Fab Feb Photo Festival: Day 5 Church going

4 x 7UP collageThis photo symbolises the role of church or religion in my early life and that of my family. Religion’s impact on family relationships will inevitably be introduced in other stories.  The collage photo is of all the girls in my First Communion group, taken when I was seven. Instead of using that photo here I’m going with one I found subsequently which also includes the boys and the local parish priest Fr O’Connor. First Communion is the second significant step in the religious life of young Catholics following on from baptism. If you attended a Catholic school you received the necessary instruction in your religion classes which were the first session of the day: the reason why we had a longer school day than the kids at the State Schools. Ironically I remember nothing much about the actual First Communion –I was always so obsessed with getting things right, that the details of the event then passed me by.  We received a special medal with a communion symbol on it, which could be worn on a chain, and the certificate you can see here, and our further connection to the church was entered in the registers.

First Communion at St Joan of Arc
First Communion at St Joan of Arc

As you can see from the photo, both boys and girls were dressed to the nines for this special event. After the church ceremony, there would be a breakfast for all the communicants –a special “spread” of food and treats to celebrate the milestone. In those days all communicants were required to fast from midnight if they were to receive communion at Mass the next morning. All that I recall, dimly, is that I wasn’t especially well on the day, most likely because of nervous anxiety. In those pre-Vatican II days, communion was received on the tongue, not in the modern way, in the hands. It was all much more formal and structured.

Don't know what happened to this little prayer book.
Don’t know what happened to this little prayer book.

When our eldest daughter made her First Communion things were much the same stylistically, but by the time our second daughter came along, in a more progressive parish it has to be said, this had changed. The children all wore simple robes, not unlike altar servers’ robes, thereby eliminating the potential for competitiveness, and celebrations were mainly with family and friends at home. Strangely it was when #2 daughter was receiving her education for First Communion, that I met my second Kunkel relation: one of my 2nd cousins, a nun who was the granddaughter of my great-aunt, about whom I’d known nothing. And the teacher for our eldest daughter’s First Communion was the sister of a girl in the photo above. Small world isn’t it? In a Freudian slip, I almost forgot that before being accepted for First Communion each potential communicant also had to make their First Confession. Now there’s another experience which is fraught for those of an obsessive, literal frame of mind. One by one each child/person would go into the small confessional through (usually) a purple curtain. Once the penitent is inside the priest would slide a tiny window open and you would see his outline through the wire grill, rather than full-face.

A holy picture from my Confirmation.
A holy picture from my Confirmation.

There was a specific ritual of wording which occurred before you outlined your recent sins. At the end you would be given absolution. It’s not true that you can confess a sin and be forgiven then go out and, for example, commit murder again, Scot free, as is sometimes believed. This contradicts the need to be truly sorry and also to repent, follow the priest’s penance (usually some prayers) and “go forth to sin no more”. Confession has now been re-badged as Reconciliation. The procedure is a little more relaxed (there’s even an i-Pad app as an aide memoir…of course!) and in some cases people choose to talk directly to the priest rather than be “hidden” behind a screen. Some say that you walk out feeling so relieved but it was never my favorite religious experience.

This Confirmation photo is one of the earliest colour photos in our family -taken with film brought back by Mum's great-aunt.
This Confirmation photo is one of the earliest colour photos in our family -taken with film brought back by Mum’s great-aunt.

Confirmation, or the young person’s acceptance into the full life of the Church, came in the last year of primary school or thereabouts. It also involved much ritual but was significantly more daunting because the Bishop or Archbishop was the presiding cleric on the day. Those being confirmed also had to be able to answer questions on aspects of the faith –just imagine the scope for anxiety in an obsessive “nervous Nellie”. Your sponsor would accompany you, and you would take on an additional (second or third) Christian name. Of course these were simply the key events in a life which encompassed so many rituals and obligations (makes me tired just thinking about it all): Saying the rosary at home daily Morning and evening prayers Grace before and after meals Multiple church visits over Easter Benediction First Fridays Fasting before Mass Abstaining from meat on Fridays Lenten penances Stations of the Cross Confession (weekly …ugh) Weekly (minimum) Mass “visits” to the church between times Children of Mary (what the neighbourhood thought of these apparitions in blue cloaks with medals on blue ribbons, and white veils is unknown). Etc etc etc One of the complexities of our family’s religious life was that my parents had what was then called a mixed marriage[i] as my father was not a Catholic, though throughout he never stood in the way of my education and upbringing as a Catholic. Perhaps that made the focus on religion much greater than it might have been otherwise. It was such a pivotal part of life that it was woven through my day-to-day life. Was going to church a big-deal in your family, or low-key? Fab Feb imageFamily Hx writing challenge


