(My downfall was trying to be a "Good" boy)*

*("They stone you when you're tryin' to be so good." — Bob Dylan)

Where to start. Let's start at the end. Near the end, anyway.

During my time in the parochial school ... "barrel" — referring to being raised like a "veal" in a time when "Children should be seen and not heard" — I attended the Immaculate Conception parish grade school in the once Poletown neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. Immaculate Conception was Ground Zero for the protest and resistance to razing the surrounding neighborhood to make way for a factory to make Cadillac automobiles. Even Ralph Nader was involved. It's a story in itself. GM is now pressing out Cadillacs on that holy ground, as I write.

Immaculate Conception Church and School with Surrounding Neighborhood — Poletown, Detroit, Michigan

One thing I remember about those years at Immaculates was the near-life size statue of Crucified Jesus at the front right side of the altar. I used to cringe and mentally flagellate myself contemplating such suffering and realizing that I would not want to — could never — ever, ever go though something like that. Those were not times for me when there were adults anywhere with whom you could raise such subjects. Just be good!

There is a lot to tell. But this is just my own one small piece of that rich and colorful time and place.

Like I said, I was an Altar Boy. It was an honor. My mother made sure I would always have an immaculately clean and heavily starched white surplice to wear over my cassock. There's an angelic picture of me somewhere in the attic showing me in that outfit with hands folded in prayer, professionally photographed by one of the local portrait studios on Chene Street. They stopped short of the eyes raised to heaven and the retouched-in halo.

It didn't last. I got kicked out of the Altar Boys. Instead of a full term limit through to 8th grade graduation, my career as an Altar Boy ended late one summer morning sometime around 6th or 7th grade.

Here's the story. As was expected, Altar Boys served year around, during the summer school recess too. Not the most wonderful thing for a boy to have to get up early on a balmy summer morning and slog to church to serve at Mass. I was dutiful, and took it in stride. But, something went wrong at the service one fateful morning. I got sick. Felt faint.

ASIDE: This was not the first time I felt sick at the altar. Maybe overtaken with the Spirit? Too much grace for one small body to contain? God working in mysterious ways? It happened to me reliably at those special occasions where all the Altar Boys were assembled and knelt piously at the altar railing on a narrow step of hard stone tiles hands in prayer position in front of the entire congregation. Midnight Christmas Mass, a prime example. I would start to feel sick to my stomach and have to excuse myself, mortified in front of everyone. Those were also the days when you fasted before Mass if you planned to receive Communion. And, you better be in A STATE OF GRACE, buddy! God must've had me singled out for such embarrassing situations. Like the time I was the only boy in the entire school to have to wear short pants for a Marian Day parade, also in front of the whole congregation. Mother was proud, and the ladies gave their ooh's and ahh's. Now do you get the reference to "raised like a veal"?

I may have also been the only boy to have been kicked out of the Altar Boys. It was on a summer morning during Mass being offered by Pastor Cendrowski. I got sick. I was in a quandary over whether to tell Father, or not interrupt and just leave. I was too shy to interrupt, so I left. Later, he sent Dennis Sheida, Dr. Sheida's son, on his Schwinn Phantom to let me know not to ever come back. Talk about a double whammy. Getting kicked out without any recourse; and then there's Dennis on the Phantom anyone would covet. [BTW, seeing his dad, Dr. Shieda, for check ups was a treat. He kept a lower drawer in his desk chock full of candies which he offered kids after visits.] And I got the bad news without explanation. Apparently Good Father Cendrowski thought I was being just what he probably thought all boys to be down deep ... A BAD BOY. I was too mortified and shy to go and confront Cendrowski. As Jerry Seinfeld used to say ... "NEWMAN!!!"


For all the boys in us, here's a nice shot of that Cadillac of bikes, the Schwinn Phantom. Electric horn button on the side panel. Spring shock. Light. Back rack. Key lock for front fork. Killer paint job. Plush leather seat with springs. White walls. Streamers! Chrome fenders. Real chrome. Lots of chrome. You wanna talk about bad. That's what I call BAAD!

