I'm not embarrassed to say I was an altar boy. I served from fourth to eighth grades, 1974-78, at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Malverne. Keep in mind at this point in American history, the Women's Liberation movement was in full swing and TV series such as Mary Tyler Moore and All In the Family addressed the subject nightly.
While the movement brought about many changes in American society, it had no effect on us altar boys. It was a boys club... no girls allowed. (Girls had kooties, anyway, so who needed them?)
The first time I saw an "altar girl," (I hadn't heard the title "altar server" yet) was in 1986 at a church in Manhattan. I had no problem accepting this. After all, girls were playing Little League for a long time by now and it was just another change in an ever-changing world. So a few girls wanted to be servers.
Lately, I began to notice it's more than just a few girls. Much more. At a recent mass at OLL one Sunday, three servers proceeded past me... each with a ponytail.
I thought, "Hmmm...these boys are very confused." Then it occurred to me: they were girls.
Clearly the demographic of servers has changed. I decided to explore this subject so I compiled some current statistics. I also sat down with three altar girls and the mother of two of them and discovered lots of things have changed since my day as an altar boy.
According to the OLL church website, there are 130 active altar servers. Eighty-two are boys and 52 are girls. That's the first big change. Not only in my day were there no girls, the number of servers was about a quarter which made the club even more exclusive.
Emily Macaluso, 12, a seventh-grader at OLL, has been a server since fourth grade. She says she feels her service brings her closer to God and it will aid her entry into heaven.
Her sister, Katherine Macaluso, 10, is a fifth-grader at OLL and is in her second year of service.
Annalyn Pupke, 10, is a fifth-grader at St. Thomas the Apostle School in West Hempstead although her family lives in Malverne. Just about the entire family is active at OLL. Annalyn is a server; her mother, Nancy, is a lector; her 20 year-old brother, Christopher, is a Eucharistic minister and her 16 year-old brother, Daniel, is also a server. (That's another change. In my day service stopped at eighth grade but today high school students are welcome to join.)
"Both my brothers really enjoyed [serving]," said Annalyn, "and also my parents really have taught me my Catholic faith and I think it's my job to help God in any way I can."
That would include getting up for a 6:45 am mass, which OLL has Monday through Friday. As a reward for working those masses, Lynne Macaluso, the mother of Emily and Katherine, takes her daughters to Malverne Bagels afterward.
Another big change is there are now four servers assigned to each mass instead of two and each is designated a specific job, which is determined by his or her height.
The tallest person is assigned the crucifix; any pair of matching or similar height is assigned the candles and the shortest is "the cute person," according to Annalyn.
"It's a Father Frank-ism," said Father Frank Parisi, pastor and adviser to the altar servers. "I made it up."
"They don't really do anything; they just stand there," said Annalyn. (There was a very short time when I would have been the cute person if we had had such a designation, but that window of opportunity closed rather quickly.)
Another part of the boys club was at the end of the school year the adviser of the group (a priest at the parish), along with a few mothers who volunteered, would take us to Rye Playland for a day, as kind of a payment for our work. This included renting a bus with a driver. There is no such annual trip anymore.
However, the more things change the more they stay the same. Altar servers still get out of class during the school day to serve at the 9 a.m/ mass; service at a wedding still generally means a cash tip and there's always a chance of making an embarrassing mistake in front of an entire congregation. (I experienced all three.)
I don't know what other social movements will eventually make their way to altar servers but should I see one, I'll be sure to report back.