The Dog on the Altar
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The Dog on the Altar

April 23, 1996

Serving 6:30 a.m. mass in the 1940's was fun for me. For some reason, then as now I was always up early and eager to get started on whatever the day had to offer. In those days while at St. Elizabeth Grade School in Kansas City, Missouri, serving early mass was part of the altar boy schedule of a one week rotation cycling through all the altar boys on the list.

Early I had learned a composed unflappability while serving mass. This was because the first time I ever served (the third grade I think), the senior server (a sixth grader) supposed to show me how it all was done did not show up. So having never served mass before, I served mass. This was in the days of the bells and many other specific components essential to the "real" mass, with precise Latin and prompt, attentive providing of all that was needed. At my first mass, I impressed myself at doing all alone especially my ingenuity in handling the two wine and water cruets, the wash basin and the towel with only two hands. And being alone made me focus well on following the directions as remembered from the altar boy classes and from the cue cards on the altar. But it was disconcerting that the "senior" server supposed to mentor me through my first mass-serving experience did not show, leaving me anxiety-laden. I did the best I could except the bells were not quite properly rung but it seemed that no one paid much attention. Father McCarthy understood because I explained to him the predicament before mass began. But after that, serving mass was, as the cliche goes, "a piece of cake."

Except one mass . . . about one year later. It was 6:30 a.m. mass again and this time I was mentoring a new server for his first time. I wanted to do a mistake-free job and make sure that he understood the importance of fulfilling all obligations necessary to have a real mass.

So mass began as usual and we went out to say the routine prayers at the foot of the altar. But there was a large black dog reclined peacefully to the right of the altar about 5 feet behind the altar railing. I looked at father and he looked at me and said nothing. The dog was not in the way and did nothing, kind of laying there open-eyed relaxed with his head on his front paws. I felt that the animal was doing fine and father had given no instructions so I "let sleeping dogs lie." The altar rail hid the snoozing dog from the congregation so there was no problem.

Until Communion. As was customary in those days, the fully-habited nuns were the first to the altar railing. And when these black-robed, white-bibbed Sisters all came at once to kneel down at the altar railing for Communion, the dog became startled and leaped up barking vigorously and loudly. Well, no one needed to tell me what to do, and within seconds I, with all of my nine-year-old wiry strength, had leaped towards the dog grabbing a chain around its neck with my right hand. Twisting the chain around my hand, I was going to drag the dog from the altar into the sacristy and pitch it out the back door. But it immediately chomped onto my forearm growling and roaring in an indescribable way. Because of the buffering and protective effect of the sleeves of the serving garments we had to wear, the biting really did not hurt or penetrate skin, and actually my forearm was so far in his mouth that he was having a difficult time really biting down. Quickly I realized the dog was about at my shoulder height anyway giving brief thought that maybe this was a horse rather than a dog. Nevertheless, I yelled "whoa!" as he moved around, I found myself following rather than leading. Resisting, I lost balance sliding underneath the beast. With a flowing motion, the dog collapsing and pulling away at the same time, I now was on my back with the dog on top of me. My forearm was fixed in his jaws and my hand was tightly holding the metal chain around his neck resulting, no doubt, in a choking effect inhibiting the dog's vigor I hoped. He did not pin me for long because I pulled my knees to my chest rolling forward until in a squat position with my feet on the floor. Then I extended my legs forcefully standing up twisting the dog with the torque force of the chain firmly held by my right hand at the back of his neck with my right forearm in his mouth. He contorted trying to gnaw my forearm and get away at the same time, but as long as I held the chain tightly, my forearm was locking his jaws open in his mouth. Obviously, neither of us was going anywhere without each other. As I stood up, the dog struggled reflexly to keep his front legs especially on the ground. Now upright, I tried to walk and drag the dog to the sacristy but I am on the hem of my cassock which made it impossible to take any forward steps. So I turned to face the beast and reflexly extended my left arm under the dog between his front legs, grasping a handful of fur right behind his left front leg. Now I had him good (or vice versa), and with Gordian Knot-like entanglement, I backed the rest of the way out of the altar pulling the dog with me while he worked loudly on my forearm making a God-awful gurgling, growling, snarling noise. One of those guttural goofy noises kids make when no one is around . . . but it was the dog, not me. I went through the door on the right side of the altar pulling him through a corridor to the outside back door which was directly behind the altar. I kicked open the back door, dragged the dog out and let go, pushing it away and leaping back into the sacristy, quickly slamming the door yelling "stay out of here" at the same time. I fixed my sleeve which was amazingly untorn and adjusted my cassock and surplice. Task completed. Back to mass.

I still am amazed at my superficiality as a funny little kid being oblivious to just how all this looked. It did not register to me as to what had actually happened. I thought nothing of it and just wanted to get back and finish the mass and do what I was supposed to do. Which is what I did do. Father was now being assisted by the other server with the paten in distribution of Communion, and indeed, this whole thing happened so fast that they were still distributing Communion to the original nuns whose appearance on the scene had awakened the dog from his peaceful slumber.

The rest of the mass was finished uneventfully. Nothing was said by anyone, although when we got back into the sacristy after mass, I noticed Father McCarthy glancing at me a few times and finally almost apologetically whispering: "Sammy, are you all right?" I just waved him off and said: "Oh sure, nothing happened." That was that.

Someone must have said something about it to others because several days later at dinner table, my father and mother, with twinkles in their eyes, commented that they had heard that a dog was on the altar recently. I just said "yes" and no further discussion occurred because I didn't think it was a big deal.

Now, as an adult looking at what goes on at mass nowadays, I realize how amused and concerned I would be if I witnessed a wiry, curly-haired, skinny, big-toothed, nine-year-old 4-foot tall twerp wrestling with a dog almost his size on the altar. The imagery is vivid, and my reaction would be one of stifled hysterical laughter providing there was no blood. All I know today is that I hope anyone who witnessed it would think twice and at least offer a prayer for the little guy who just was doing what he thought he was supposed to do. Latin masses were always the best! Only a beast would try to mess one up. And I would know exactly what to do.


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