The church was very important part of our young lives. I became an altar boy, as many of my school friends did. Twice a week, we had to go for practice for special services in the church. I will always remember how I was looking forward for the Holidays to come so I could serve as an altar boy.
During the war the church was packed with people. Many people had to stand outside and follow the service. How proud I felt serving on the main altar in front of all or our town people. Being an altar boy, and in those days there were many of us, you were especially chosen to go along with the priest to take the holy communion to the sick people in their homes. We had to walk many streets before we would arrive at the sick person's home. It was always very early in the morning and still dark when we took the communion to the sick homes. I carried a small lighted oil lamp with a ringing bell. The priest walked behind me with a covered golden chalice in his hand. According to the Catholic religion, he was carrying the body of Christ.
That early in the morning most of the coal miners were going to work. In those days, the working class only had bicycles for transportation. Only the very rich at that time were driving cars. As soon as the man on the bicycle saw the light and heard the ringing of the bell, he would get off his bike and kneel down until we had passed. It was in honor of the body of Christ which was carried by the priest. There were sick people who were bed-ridden because of very bad accidents in the coal mines. Their families had special altars made and prepared them whenever the priest would serve the communion. Sometimes I would get a small donation for coming along with the priest.
After we had served all the communion, the priest and I would walk back to the church without religious ceremonies, as all the communions were given to the sick. Nobody on the bicycle going to work had to kneel down, as all of them knew we had visited the sick. I was always very proud when I was chosen to be the altar boy of the week to take the communion to the sick. It was such a great feeling to see people stop, kneel down and bow their heads in honor of God.
I belonged to the boy scouts, and we had a boy's club with a workshop where I could spend my evenings doing all kinds of hand crafts. All of this was under the supervision of the Salesian Fathers, a Catholic religious order who worked with boys.
I started in the third grade, but soon the teacher noticed that I was much more advanced in my education than the kids in my class. So I skipped third grade and advanced to the fourth.
Religion was a dominating factor in our society. The church authorities were involved in everything. Even in sports, as soccer was our favorite pastime. The priest even sat in the club restaurant and had his drink as the members of the soccer team did. The priest was the chosen chaplain of the soccer team, and he would go along wherever the team had to play. After a match, there would always be a get-together in the club's pub. There were many Sunday afternoons that one of the club members had to take the chaplain home, because he was not able to get on his bike.
Everything was involved with religion. Class distinction was very noticeable, and somehow religious authorities such as Pastors, Monsignors and Bishops would lean with favoritism to the well-to-do people in the neighborhood. They would see to it that their children would go to the best schools, and even later on would see to it that they would get good jobs. For most of the working class families it was tough for their children to go to the good schools. At the time most families had little money, and more children than they could afford, but the strict religious atmosphere created this. Our neighbor had fourteen children, and their house was a little bigger than ours. They had three small bedrooms with a kitchen and living-room. No bathroom, a large steel tub was used on Saturdays to get a weekly scrub. There were so many other families with many children. The mothers had to work day and night to do all the house chores. At night there was always a night service in the church, and most of those mothers would go to the service with some of their children. One of those mothers told me once: "As tired as I am when I go into the church, how enlightened I feel when I come out of the church". She said that regardless of how hard she had to work and struggle during the day for her family, she wouldn't miss a church service at night.
Even religion was very strict in those days, there are many remembrances I will always cherish so long as I live — the days as an altar boy, and later as a choir boy. It gave me a strong basis of principles, and it gave me comfort in days of hardship and distress. I was born a Catholic, and in my heart for as long as I live I always will be a Catholic. It's something I was born with, and I always will have my beliefs around me wherever I go in this world.
I was the only boy and the oldest of the children. Being a boy and oldest there were always a lot of daily chores around the house which I had to take care of. I was only eight years old, but there was always a job for me to finish before I could go outside and play with my friends. It was during the war, my oldest sister was only two years old, and my other two sisters were born right after the war.
My mother always needed enough dry pieces of fire-wood so she could start the fires in the ovens every morning. The kitchen stove was on year round because it was used for cooking and baking. You needed to start the stove first with firewood before you could put any coals in there. It was my job to see to it that there was enough chopped wood ready. Even firewood was not that plentiful in those days. Every stick of firewood I could find I saved. I had to go around town along the hedges and pull out the dead wood.
We had a garden and a piece of land behind our house where I spent many hours during the summertime to keep it clean from all the weeds. So whenever I came home from school, I first had to do my jobs around the house before I could go and play with my friends. I must admit there were many days that I hated my father for this. But I had no choice as my father was very strict.