The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Altar Boy


The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Altar Boy is a piece I wrote centered on experiences growing up in the 1950s in Brisbane under the mantle of family, the parish church, and more particularly its priest. (I had completed 8000 words and was ready to further expand this and so educate a younger generation on what this embraced, when the Brisbane City Council, in its wisdom, saw fit to conduct a short story competition under the subject "Brisbane".

I therefore concentrated on shaping a product of a maximum 6000 words. The title is "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Altar Boy, or, How to Survive the Rigour of a 1950s Brisbane Catholic Adolescence." (Not much left of the 6000 is there?)

Unfortunately I was not successful, but completed the original venture, and have inflicted it on some friends. I hope some get a modicum of enjoyment from it, in that it may prompt some more memories of those formative times.

I must say however, that I have striven to provide more than a comical narrative, but to invoke some sense of those values and whole environment in which we lived.

Denis Campbell, Brisbane.

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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Altar Boy, or,

   How to Survive the Rigour of a 1950s Brisbane

Catholic Adolescence

“The Unexpurgated version”



St Benedict’s 

Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church, an imposing 1917 brick structure in the Brisbane southern suburb of East Brisbane, stands at 81 Mowbray Terrace where the Terrace has its intersection with Sinclair Street. Also, Heidelberg Street forms a T junction with Mowbray Terrace at that point. Needless to say for those familiar with the late Archbishop of Brisbane, Sir James Duhig, (”James the Builder”) this church is situated on a hill, as were most. The effect of this is that the church presents an increasingly formidable edifice as one proceeds up Heidelberg Street approaching Mowbray Terrace.

In the 1950s, East Brisbane was largely a working class suburb, though as one journeyed east down Mowbray Terrace, one was struck with an element of ever-increasing affluence, culminating in Oakland Parade. Here opulence was to be found amongst residences opposite the large, spacious grounds and buildings of the Church of England Grammar School.   

Our family, the Campbells, along with my mother’s parents resided at 15-17 Heidelberg Street, a large sprawling residence on almost 36 perches. Such proximity to St Benedict’s was a factor in the frequency of the Campbell boys’ years of service as altar boys.   

Catholic family life centred on parish activities, and this was facilitated by the church itself being part of a total catholic enterprise - primary school for both genders, a convent for the Good Samaritan Order of Nuns who ran the school, a residence for the parish priest (“the presbytery”) plus playgrounds, a netball court for the girls, and a configuration of stone stairs – with the last mentioned being used popularly by boys as anything but a passage to a higher or lower plane; in fact during playtime they were usually “forts” to be defended.

This social fabric was typified by the Sunday mass, with it being a rather grand occasion. People wore their finery and seemed to be interested in who was there, or more importantly, who was not.

The church, convent, and school survived essentially on collections at Sunday masses, plus periodic contributions by parishioners, normally two or three times a year. The list of such contributors was actually read out at Sunday masses by the priest. Donations ranged from a thumping singular donation of 25 pounds to less than 5 shillings. Even at my tender age, I could never fully fathom the value or purpose of such a practice and was glad when it eventually ceased.

Early Schooling

I began schooling at St. Benedict’s in 1950, at the age of six, along with my twin brother Cliff, with a younger brother Bernie joining us two years later.

The “Good Sams” were to us, even in those formative years, a selfless dedicated bunch who were neither young nor old, but seemed to have the secret of perpetual middle age. Without fail, even in the hot Brisbane summer, they wore the formal black gear complemented by a white, starched bib-like contraption. The head piece was a black and white constrictive innovation which covered all but the face and forehead. The only modicum of “relaxation” from this formal attire occurred during sports days when, for example, a nun would roll up her sleeves to bat or bowl. How impressed we were to observe their remarkable agility in the face of such physical restriction! 

Over a long period, much has since been discussed by those with a convent education in pondering whether the nuns had hair.  We were amongst those who found this intriguing, and our curiosity was answered one day when a boy reported that he had occasion to observe Sister Tarpot, in what she thought was a private moment, lift her headpiece to adjust it. Yes, he revealed, she did have hair, albeit “shortish”. That boy became something of a folk hero, and was often called upon by other boys to describe what he had seen. (I should say Sister Tarpot was not her actual name, as you may well suspect; she was Sister Mary Tarcisius, but such is the propensity of youth for irreverence, as manifested on this occasion by the conferring of a nickname –  a popular pastime.)

