The Magazine of History & Fiction

Short-Short Story: The Acolyte by Andrew J. Hogan

Andrew J. Hogan was a faculty member at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. He published more than five-dozen professional articles on health services research and health policy. Since retiring, he has published more than 100 works of short fiction.

REPRINT: Originally Appeared in MacGuffin, Fall 2016

It was the week before Thanksgiving, 1934, and Mother was a nervous wreck. She dragged me by the arm across the courtyard of the Charity Crucifixion Tower. We were running late for our meeting with Father Coughlin. She had been praying every night for my acceptance in the next altar boy class. Although tall for my age, at eight years old I was a little young to become an altar boy. All week she had drilled me on the catechism, and we had been getting up a five in the morning to attend morning mass so I could practice my responses.

“Confitebor tibi in cithara Deus, Deus meus: quare tristis es anima mea, et quare conturbas me?” Mother said.

“Spera in Deo, quoniam adoc confitor illi, salutare vultus mei, et Deus meus.”

“No, no, no,” Mother said. “’Adhuc confitebor illi.’ How many times do we have to go over this before you get it right?”

“I need to go potty,” I said.

“You’re a young man now, almost an altar boy in the most important Catholic parish in America. You need to use the facilities.” Mother rushed me to the side door of the church. “Hurry up,” she said, pushing me through the men’s room door.

Inside the community room, other mothers with their sons in tow had surrounded Father Coughlin in a gaggle of adoration. The associate pastor, Father Keating, was standing alone on the side, ignored. Father Coughlin looked over as the door closed behind us.

“Oh, good, Mrs. Kirkpatrick and Lenny are here. We can get started,” he said. Everyone sat down. Mother muscled her way into a front seat and had to ask Stephen McLain to move over to make room for me.

“Welcome to this recruitment meeting of the St. Tarcisius Altar Boy Society. Before I turn over this meeting to Father Keating, let me just ask you young gentlemen this, ‘Confitebor tibi in cithara Deus, Deus meus: quare tristis es anima mea, et quare conturbas me?’”

Before I could respond, Mother elbowed me in the ribs so hard I coughed. I finally got out the response, but Stephen was clearly first. Mother frowned at me as I rubbed my ribs.

“Well, it looks like we have a couple of hot prospects in the front row,” Father Coughlin said, turning toward Father Keating. “I apologize for having to leave early, but I have a national radio address to prepare for this Sunday announcing the creation of the National Union for Social Justice. I hope you will all be listening, it could change the course of our nation’s history.”

My mother started clapping, followed by Stephen McLain’s mother, who decided to stand up. Then everybody stood up, clapping. Father Coughlin bowed slightly and blessed the crowd. This stopped the clapping, as everyone made the sign of the cross. Father Coughlin took the opportunity to leave.

On the way home, mother squeezed my hand. “You’re in. You heard Father Coughlin say so.” She looked down beaming at me. “I dreamed last night of you becoming the next St. Tarcisius.” St. Tarcisius was a twelve-year-old acolyte who had been stoned to death by a Roman mob when he refused to give up the consecrated hosts he was taking to Christian prisoners; when the mob searched his corpse, the hosts had vanished.

The Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving, 1938, Mother, Dad and I gathered around the Philco to listen to Father Coughlin’s five-hundredth radio broadcast.

“Lenny was born in the same month Father Coughlin made his first radio address,” Mother said.

Dad and I nodded. We had been forced to listen to almost all of the broadcasts, and each time she repeated the mantra of my birth’s association with Father Coughlin’s broadcasting career. Dad continued reading the Sunday paper during the speech, while Mother listened intently, a pad of paper in hand on which to make notes. The program opened with religious ceremonial music, and then an announcer introduced Father Coughlin.

Good afternoon, my friends. There is no Jewish question in America. Please God, may there never be one. However, there is a question of Communism in America. I consider that the immediate suppression of Bolshevism is the greatest issue now before the world, not even excluding the war which is still raging, and unless, as above stated, Bolshevism is nipped in the bud immediately, it is bound to spread in one form or another over Europe and the whole world, as it is organized and worked by Jews who have no nationality and whose one object is to destroy for their own ends the existing order of things. Uncontradictable evidence gleaned from the writings of Lenin proves indisputably that the government of the Soviet Republics is predominantly anti-Christian and definitely anti-national. The 1917 list of those who, with Lenin, ruled many of the activities of the Soviet Republic, disclosed that of the 25 quasi-cabinet members, 24 of them were atheistic Jews.

I had already heard Father Coughlin talk about this at the Shrine Grade School, so I drifted off into a nap in my chair while Mother scribbled feverishly. Some time later I woke up to a slap on my leg. Mother glared at me. “Listen.” Dad was reading the sports section, apparently unmoved by the oratory.