Continuing. And, more on "That Cendrowski" later. That's him in the opening photo montage. It's an image lifted from a 1964 group photo of the graduating class from Immaculate Conception School. As he signals in the photo, he was strict. One friend revealed to me he was known as "Fr. Cinders" in her family. Now, why he was so strict, I have no idea. I would bet, though, that it had nothing more than to do with his own experience being raised by a strict parent(s). Also, maybe multiplied with the conviction that children (all people) were devious miscreants who needed a firm pastoral hand to keep them on the Straight and Narrow. Just to say on this subject, some people should not be put in positions of authority. Seriously flawed individuals projecting their own conflicted neuroses onto everyone they see and everywhere they go. You think the news would be as exciting even now if our so-called leaders were whole human beings?

But, I digress.

Altar Boys are, well, boys. And, boys being boys we have a special sense of participating in the rituals of life. At Mass during my time of serving at Immaculates — it was Old School at that time, with the priest facing the altar, his back to the congregation — the priest offered Mass at an altar platform raised exactly three steps up. The Altar Boys knelt on the first step. Those who served "first" that is. Other, secondary servers — when there were any — knelt at positions slightly behind on a single stepped platform in the sanctuary. At Immaculates the sanctuary itself was raised two steps up from the church floor. Step up and meet your Saviour. And his Mom. I did that there just then to be, well, a naughty boy. Actually, the statue of the Blessed Virgin was the centerpiece of the whole altar presentation. Since the church was going to be razed that most beautiful and grace filled statue was removed and now resides at nearby Saint Hyacinth Church at a dedicated chapel. Flanked by her faithful angels, also from Immaculates' altar.

Below is a photo to show the entire altar. This image shows the updated setup with an altar for the priest offering Mass facing the people. But you can see most of what I'm talking about there.

Even the floor tiles were special. Locally made Pewabic Pottery tiles I suppose. Variegated and with  shades of golds, black, browns, umber, copper, orange. Lots of multi-color fading in each tile.

If you were serving "First", of the two boys given that responsibility, one got "Bells"; the other, "Book". The "Bells" boy started off kneeling to the left on that first step to the altar. The "Book" boy knelt on the right. I recall there was some complicated switch with the Altar Missal. It started out on the right side of the altar, then at some point the "Book" Altar Boy would bring it down the steps from its place on the right side of the altar, then up to the left side. That was just before the reading of the Gospel. So, not to belabor the intricacies of Altar Boy procedure, the "Book" Boy would start off on the right, "Bells" Boy on the left. Got it? After the switch of the Altar Missal the boys would then be in their final places.

"Bells" at Immaculate Conception were a push button electronic affair. There was a little metal door flush on the right side of the second altar step. Open it and there were five columnar buttons. After Consecration, just before the Elevation of the Host and Adoration, the bells were rung. 1-2-3, 2-3-4, 3-4-5. That was the sequence.

"Bells" was the best. When I got "Bells", sometimes I rocked it. Rather than the solemn cadence due the occasion, I would press them at rocket speed. Thought that was pretty cool. Bing Bang Bong ...Bang Bong Boing ... Bong Boing Blam!!! Never got called on it. Strange to me even then, because it did warrant giving someone a good talking to.

Also with that "Book" / "Bells" switcheroo. Since the boy on "Book" started on the right, but arrived on the left, his missal had to be handed over after he changed the Altar Missal. And vica versa with the boy on "Bells". Those step stairs leading to the Altar were covered with panels of carpeting. We would send our books gliding right to left, left to right, along that carpet strip. If you were listening for it there was a whizzing whoosh sound. Again, I remember, once or twice I rocked that too. It was an Altar Boy arcane skill. I raised it to high art. Instead of pacing the slide to arrive to a nice stop at my partners position, I gave it all I had, and it went flying, shooting past the boy and landing way over in the sanctuary. Loud whizz, and a thwack! Never heard about that either. Remembering that now, it's no wonder I got kicked out. Cendrowski was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.

I was also a rather cheeky lad. One priest in particular was a favorite. Rather more accessible and modern compared to those other old school "staddy giats" (phonetic spelling = old fogeys). I suggested he buy a Volkswagen as his daily drive. But, he stayed with the conservative Chevy or Ford. Black, of course. Stripped down model, of course. I liked to joke with him too. Suggested he was going to the "Cooler" once when he was going to hear confessions in those chilly confessionals set into the side wall of the church. Shortly after, a Nun took me aside and said I wasn't to joke with Father. I didn't get an explanation. They just gave you the orders, and you obeyed. (Veal.) I was once again mortified. Now, with all that has been going on with priests and children, maybe she saved me from some real upsetting stuff.