Religious education was, of course, at the core of the school’s curriculum, and the learning of the basic truths per the famous Catechism was largely by rote, complemented by regular questioning.  These quiz sessions provoked some classic responses. One boy asserted that there were two persons born free from “Original Sin”, they being “The Blessed Virgin” and “She Alone”.  It did not need a Vatican Council for the nuns to resolve this heresy.

Recruitment to the Altar Boys’ Ranks

At some point after one’s first communion, there took place the altar boys’ recruitment drive – which may be better described as “press-ganging”, with a selection process involving only the nuns, with sanction being given by the parents of the naïve inductees. My twin brother and I were then some eight years of age.

The girls of the parish had no such impost, save for rendering some assistance in the preparation of the church. This usually comprised the setting up of flower arrangements on the altar and in front of various statues and other icons. 

(It was always a matter of great puzzlement to me that, with the exception of one instance described later, females were never formally permitted into the altar area, but the ladies of the parish, the nuns and school girls were allowed this entrée to carry out, as well as the setting of flowers, cleaning, changing linen, and similar chores. I suppose this speaks for itself of the times in which we lived.

Moreover, assistance at religious services or activities away from the church itself was also the domain of the male of the species. For the Angelus, for example, a prayer celebrated precisely at 12 noon each day, a nominated boy would be dispatched from the classroom to ring the school bell a prescribed number of times. The ringing was not only for the school, but also for the faithful resident within earshot. One had to ring three times, say a Hail Mary, ring another three times, followed by another Hail Mary, three more rings, and this part concluded with another Hail Mary.

There then followed nine consecutive rings. In later life, a friend who attended a school in a neighbouring parish related that on one occasion when he took his turn at this responsibility (considered an absolute honour by the nuns) he started well, but became confused – i.e. “Hang on, is that six or seven times I have rung?”  The result was that he tolled the bell ten times instead of nine, a most grave misdemeanour.   He was berated by the nun who had commissioned him, on the basis he was a most irresponsible boy.)

Once “correct weight” had been declared on the identities of the soon-to-be servers, there followed an intense period of training before one was allowed to be exposed to any assembled throng (i.e. the congregation).  I should say at this early point that our whole experience as altar servers was by no means an unpleasant one, but did involve an inordinate commitment, particularly in the cold winter months with daily 6 a.m. mass

The Latin Mass

When we began training, the most graphic impact on me, Cliff and Bernie was the realization that the mass and benediction were conducted in the Latin language, with us being expected to know all responses to the priest as a matter of course. To assist with this, there was available at mass and benediction - SHOULD IT EVER BE NECESSARY - a printed list of such responses, both in Latin and English (the “cheat sheet”!). My recollection is that there was no emphasis that one actually understood what the Latin meant.

In my four or so years of altar service, I was “caught short” only once in respect of these responses.  It occurred at the commencement of one mid-week mass.  For some reason I had a brief mental blank, and the cheat sheet could not be immediately located. Therefore, I made up the response.

It should have been “Ad deum qui latificat iuventutem meam”, but I mumbled a series of ums and ahs punctuated with unintelligible syllables, foreign, I am confident, to both the English and Latin languages. The priest, Fr James McDermott, who figures prominently in these memoirs, reacted to this by peering at me with a look of uncontained horror as if the first exorcism in the parish needed to be performed, and with great haste. He then recited the response himself and the mass continued with my locating the cheat sheet.

For parts of the Latin litany Cliff, Bernie, and I had our own unofficial text, and while much has slipped into antiquity, I recall the most popular: instead of the reply “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa”, when safe to do so one or more would say “Mea cowboy, mea cowboy, mea Mexican cowboy!”  


When assisting at church services, each altar boy was outfitted with a bi-partite piece of regalia. Firstly, there was a cassock-type gown with long sleeves and almost covered one’s shoes. It was called a soutane, with St Benedict’s being black in colour. Some parishes had a red soutane and were considered by St. Benedict’s boys to be “posh buggers”, but I never confirmed if this assessment was justified, nor did I ever discover the basis for colour selection or bestowment.

