. . . with many golden bells all round, to send forth a sound — Ecclesiasticus 45. 9
When I turned nine I became an altar boy at the local church. I remember the lovely uniform I got to wear, and the exquisite smell of the incense in the change rooms. On my first day the priest explained that I would lead the procession out into the church, carrying the gold crucifix on a long silver pole. “Hold it up proudly,” he said, but he forgot to warn me about the low archway.
I was demoted to the bell ringer. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll tell you when you’re meant to ring them.”
At the altar, during the most sacred ceremony on my first day of serving mass, I looked out at the four people in the congregation. Two of these were my parents, who had fought their way through the worst snowstorm of the year to watch their son’s great triumph. They were smiling up at me, waving surreptitiously. I was about to wave back when I felt the priest’s foot poking me in the ribs. I looked up at him and he stood with the oversized host raised in his hands. He was looking up toward the ceiling but his mouth was angled down.
“Now, boy. Ring the bell!” I started ringing for my life. The sound was magical. It reminded me of Christmas — of sleigh bells. I lowered my head and shut my eyes so tightly that I actually saw stars. And I rang those bells. I thought to myself, “No one will ever ring these as well or as loudly.”
The priest kicked me sharply in the ribs and knocked the breath out of me. “For goodness sake, knock it off!” he said. I stared up at him through watery eyes. “But you said . . . ,” I began.
“Shh!” he whispered, slipping briefly into Latin, and then, correcting himself, repeating the words in English. He nudged me again, gently this time, and I let forth with another tremendous ring of the bells that he cut short with such a sharp jab of his foot that I let out a yell. Make up your mind, I thought angrily.
Later, because of my unfamiliarity with the vestments, I found that I was the last one in the change room. The priest seemed pleased to find me there. He moved in and poked his flushed face in my vicinity. He seemed terribly uncomfortable. I watched his mouth, as he said, “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” and then only half understood as he explained that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this. Years later, when I thought about this time, I wondered insecurely if I was the only altar boy ever to be fired. At the time, though, I only felt relief.
Outside the church, in the blistering winter air, my mother hugged me tightly. She was crying. “You were so good,” she said. “I’m sure you could hear those bells all over town.”
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.