There is evidence that Jewry is silent on Communism and is reluctant to oppose it. There is the question of so-called anti-Semitism which is really anti-Communism. It is my hope that the thousands of erudite, sincere Jews in this nation, together with all informed Christians, will recognize that as long as misguided Jews and gentiles both, and in such great numbers, continue to propagate the doctrines of anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-patriotism and anti-property, so long there always will exist some defensive mechanism against Communism. Today it is Naziism in Berlin, tomorrow it will be some other "ism" in New York. But always it will be characterized by persecution.

I faded again into sleep. Another slap from Mother.

If Jews persist in supporting Communism directly or indirectly, that will be regrettable. By their failure to use the press, the radio and the banking house, where they stand so prominently, to fight Communism as vigorously as they fight Naziism, the Jews invite the charge of being supporters of Communism. For, as Christ said, "you are either with Me or against Me." It would be ignominious for Christians, at this hour, to cloak themselves in the garments of crass silence on the subject of Communism from which cesspool there originated Naziism. It would be ignoble for us not to raise our voice in defense of the 600,000 Jews subjected to so many persecutions by the Nazis. However, it is my opinion that Naziism, the effect of Communism, cannot be liquidated in persecution complex until the religious Jews in high places — in synagogue, in finance, in radio and in press — attack the cause, attack forthright the errors and the spread of Communism, together with their co-nationals who support it.

Once the broadcast was over, Mother sat up erect in her chair. “Father’s promoting a new organization to fight Communism. It will be called the Christian Front, to include both Catholics and Protestants. We’ll organize a meeting for our neighbors and friends next weekend.” Dad was hidden behind the comics. “Did you hear me, George?”

“Yes, dear.” He looked at me from behind the paper and winked. Mother was glaring at me, so I gave no indication of the wink. I was assigned the duty of telling all my friends at the playground to invite their parents to our house the next Sunday afternoon.

When I got home from high school on the second Friday of January, 1940, the radio was blaring the news of the arrest of eighteen members of the Christian Front chapter in New York City for stealing guns and ammunition from the National Guard Armory in order to bomb a local Jewish Newspaper and the Communist Daily Worker. The group’s records showed a thousand dollar donation to Father Coughlin. Mother was baking a pie.

“Lenny, Father Coughlin wants to see you this afternoon in the rectory. I think he’s convinced the bishop to ordain you an acolyte. You’ll be the first ordained acolyte ever at the Shrine of the Little Flower who wasn’t already a seminarian. I’m baking your favorite, peach pie, to celebrate when you get back.” Peach was Mother’s favorite; I liked lemon meringue.

I knew Father Coughlin was probably calling me about the incident at the city library last Saturday. Mike and Pat McLaughlin, Jack Bean and I were sneaking a peek at the old National Geographics on the second floor, when Jack spotted Sarah Gottesman with her little brother. She was a sophomore and cheerleader at Royal Oak High School, so we only saw her at the junior varsity basketball games when the Shrine High School played Royal Oak. We liked to tease her during the games. She wouldn’t even talk to us; she called Coughlin’s Nazi gnomes.

Jack went over to her. “What’s a nice Jewish princess like you doing in the library on the Sabbath? Did you run out of matzo balls?”

“Go away.”

“What’s this you’re reading?” Jack grabbed the book out of her hand. 󈬚nd Parallel by John Dos Passos.”

“Hey, Father Coughlin mentioned that book,” I said. “It’s all about Communists taking over America. That’s why you’re not at the synagogue, you’re one of those atheistic Jews Father is always talking about.”

“We’re not either atheists,” Sarah’s little brother said.

“Shut up shrimp, you don’t even know what that means,” Jack said.

“Do so.” The kid pushed on Jack, who pushed back hard and sent the kid flying into the bookcase. Books fell off the other side of the shelf in a pile visible from the circulation desk. The kid started crying. The commotion attracted the attention of the librarian, who walked quickly up the stairs.

Jack, the McLaughlin brothers and I moved quickly to the back of the stacks. The librarian reached the top of the stairs and went around the other side of the bookcase, where Sarah’s brother was crying. We clambered down the steps and out the front door. I could hear Sarah speaking loudly to the librarian about ‘Father Coughlin’s altar boys.’

The housekeeper let me into the rectory and led me to the door of Father Coughlin’s office. “Master Kirkpatrick to see you, Father.”

I stood in front of his large oak desk and waited for him to look at me. It seemed like hours passed.

“Lenny, I got a call from Mrs. Bartlett at the library. She said some of my altar boys had created a commotion.”

“It was an accident, Father. We were talking to Sarah Gottesman about being an atheistic Jew, and her little brother pushed Jack Bean. Jack pushed back and some books got knocked over.”