Priests! Some of my best friends are. In college I was rather religious. In the Sodality a lay religious club, the mentoring priest was rather a strict one. Once we went off on a task to do something charitable; something extra, above and beyond, not in our usual pattern. I decided to say hello to people I usually didn't say hello to on campus. Father didn't consider that all that much of an effort. And, said so. In front of everyone in the Sodality meeting. A handful of years passed, and who do I see in a Time Magazine article. Our dear strict moderator. He got married! As they say, the greater the piety the bigger the pretense. Priest! Not all. But enough to get the Church Hierarchy to — finally — do some house cleaning.

Being an Altar Boy had its perks. Serving at funerals was a special treat. Treat? Hey, you have to put your boy-brain on. For funerals you got to ride in a big plush limousine with the officiating priest as he made his way to the funeral home before Mass, back to the church, then to the cemetery and back. You got to miss a whole block of morning class time. And, you got a nice cash tip for your trouble. Hey? Here's a photo of the Smigielsky Funeral Home just down the block from Immaculates. It saw better days. The photo was taken during the time of the razing of the neighborhood.

Smigielski Funeral Home Photo Credit: Jim Sczytko Kanter Street/Poletown Facebook Group 

On to more depressing experiences.

By the way, my very first more of less direct encounter with Reverend Alexander Cendrowski (1901 - 1991) was during my very early pre-Altar Boy days in school. We were sent away with homework to make butter. My mother got some cream and I shook it in a Mason jar until butter formed. She neatly put a sample in a shot glass (shot glass!) covered with wax paper held down with a rubber band. Pre-plastic wrap folks. Am I dating myself? My sample was chosen to be given to Father Cendrowski. I don't recall how it transpired, whether I took it over, or just let one of the Sisters trot it over. Never heard a peep. I know it was good. I didn't need a priest to confirm that fact. Just would have appreciated an acknowledgement. The die with me and Cendrowski was set.

Some time later in my grade school days like any young boy trying to be good, I was beset with impure thoughts. Mostly of the kind like wondering what the heck those girls had that made them, well, girls. Of course, this was a mortal sin and if you died without having been absolved you know where you would go. If I have to tell you ... that would be ... HELL! So here I am in the confessional, 10 years old or so and somewhat embarrassed to be talking about my nascent sexual history. It wasn't Cendrowski, but the priest somehow interpreted that I was confessing to f**king some lady. I was too shocked by that to even try to correct his impression. I took it like a man. I was now in the eyes of the church a bonafide fornicator. 10 years old, mind you. Heck I didn't bust my cherry until I was eleven. Just kidding.

COMPLETELY ASIDE ... The Cardinal is very sick. Doctors come from all over the world to try and diagnose his illness. And finally a little Jewish psychiatrist finds the cause of the problem. He tells the cleric, "Your Eminence, because you have had nothing to do with women all your life, your hormones are unbalanced and there is only one possible cure. You must make love with a woman." "No, no!" cries the Cardinal, "I can't. All the vows I have taken ... I just can't!" "But, Your Grace," replies the shrink, "you must or you will die, and this too is a mortal sin." The Cardinal retires for a few days to consider his fate, and then calls the psychiatrist again. "Okay, okay" he says, "I have reached my decision. I will do as you ask. But please, be sure that the girl has nice, big tits."

I got my licks in with Pastor Cendrowski during my 8th Grade year, 1957. Just before being released from his clutches with that rite of passage, graduation from 8th Grade. It was at the 8th Grade class play.

By the way, I was the President of the class that year. During the election period Sister Maximia — she was great, but she did live up to her name — said to the class in her usual emphatic tone, something like, "You should vote for someone capable, like David". That was my entire campaign. Of course, we were obedient students. I was voted in. I did feel capable. But, with a dose of self doubt for good measure. And more than enough a peppering of guilt. It was a grace that she acknowledged me that way. She also encouraged me to go to Jesuit Prep School. Thank you eternally, Sister Maximia. Also, just to toot my horn a bit. I was Captain of the Safety Boys. We stood at assigned corners before and after school, and before and after lunch periods to make sure our fellow students crossed safely. I was demoted from that job because I wasn't tough enough with the troops. Frank Dolenz was enlisted. He didn't mind some hands-on pushing and shoving to get the job done. I think I could have been Captain of the Altar Boys too. Of course, you know how that went.

