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A Pre-Vatican II First Communion

A first-person account of a little girl's First Holy Communion
Pre-Vatican II; Author unknown

The day of my First Communion was to occur on Mother’s Day.  We had been preparing for it one whole year, and we had been quizzed repeatedly to make sure we not only knew our prayers but our sins.  We had to know the different types of sins and how one would commit them.  I remember what I wore and I remember the nickels and dimes people gave me along with a blessing on my forehead.

“Remember, children,” the nuns would say, “be very, very quiet and listen to the priest. Repeat your prayers, especially the Act of Contrition.  You must try to remember all the sins, and if you forget one sin and receive Communion, that is a sacrilege and you will simply go to Hell; straight to Hell, my children.”  Between the word contrition and sacrilege, one didn’t stand a chance of ever making it to heaven.

We would practice telling sins, and the nuns seemed to like the sins of the flesh.  I never understood a great deal of the sins, and flesh, to me, was dead meat the dogs would bring home when someone lost a horse.  I once confessed I saw two dogs doing it because I didn’t have any real sins.  The nun simply looked at me and said, “The audacity of you.”  She used the word audacity on me a great deal.  It took me a long time to find out what that word meant. I just knew by the tone of her voice, that I didn’t rate with her.  She painted a pretty vivid picture of hell too.  I was afraid of going to hell, and I tried very hard to have clean thoughts but not with success.

My friends and I had the power of forming mental images of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality.  That’s what the nuns said, anyway.  What puzzled me was why didn’t they simply say we had good imaginations, for we surly did.  We would imagine what kind of underwear the nuns wore and if they went to the bathroom.  With all the pieces of clothing they wore, was it necessary for them to wear underpants?  Moreover, by the time they removed all their clothing, they could easily wet their pants.  During one of the sin rehearsals, I confessed that I often wondered if nuns wore panties.  Since I didn’t have other sins, I thought it would suffice.  Wrong! Down to the basement I went for the spanking of my life and a vivid picture of a mortal sin and how close to hell I was.  I could almost feel the heat of Sister Joseph’s hand coming down on me with the wrath of God.

I spent the eve of my First Communion going over all my sins.  I left out sins of the flesh because they always got me in trouble.  I decided I would confess 150 sins to be safe.  A venial sin was the type of relatively small sin committed without full reflection or consent and therefore, does not deprive the soul of Heaven.  If I could come up with one hundred of them, then I’d be safe.

Now mortal sin was different.  You deliberately committed that and it would send you to hell with no stops in Limbo or Purgatory.  I decided to eat meat next Friday, but confess it before, just for the sake of a mortal sin.  The fact that I had seen a couple in the arroyo having sex would have been a good flesh sin, but I feared another spanking.   I lied instead and said only venial sins, until the priest asked me to stop because he couldn’t keep up with me.  He even closed the little window in the confessional before I finished my Act of Contrition.  My penance was to say as many Hail Mary’s as I had sins. I came out on top or so I thought.  My folks were sent word that I needed to study more, and so after school Sister Dolores Mary was to tutor me.

My communion dress was a hand-me-down from my sister.  It was more yellow than white, and I wore long white stockings with black shoes.  Mother couldn’t find white shoes so I looked like I had two bowling balls on my feet.  I pretended I was this glamorous sexy queen who sang heart-rending songs.  The queen could dance and crack jokes and she had the body of a goddess.  So, you see, the shoes didn’t bother me.

When I arrived at the convent Sister gave me some hot chocolate and informed me that I was to separate clothes from the boxes for Saturday’s rummage sale.  Or Roman Sale as I used to say.  I never knew what a rummage sale was either, only that people brought used clothing and took some back in return.  It was more like a trade fair, and the Romans never had anything to do with it.

Sister Dolores Mary supervised me as she told me stories of people doing random acts of kindness like I was doing.   Never mind that the basement was dark, dingy, and smelly.  My thoughts about sisters wearing underwear no longer intrigued me. Sister bent over so often I  saw her underwear, big and long.  How they must have suffered so.  And yes, by the time they removed all their layers they could easily wet their pants.

I was not the only one that landed up at the convent.  Thomas, our neighbor, soon joined me.  He had poured milk in his belly button and had all the girls take turns looking at it.  His belly button was an inny and could hold liquid if he lay on his back.  That was a sin of the flesh.  One time Thomas brought a can of malt liquor beer; we both drank it, and forgot the can in one of the boxes.  The punishment we received was enough to grasp that what made Milwaukee famous had made a sinner out of two eight-year-olds.