“And what did you do then?”

“Well, we snuck out before the librarian could catch us.”

“That’s not the kind of behavior I expect from an altar boy whom I’ve nominated for ordination into the highest minor order of acolyte.”

“No, Father,” I said. “We should have stayed behind and picked up the books and apologized to the librarian. Jack started running, and I didn’t think. I ran too.”

“I assume it was Jack who confronted Miss Gottesman about being an atheistic Jewess?”

“Yes, Father,” I said.

“Sometimes, it’s our friends who do us the most harm.”

“You mean like the Christian Front fellows in New York?” I said.

He seemed taken back at first by the comment. Then his face saddened, “Yes, like them, Lenny. From now on you might like to avoid Jack Bean outside of school and church. I don’t believe he has a real vocation, like you. His interest in Sarah Gottesman may be the devil’s work. She is quite an attractive young lady, but not a suitable life companion for a good Catholic.”

“Jack is very interested in girls, Father, but I don’t think he would marry outside of his race.”

“Of course not, but you, on the other hand, could one day be sitting behind this desk.”

I had every bit as much interest in girls as Jack Bean, but my mother discouraged every indication of it. Dad thought I should go to dances and other social events, just to test my vocation, but my mother would have none of it.

“Have you seen how those hussies behave at school dances?” Mother said. “That jitterbug has them flying through the air, their skirts up over their head, their unmentionables displayed for all to see.”

I certainly wished I could have seen those unmentionables displayed.

On the first Sunday of December, 1941, Father Coughlin mentioned Mother during his sermon before of a full congregation of over two thousand for taking over the leadership of the Detroit Chapter of National Legion of Mothers of America. These mothers, Father Coughlin said, had been God’s instrument in keeping America out of the ‘blood business’ raging in Europe. The Legion had been successful in fighting against the draft, and military enlistments in the Detroit area were reputed by the Legion to be much below what was expected out of a city of one and a half million.

I was now one of the senior acolytes, chosen for the solemn funeral masses of prominent parishioners and high masses performed by Bishop Gallagher when he visited the parish. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, except mine, that I was headed for the priesthood. With Father Coughlin’s sponsorship, there was no limit to how high I might rise. Mother wouldn’t say it out loud, but I knew she nursed wild dreams of the first American pope.

After Sunday dinner, Mother turned on the Philco. It was too early to hear Father Coughlin’s afternoon broadcast, but Burns and Allen were on. Mother thought it was just fine that Gracie was running for president, after all, President Roosevelt was nothing more than a bad joke—unemployment was back up almost to Hoover’s level and now we were lending and leasing armaments to the British, enmeshing ourselves in Europe ‘blood business.’ Gracie was just explaining, “Everybody knows a woman is better than a man when it comes to introducing bills into the house,” when the radio went silent:

“We interrupt this broadcast for an emergency alert from the United Press. Flash. Washington. The White House announces the Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.”

The radio went silent again. Dad dropped his paper, Mother went white and slipped down into her chair. The air was dead.

Ladies and Gentlemen, NBC Headquarters in New York has received a call from its Honolulu correspondent. This is a live transmission from Honolulu.

‘Hello, NBC. Hello, NBC. This is KTU in Honolulu, Hawaii. I am speaking from the roof of the Advertiser Publishing Company Building. We have witnessed this morning the distant view a brief full battle of Pearl Harbor and the severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by enemy planes, undoubtedly Japanese. The city of Honolulu has also been attacked and considerable damage done. This battle has been going on for nearly three hours. One of the bombs dropped within fifty feet of KTU tower. It is no joke. It is a real war. The public of Honolulu has been advised to keep in their homes and away from the Army and Navy. There has been serious fighting going on in the air and in the sea. The heavy shooting seems to be (a little interruption). We cannot estimate just how much damage has been done, but it has been a very severe attack. The Navy and Army appear now to have the air and the sea under control.’”

Dad leaned over and changed the channel, just in case this was another War of the Worlds hoax.

“CBS news had received a report from its correspondent in Manila that U.S. Naval and Army Air Force installations there have been attacked by the Japanese Empire. President Roosevelt has called Congress into emergency session tomorrow and will ask for a declaration of war against the Japanese Empire.”

Mother ran into the bathroom. Dad and I could hear her retching even through the closed door.

Mother remained loyal to Father Coughlin’s isolationist policy, but the Legion of Mothers shed members like a maple tree after a hard frost. Father Coughlin organized a mass for peace on the following Friday, but hardly anyone showed up. I had been scheduled to be the chief acolyte assisting with the mass, but instead I drove into Detroit with a driver’s license doctored to add two years to my age and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.