerful fragrance.

The “Interview”

We stayed after school for the “interview.” Father was in a classroom, and the “wannabe” candidates would stand out in the hall. Father called us in one at a time.I can still remember how terrified I was when my turn came. After all these years, I only remember the first question, “Well, son, tell me, why do you want to be an altar boy?”

I do not remember how I answered or what I said. All I can recall is being handed a small booklet with the Latin responses printed out phonetically. This was so we could learn to pronounce every syllable correctly.  Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum and underneath was printed  Ad Deum qwee lay tif ee cot yu ven tu tem mayhem (or something like that). The last thing I remember of that meeting was him saying, “Be here tomorrow after school.”

 Learning to speak Latin

Learning to speak in Latin and when to respond was a challenge. When you got to the Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium etc., at the end of the offertory prayers, there was a tongue-twister that gave all of us trouble.

Today, in the Novus Ordo Mass at the end of the Offertory, the priest, facing us, says: Pray, brethren, (brothers and sisters), that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”  The congregation responds, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of all His holy Church.”

I included the above in English to give you an idea what we fifth graders had to learn in Latin way back when.   In Latin the priest says, “Orate Fratres, ut meum ac vestrum sacrificium acceptabile fiat apud deum Patrem omnipotentum.” The altar boys would promptly respond, “Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostrum, totiusque, ecclesiae suae sanctae.”

The part of the response highlighted above gave us all fits. A few of us got through it somewhat unscathed, but for some reason, most of us suddenly had marbles in our mouths and what would come out was a language of unknown origin. It took a year or two for most of us to get it “almost” right.  We were lucky because Father Hyland, demanding as he was, knew us.  He knew we would never pass the Latin test we had to take before being officially presented with our Surplice (the white puffy shirt with the over-sized sleeves we wore over our cassocks).

The Altar Boy Exam

The final exam required before being elevated to “Altar Boy” status was verbal.  Father brought us into church one at a time and began saying a “rehearsal” Mass. He would start at the beginning of the Mass and keep going. We needed to respond at the proper time. If we did not make the correct Latin response, we would have to write the Confiteor 10 times for extra homework.

That night, besides doing Mother Mary Gabriel’s fractions, I had to write the Confiteor in Latin 10 times. I remember wanting to watch “Captain Video and His Video Rangers” so bad, but I couldn’t. I had to write the Confiteor. You had to really want to be an altar boy to stick it out.

All of us passed our exam, however, and received our Surplus. Years later, I realized that Father knew we would never get it right, so we all “graduated.”  After all, we were 5th graders, and he knew we were afraid of him.

Father Hyland may have been a demanding taskmaster, but we were the best altar boys in the south Bronx. At least, that is what Mother Mary Augustine told us.

The Masses

I served as an altar boy into my first year in high school. Back then, we had the regular Low Mass, celebrated by one priest and two altar boys without music.  There was also the Missa Cantata Mass, which was the Mass done in song. It had one priest, and a master server plus two servers called acolytes.

The Solemn High Mass was, and still is, the most beautiful presentation of the Mass. This holy offering of the Mass includes three priests; the celebrant, the deacon, and the sub-deacon, usually all priests. There is the master altar boy, the crème de la crème of all the other altar boys. That position Eddie O’Reilly and I ascended to in eighth grade. Two other acolytes were responsible for the censer and boat (the incense and charcoal guys).When the occasion called for it (Christmas, Holy Week, etc.) there were also Torchbearers and a Cross Bearer. Yup—there would be altar boys all over the place. A Solemn High Tridentine Mass is still something to behold.

Much was expected of us

Much was expected of us. We wore black cassocks during the week and red on Sundays and Holy Days. We also wore those stiff, celluloid collars with the big red or black bows tied in front of them. I hated them, especially in the summer.I also did not like serving at funerals. The only upside was that we would get called out of class to serve. The fact is, there were many funerals and, even as a kid, I would rather have stayed in class. And every Monday night was a Novena and Benediction at 7 p.m. We all took turns serving at those devotions.

There was one great perk in being an altar boy.  It was when you were assigned to serve at a wedding. You always received an envelope with money. Sometimes one dollar. Sometimes two dollars or five. Once, Ronnie Murray and I got $10 each, but Father Quirk made us give it back. He said it was too much. He let us keep two dollars each. We were really ticked of and said a lot of grumbly things. But we made things right – we went to confession the following Saturday.

