As a boy attending Our Lady of Lourdes school, I sang in the boys' choir. Our Lady of Lourdes church in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn was a large and imposing structure built in the style of old Brooklyn churches. It featured huge granite columns, a magnificent marble altar, and perhaps the most distinguishing and memorable feature, a life-sized grotto depicting the appearance of the Blessed Mother Mary to young Bernadette of Lourdes. People came from miles around to pray in the grotto, and if you wanted a seat at Sunday Mass, you had better get there early. Attendance at Catholic churches in the fifties was probably at its peak. In the rear of the church, above the heads of the congregation, was the choir loft that housed a thundering pipe organ. It also housed the boys' choir. I spent every Sunday from around the fourth through eighth grades up in that choir loft singing (in Latin if you please) at the 11:00 high Mass.
Boys were chosen for the choir like promising baseball players are recruited from the minor leagues. We had a music teacher at Lourdes named Miss Hessian. She resembled actress Margaret Dumont, who played all those upper-crust society ladies in the Marx Brothers movies. She usually wore a dowdy blue dress down to her ankles, and it was rumored that her grey hair was actually a wig. Anyhow, when Brother Justinian (the choirmaster and school principal) needed replacements for graduating choir members, Miss Hessian acted as his scout. She would line up the boys and have us sing something. She would then march up and down the lines, tilting her head to better hear each boy's voice, and announce "singer" or "listener" based on your ability. All the "singers" would then be auditioned by Brother Justinian. If he chose you, that was it. You weren't asked if you were interested in joining the choir, nor did your parents have much of a say in the matter. It was indentured servitude, like baseball before the Curt Flood case and "free agency" for players.
Choir practice was a couple of times a week as I recall; Brother Justinian would bring us boys in early, before school started, and put us through our paces. He was a stern disciplinarian when that term actually carried some meaning. He was also a gifted musician who did not tolerate mediocrity. For all the work it involved, I must confess that the Lourdes choir, which also included a group of grown men to offset all those young soprano voices, was one of the best around. We performed at the annual St. Patrick's Day dance in the school auditorium, and to this day (a tribute to Brother Justinian's work ethic) I can still remember the words to popular Irish tunes like "Oh the Days of the Kerry Dancing" and "How Are Things in Glockomorrah". We also took the show on the road on occasion when other parishes invited us to sing. I believe we were even recorded once.
Our special night was midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The church was packed early as this was one of the highlights of the church year. I can't believe St. Patrick's Cathedral could have put on a more joyous and uplifting celebration. I can remember standing with my pals singing our little hearts out. Every choirmaster's greatest fear is when a boy's voice begins changing to a man's. In the Middle Ages, in order to overcome that little problem, they had a rather drastic solution (yes, THAT one), and although Brother Justinian may have given it a passing thought, even he would have had a hard time explaining that to our parents. After midnight Mass, every boy received a big "Whitman's Sampler" box of chocolates. It was a special treat, but better yet, it was fun to see Brother Justinian, normally a rather stern man, positively beaming as he accepted the thanks of our grateful parishioners for the choir's wonderful performance.
An old classmate and I recently reconnected with our teacher from seventh and eighth grades, Brother Jude, (pictured left), and had a very enjoyable lunch reunion. He just turned 80, and is as sharp as ever. He reminded us of the way he used to take off his watch before coming down the aisle in class to perform an "attitude adjustment" on some misbehaving student.
The Franciscan Brothers were good men who sacrificed much to follow their religious vocation. I don't have a doubt in my mind that whatever little intelligence I may have today is there because of their dedication and hard work.
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