Father Gettelfinger

Before Vatican II the Church was both a pillarIMG_0080 of moral authority as well as an institution of mystery. Church services were in Latin accompanied with incense and much formality. The mass was conducted by the priest and the altar boys who exchanged Latin prayers. I was one of these altar boys at St. Catherine’s Church in New Haven, Ky. in the late ’40’s and early ’50’s.

Serving as an altar boy at mass began with assisting the priest in donning his vestments in a process that was carried out in the chamber adjacent to the altar. Then the altar boy would light the candles at the altar. During the mass he assisted the priest in serving communion.

The mass was chanted in Latin by the priest and required Latin responses from the altar boy.  
Being an altar boy meant memorizing the Latin prayers, obtaining a black cassock and white 
surplice. It took several weeks of training and a commitment to be on time for the service.  
Performance of the duties of an altar boy at St. Catherine’s Church in New Haven was a serious 
matter indeed, especially if the officiating priest that day happened to be Father Fred J. 
Gettelfinger, the parish priest.

Father Gettelfinger was a mid-fifties, white headed parish priest of the old school. Of stern 
Germanic ancestry, he viewed himself as keeper of the town morals and used the Sunday pulpit to excoriate the sinners of the community including my father and his cronies who spent Sunday afternoons playing poker at the downtown Knights of Columbus hall. Mama didn’t like Father Gettelfinger who had no truck with any who missed a Sunday mass, no matter that getting eight kids ready for the walk to church by 8:30 could be a bit of a challenge.

Father Gettelfinger railed from the pulpit against the stealing of fruit from trees by the likes of Barry Rogers and me, or the overturning of tombstones. He once even established a schedule of monetary fines for such infractions. I don’t think he collected much as there weren’t too many of us who turned ourselves in.

The church rectory was home for Father Gettelfinger along with his housekeeper and also his 
assistant, Father Hardesty. Father Hardesty was a young, beer drinking priest with the gut to show it and wasn’t much inclined to the dictatorial authority of his superior. One night when returning home late from wherever he had gone (maybe drinking beer with the guys) he found the door of the rectory locked and no response to his knocking from the disapproving Father Gettelfinger. Father Hardesty discovered the biblical promise, “Knock and it shall be opened unto you.” didn’t seem to work.

So, being over 200 pounds, he just broke the door down.