You know, it is a funny thing, but I am quite happy I found that old picture. I had a lot of wonderful memories hidden away that came back to life. Sometimes an unexpected journey back in time can be a beautiful thing.

copyright©LarryPeterson 2021

He Loved God, family, and Country. He became a priest, went to war, and laid down his life for his friends

Joseph Verbis LaFleur: The Priest Who Laid Down His Life For His Friends

By Larry Peterson

Joseph Verbis Lafleur was born in Villa Platte, Louisiana, on January 24, 1912.  He was the fourth child born to Agatha Dupre and Valentine Lafleur.  When Joe was a young boy, he began telling his mom that he would grow up and be a priest. He was so sure of his calling that he became an altar boy at the age of seven.

“I want to be a priest. Can you help me?”

During the early 1920s, the family came upon hard times and were forced to move to Opelousas, about 20 miles from Ville Platte. Their new parish would be St. Landry Catholic Church. The pastor was Father A. B. Colliard. The priest quickly sensed something special about young Joe and paid close attention to him. When Joe was 14, he nervously approached Father Colliard and said to him, “Father, I want to become a priest. Can you help me?”

Father Colliard happily agreed to help young Joseph. First, he met with Joe and his mom. After receiving her approval, the priest made arrangements for her son to enter St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in St. Benedict. From there, Joe moved on to attend Notre Dame Major Seminary in New Orleans.

Joseph Lafleur never doubted for a moment his calling to serve as a priest. He received the Sacrament of Holy Orders from Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans. On April 5,1938, Father Lafleur celebrated his first Solemn High Mass at St. Landry’s, his home parish.  He was then assigned to St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Abbeville as an assistant pastor.

Joines the Army Air Corp as a Chaplain

While still an assistant pastor at St. Mary Magdalene church, he joined the Army Air Corps. The year was 1941, and the United States was months away from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In July of 1941, Father Lafleur was sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico. His unit was the 19th Bombardment Group. Four months later, the 19th arrived at Clark Field in the Philippines. This was about 60 miles from Manila. Father Joe had told his mom before leaving that he “volunteered because all those other men being drafted had no choice.”

Just as it was at St. Mary Magdalene’s parish, Father Joe went about trying to organize the men on base into different activities. He would organize baseball games for the men who wanted to play baseball. He wanted to start a Holy Name Society for the men. He organized discussion groups so the guys could share their feelings of loneliness being away from home and family. His mind was always focused on helping the men, mentally and spiritually. He wrote his sister, Edna, that “once I get back to Louisiana, I will never leave again. But I am not sorry I came here.”

Last Letter Home

That was the last letter the family ever received from him. On December 7, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Clark Field in the Philippines was struck shortly after. Life was forever changed for Father Joseph Lafleur and many others on December 8, 1941. In May of 1942,  the Japanese conquered Mindanao, and the last of the American soldiers on the island were taken, prisoner. Among them was Father Joseph Lafleur.


From May of 1942 until September of 1944, Father Joe never ceased ministering to his fellow POWs. He contracted Malaria several times and refused medicine because he believed others needed it more than him. He sold his watch and eyeglasses to the locals to procure more food for his brother prisoners. He even managed to build a small chapel called—St. Peter in Chains, where Catholic and non-Catholics alike could attend daily Mass. The ongoing, upbeat love and care he showed others, influenced many.

A POW named Bill Lowe had abandoned his Baptist faith. He watched how Father Joe never gave in and never despaired. He was always upbeat, loving Jesus, and doing his best to spread the Good News. When Lowe returned home, he became Catholic, and his son grew up to become a Catholic priest and Air Force Chaplain. Lowe reported that many became Catholic because of Father Joe’s example.

Gives his own life to save 83 men

On September 7, 1944, while being transported on a Japanese ship to Japan with 750 other Americans, the ship was struck by torpedoes fired by an American submarine. The sub’s captain and crew had no idea Americans were on board. Father Joe could have gotten off but refused until as many were saved as possible. He was credited with saving at least 83 men by helping them get out and swim to shore.

Father Joseph Verbis Lafleur leaves behind an unbridled legacy of love and compassion for others, including the Catholic faith he loved so much. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (twice), The Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart.

On September 5, 2020, he was declared a Servant of God when Bishop John Douglas Deshotel opened his cause for Beatification in the Diocese of Louisiana.

copyright©Larry Peterson2021