On any day, one’s soutane was selected from a small array kept in the altar boys’ sacristy. It was most important one obtained a soutane that was not too long, as this may induce the most deleterious of outcomes in the form of tripping and/or falling, usually when a boy was carrying something breakable – like the cruets, those crystal decanters used for the water and wine at the offertory.

The over-garment was called a surplice and comprised (in all parishes!) a white top of linen garnished with much embroidery. It seemed the good ladies of the parish who prepared these used a packet of starch for each surplice, with the result that on day one of use you would feel as if encased in armour. 

Particular Mass Duties

In concert with the rote learning of Latin were “practice” masses and benediction, as well as briefings in the plethora of duties before and after such services. With his pastoral duties taking precedence, Fr McDermott took no part in this training and it fell to the nuns to educate us in their usual splendid manner. We were, then, ill-prepared for the particular habits, foibles, and indeed eccentricities of the inimitable Fr McDermott.   

There was a ranking order for altar boys when serving at mass. As the congregation observes the servers they are known, right to left, as “Bell”  “First Server” and on the other side of the altar, “Second Server” and “Dummy”. Usually at Sunday masses there were only two servers (“first” and “Second”) but sometimes we had “Bell” and one or more “Dummies”. Occasionally during weekday morning masses there was one server only.

“Bell’s” primary role in life was to hit a shiny bell with a donger an exact number of times and at appropriate points during the mass. Other than that he had little to do, except to participate in the Latin responses. It was a dangerous spot for one who was tired or sleepy.

The “First Server” was the position par excellence. He attended the priest’s needs as manifested in such duties as bringing the cruets to him at the offertory. Naturally, it helped enormously if you remembered to fill them with wine and water BEFORE the mass, so that the priest has something to deal with. (This omission occurred only once with me, and Fr McDermott’s chastisement served to make the filling of the cruets THE priority forevermore before mass.)  

The “Second Server” was, by definition, directly under “First Server“  in the pecking order. He was an “assistant” to him in such tasks as turning over the linen coverings on the altar rail, preparatory to people coming to communion.

Despite the title, “Dummy’s” purpose was to participate in responses, except that in the case of St. Benedict’s he was open to being called upon with others, by Fr Dermott, to perform a supererogatory task – which, by definition, was never covered during training. The chore of “swallow and sparrow chaser”, discussed later (see “The Birds”) is representative of this.

Fr McDermott – An Introduction to the Man, His Personality and Habits.

Fr McDermott was, typical of those times, Irish. He must have been over sixty years of age in 1952 when he arrived in at St Benedict’s. Reputedly he came from serving a leper colony somewhere in the Pacific Islands – though I never heard him speak of this (and recent research reveals no record of such a thing). He was tall, with a great mop of steely grey hair, always wore dark rimmed glasses and had nicotine-stained teeth. He may be described as being craggy-faced, but I contend weather-beaten would be more accurate. It was rumoured also he had suffered some affliction or injury which resulted in his having “a plate” inserted in his head, but again, this has never been confirmed, and my recollection is that such an assertion was popular within a local rumour mill in the case of anybody who presented as a little different from the norm – and our Fr McDermott was certainly that.

Away from church services, Fr McDermott was never seen other than dressed in his priestly garb of a black suit, clerical collar, and black hat. He had no car and despite a limp walked everywhere around East Brisbane and surrounding suburbs, presenting a redoubtable figure.

He wore, almost ubiquitously, a look that conveyed concern or sometimes annoyance. My experience was that this could be misleading, and may simply have been symptomatic of his being deep in thought. However, as I have alluded to earlier, and seek to demonstrate, he was given to particular habits, foibles and eccentricities when he could be short- tempered over any perceived shortcoming or transgression.  

He seemed to us a learned man. (Current research reveals he, orphaned at an early age, obtained an honours Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in classics, at the National University in Dublin circa 1921.) After mass or benediction he would delight in presenting to us some intellectual challenge or problem. He liked to exercise our minds and even then I thought it his plan to inculcate in us an appreciation that there was much of interest to be known.  Sometimes he enquired directly what we had done in our leisure time the preceding week, and then probed our motivations for doing something – it did not matter what it was.