This post is part of the February Photo Collage Festival and the Family History Writing Challenge.

[i] The linked article raises my hackles even all these decades after moving from my own family of origin but I include it as an insight to the situation as outlined by the church. I’d have thought that perhaps this would have changed in the current day and age, so it’s even more shocking to read this article.

12 thoughts on “Fab Feb Photo Festival: Day 5 Church going

  1. A fascinating article on an aspect of family life which often gets ignored in our writing – a sign of how insignficant it is in today’s world? Your photographs were lovely. I grew up in a church going family – Church of England. My father had been a choir nmember from the age of seven and wherever he moved throughout his life, church was an important feature – so too for my mother. So we went to Sunday School, I later sung in the choir and I was confirmed at the age of 14 by the Archbishop of York (his visit was a major event in our small country parish church). There was no “fancy” dress – the girls wore a veil pinned over their hair and I think I wore my school uniform. No photograph of the occasion. Church has continued to be part of my life (sometimes regularly – sometimes infrequently) through times of being a Sunday School teacher and a choir member. plus the sense of being part of a like minded community. Unfortunately I did not succeed with my daughter. Although she was confirmed when 12 years old. she soon” gave up” on the church.


    1. I’m not sure whether it’s insignificant or perhaps too contentious potentially. However given the importance of religions in many of our ancestral families we do need to include it in our stories. It sounds like your family was as inter-linked with the church as was mine. I don’t think I’d have liked having the Archbishop of York -too intimidating. Interesting that there was so much less dress-up about it (maybe that Catholic thing with more trimmings). Like you I kept up my involvement with church-related activities until various events led me to give up formal religion about 20 years ago (hard to believe it’s so long). So much in ingrained however, for good or not-so-good.


  2. The only ritual we had in my church when I was growing up was being Baptized and that happened when I was a baby. Although church activities were woven throughout my life it was in a much less formal and ritualistic way than it was in your case. I remember in college being in the printmaking room working on Ash Wednesday with another Congregationalist when a group of Catholic students came in with ashes on their foreheads. We looked at each other and I thought to myself that it was a shame that we didn’t do anything to mark important days in our church like that. Looking back now, I appreciate what we had there. These days I only go to church if one of the my daughters invites me. Actually there is only 1 of my 6 children that attends church. If I could find a church with a preacher like my father, I would go.


    1. It’s interesting that your church experiences were so different especially with your father being a preacher…I’d wondered how that would have affected your daily life. I’d have thought most people would just look at Catholics with ashes as if they were weird…we surely got some “???” looks in my day. A good priest/minister/preacher can make an enormous difference to keep people engaged and inadequate ones have the opposite effect. We have a total strike rate of absences in our own family these days, and only one who might waver.


  3. Beautiful photographs of your First Communion and Confirmation, Pauleen. I have a lot of similar photographs in my family. I also have a few of those “mixed marriages” too (one set of grandparents for example) and one great grandmother converted from Methodist to Catholic when she married.


  4. Hello Cass, lovely photos and memories. Would it be possible for me to use the St Joan of Arc First Communion photo – with full acknowledgement – for a nostalgic memoir of schooldays I am writing? Keep up the great work. Best wishes, Wanda


    1. Hi Wanda, thanks for asking but in this case I’d prefer not to share it further. I can’t see a lot of point using photos for a different school…perhaps there’s a source for your school?


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