I must've been a contender. I was also the lead in the 8th Grade class play. I have no recollection what it was about. Just that I couldn't take the whole thing seriously, so I was shunted off to a lesser role. I would play the role of the priest. You should know Father Cendrowski, besides his reputation for gaunt strictness, he was a confirmed cigar smoker. It was a trademark fixture with him. I think I can still recall the smell of it now. So what did I do to bring some style to my role as the priest? I walked out on stage during that one and only performance with a big stogie in hand. I think it got a laugh. Cendrowski didn't say anything. Maybe even he was amused. But I doubt it.

I went to the University of Detroit High School. A Jesuit prep school. Sister Maximia, my 8th Grade teacher recommended that another boy and I apply there. That was a real grace. A significant life experience for me. But, Father Cendrowski was not pleased. Suggesting I was not supportive by not going on to Saint Stannies, the nearby parochial high school. I took it in stride, but got the solid impression Father Cendrowski was a Nazi; or at least had a Fascist mind.

During those high school years we went to Mass on Sunday's faithfully. After Mass periodically there was a Father-Son breakfast sponsored by the Holy Name Society. Just what they did completely eluded me then. I had no interest. Father Cendrowski summoned me and suggested I join. I flatly told him I had nothing in common with those fellows, and that I had no interest in being a part of that group. That was what was so for me. Cendrowski used that exchange with me and built a sermon around it. Retelling the story of his encounter with a callow youth who was too selfish to participate in the Life of the Church. Well, he didn't mention me by name. But, you know how it is when you feel guilty; all eyes are on you. That was quite the Mass. God works in mysterious ways. My middle name is Daniel. It serves me well when I find myself in difficult situations.

Last meeting with by now Monsignor Cendrowski was at Saint Mary's Academy, Orchard Lake, Michigan. My older brother graduated high school there, and now his son was also graduating. Father Cendrowski was there. Apparently retired to the seminary there. I approached. "Hello, Father Cendrowski. I'm David Wronksi. Remember me?" Flatly, I mean flatly, he responded ..."I remember you." Hey, how about that little thing called forgiveness? Truly, I realize that the crux of it is that any forgiveness is self-forgiveness. If I hadn't a guilty bone in my body, Father Cendrowski's coldness would have been an opportunity to strike up some real rapport. Like, "Hey Father, I see you still have that stick up your ass!" Instead, I removed myself from his judgemental presence.

God bless Father Alexander Cendrowski. And, dear Father in Heaven, would You and Your Son and His Mother give him a good talking to?

You might also like to know I named my dog Alexander in memory of a certain priest who made quite a lasting impression on me.

Father Cendrowski was not very nice to me. Consistently. Yet, he must've been a good man. In his heart. By his own lights. Here is a link to an article entitled, Poletown: Community Betrayed. It's definitive about the history of the razing of Immaculate Conception Parish and the heart of most of the Poletown neighborhood. In fairness — and I was moved after reading the article — Father Cendrowski did some good deeds. When the I-94 Expressway cut through our neighborhood, Father Cendrowski is cited for persuading the City of Detroit to build foot bridges so that children across the expressway could walk to school. I was one of them. Also, when there was an influx of immigrants from many different countries into that mostly Polish neighborhood, Father Cendrowski led outreach, offering English classes and getting furniture and household item donations from parishioners.

Once again, Father Cendrowski would not have approved of some of my other mischief. When the overpass directly to the parish was finished we boys would gather there to watch the cars whizz by. More than a few spit balls were dropped onto oncoming vehicles. Where else, pray, could a boy learn the exquisite art of timing?

Father Cendrowski! Pray that my time in Purgatory is short. I'm sorry. Really!


Remembering yet another mortification of my Altar Boy youth. On special occasions, Feast Days, the whole parish would gather for evening Mass. There would be a procession around the aisles inside the church. The officiating priest or some invited higher up, lots of Monsignors, Bishops, maybe even a Cardinal, and loads of priests. The whole Altar Boy contingent. The Blessed Eucharist in a fancy monstrance under a silken canopy held aloft by poles at each corner balanced by four bearers . All stops pulled out. Full regalia.

My job on one such occasion was to light the charcoal for the censer. Such and other supplies were kept in the room to the right of the altar. At a prescibed time I went inside there to ignite one of those self-lighting charcoal discs. It just would not light. I emerged with a cold censer. No incense that time around. Holy Smoke! Never heard about it though. Do you suppose no one noticed?

Now you know.

Comments invited ...

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