St. Augustine of Canterbury Church, Leeds Centenary Book.1905-2005

Altar Servers
Altar servers have always played a significant role in the parish liturgy especially in the days of the Tridentine Mass when the priest had his back to the people and it was up to the altar servers to respond or lead the congregation in the responses in Latin. It had always been a ministry reserved for boys and men until the latter part of the twentieth century. At St Augustine’s it was Fr. Durcan who initially invited girls to serve on the altar around 1990, and the term “Altar Boys” had to be replaced with “Altar Servers.”

John Higgins, who was an active member of the SVP until 1997 and still serves the parish as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist reminisces about his time as an altar boy:

“I became an altar server in 1933 in the old ‘Tin Church’, although we were not allowed to serve alone until we had mastered the Latin responses. I still recall the names of many of my school friends who were also on the altar: Austin and Bill Corcoran, Andrew Roe, George Lister and my brother Tom most of whom unfortunately have since died.

Our Parish Priest Fr. Leonard was immensely proud when his new church was completed in December 1936, saying the first Mass at 7am on the day of the official opening and I was the server and then it was back for the official opening later that morning. A truly memorable occasion!

With four Masses every Sunday morning which included High Mass at 11am, children’s Benediction at 3pm and finally the Rosary, a sermon and Benediction at 6.30pm we servers were kept busy. Sundays were much more austere in the 1930s with all the cinemas closed, no sporting fixtures allowed and of course there were no such things as supermarkets or television. Outdoor processions, weather permitting, particularly in May, followed the usual route - Harehills Road, Ashley Road, Harehills Lane and Milan Road, ending with Benediction on the Presbytery lawn.

With the outbreak of war in 1939 our entire group enlisted in HM Forces over the years and served in various campaigns throughout the world. Fortunately we all came through that ordeal unscathed, although some of St Augustine’s former pupils were killed in action.”

Graham Cracknell became an altar boy in 1958, and in a light hearted fashion recalls his ‘Secrets from the Altar’:

“My early recollections of St Augustine’s Church were of packed congregations at the five masses on a Sunday and all the major feasts. To be an altar boy at that time carried a certain amount of status with your peers and I was keen to be one. I could have been driven by a sense of piety but I must confess the prospect of tips at funerals and weddings was a clear inducement. A good tip from a wedding could keep you and your friends amply stocked with gobstoppers for a full week.

My first “solo” experience was serving daily mass for Fr. Craig. He was the ‘fastest priest in the west’ and could say mass very quickly. As a young server it was difficult to keep up with him and I was constantly chasing him around the altar. At that time the church had a high altar surrounded by a myriad of steps and the altar was some distance from the congregation. I was somewhat mystified when during mass he called me onto the altar and asked me where I lived. I dutifully replied with my address and he then enquired whether the house was a bungalow or whether I was used to dealing with steps. I carefully explained that the house was a terraced house with seven steps to the front door and I was well rehearsed in going up and down them. “Then why,” he said, “do you walk backwards down the altar steps?".

The least liked service was 7 o’clock mass which involved getting up at 6am for a whole week. When there was a Mission and Missionary priests came to preach to the people (for three weeks) we altar servers had to start at 5.30am to ensure that every priest had an opportunity to say mass each day – not popular at all.
Each year on “All Souls” day every priest in the parish had to say three masses in succession. This involved using the main altar and one of the two side altars. To serve with Fr. Craig was brilliant because he could complete a mass in 20 minutes so we were in and out in a hour. Fr. McSweeny however took 45 minutes each time and I remember starting at 7.00am and not finishing until 9.15am. It was difficult to explain to my teacher that I was over an hour late for school because I had been serving at 7 o’clock Mass. It was equally difficult to explain on another occasion why I had 200 Sweet Afton cigarettes in my satchel. Good ol’ Fr. McSweeny loved his Sweet Afton and the only place that sold them was a tobacconist opposite St Anne’s Cathedral and because I walked past there to St Michael’s I was given the job of buying them each time I happened to be serving 7 o’clock mass with Father Mac. Try telling that one to the headmaster!

Early memories of my own involvement include the May Queen Processions and the Corpus Christi Processions neither of which I liked having to attend but in later years as senior altar boy, took great pride in leading and carrying the cross.

Other memorable occasions were the ordination of two local lads into the priesthood. The first was Donald Stoker and a couple of years later Bernard Johnston whose father taught at St Augustine’s school. Many hours of rehearsal were demanded of the altar boys as the new Bishop of Leeds, George Patrick Dwyer, was known to demand perfection and had a relatively short fuse. When the Parish Priest Fr. Craig died his funeral was attended by about 200 priests from the diocese. The service was very moving and impressive and once again we altar boys had to be on top form.

Boys will be boys and altar boys are no exception
On many occasions there was a side bet during the proceedings. One I remember related to the weakest boy who, on occasion, was cruelly allocated the role of first server. This involved taking the altar missal with its heavy brass lectern from one side of the altar, descending the altar steps, genuflecting, ascending the steps and placing the missal on the other side. It was no mean feat for any boy but it was particularly difficult for the younger members. The boy in question would manage to take the Missal off the altar, descend the steps, turn and genuflect – but the question was whether he could get up again without help. We could never be certain of the outcome but boys tried to shorten the odds by enquiring what he had for breakfast as they felt this had the greatest influence on his performance.

Another challenge involved who could make the most incense smoke. The altar boy with the thurible would open it as far as possible, and whisk it backwards and forwards to let in air to heat up the burning charcoal. One boy who was a particular expert unfortunately went a step too far and opened the thurible to excess. The burning charcoal hopped out and set the altar carpet on fire. That stunt was never repeated.

I remember one funny episode with an acolyte who shall remain nameless. He tended to be forever late in getting into line for processions. On this particular day he was sporting some brand new shoes which were reinforced by steel caps on the toes and heels. His shoes and the new marble altar tiles were an unhappy combination. As usual he was slow in reacting to the formation and as he rushed across the altar to make up lost ground he slipped and landed flat on his back in full view of a packed congregation. Unfortunately he failed to hang on to his candle which flew some 20 feet through the air like a rocket. Never have I heard such noisy ‘suppressed’ laughter in church – the walls were literally shaking.

Everything changed with the arrival of Fr. Thomas Kenny. He brought with him an abundance of enthusiasm and great organisational skills. He had a great effect on our lives in those formative years. He introduced made-to-measure cassocks and surplices, established a proper serving rota, and ensured everyone was properly trained. I’m sure we could have put even the Vatican to shame.

Left: Serving Mass in 1955

Right: Altar servers in 1961