Occasionally the matter he introduced was quirkily arithmetic, but usually it centered on some conundrum or literature. Even at our early ages, he got us to recite after him some “Hamlet” – although at the time we did not have a clue where it came from.

Fr McDermott possessed what we thought was a fascinating ability. There were we three Campbell boys, and usually two of us would serve together. He well knew our Christian names, but he continually addressed each of us individually as “Campbell” without looking at us. Somehow we always knew to whom his words were directed.  Once for example he said without looking at Cliff “Wipe the sleep from your eyes Campbell!” Cliff immediately took action.

Initially I thought it was a ploy to maintain the attention of all, but concluded such was not the case, and the matter remains unresolved and continues to intrigue.

Father McDermott’s Home Visitations 

Our father, Jack Campbell, was a school teacher and this seemed to have some attraction for Fr McDermott in his pursuance of interests and challenges. We would receive a telephone call rather late at night and always mid-week - “Jack, I’m coming down!” He would arrive shortly afterwards bearing a half–bottle of Australian whisky, and a seemingly endless supply of cigarettes for Dad and himself. (Australian whisky, to say the least, did not enjoy a good reputation and according to Dad this one was certainly no exception.)

Dad of course was too polite to express such an opinion to our visitor, and participated in consuming this curious concoction, though he was not a great drinker. Moreover, Dad always had his own cigarettes (preferring “roll-your-owns”) but their sessions were punctuated frequently with Fr McDermott extracting a “tailor-made” from his packet and flinging it across the room with the cry “Have one of these Jack!”

Fr McDermott treated Mum like a queen, though her opinions were, in my recollection, rarely sought and eventually Mum would busy herself with supper preparation – our guest being also an avid tea drinker.

We boys were always banished to bed after Fr McDermott’s arrival, but we did not have to creep closer to the lounge to satisfy any curiosity, as Fr McDermott had a most penetrating voice – born of years of pulpit service no doubt, and Dad as a school teacher could be described as being a light shandy behind. The subjects of their conversation were varied, but always began with poetry. Dad would protest after such visits that Fr McDermott would learn by heart some obscure piece of poetry immediately prior to coming down and then recite it on arrival, with the query “Now, where is that from, Jack?” Dad had a great love of literature, but the origins of such lines would always elude him. This failure was obviously the object of the whole exercise, because Fr McDermott would then exclaim, “Call yourself a school teacher!”

They would then settle down to a warm conversation of indeterminate length, supper would take place and Fr McDermott would take his leave and wend his ponderous way up Heidelberg Street to the presbytery.

Dad was very fond of Fr McDermott, but sometimes on the mornings after such occasions he would wear a distant look as if opining when next we would be blessed with such a visitation.

The Art of Genuflection, According to Father McDermott.

Father McDermott as indicated had a permanent limp. He never mentioned any reason for this condition, but he was not prone to genuflect, and when it was time during mass or benediction to do so, he made a sign with his right hand which is best described as something akin to John Wayne drawing his revolver in any western film you may care to name.  We were fascinated by this. He was in fact seen to genuflect fully only on one occasion, and that was during a visitation by Archbishop Duhig for some commemorative mass.  I was not present, but Cliff attended and reported the exercise “nearly killed Father”.

When an altar boy traverses the altar from left to right, or vice versa, the practice is for him to genuflect at the half way point. On one occasion I completed the procedure as usual, but with my right knee coming into contact with the floor – not inordinately so, but sufficiently for the bump to be audible to Fr McDermott. He chided me on the spot, and at some length – not for the noise, but for the irreparable damage such could do to my knee over a period of time. We were vigilant thereafter that there should be no contact between a knee and the floor.

Candle Usage – a Focus for Fiscal Restraint

Fr McDermott could be frugal, especially when it came to consumables, and indeed anything to do with the nuns. These two aspects came together one weekday mass. Sister Mary Boniface was surely the most angelic of all nuns, and projected radiance and  warmth like no other. She came to Cliff and me before mass, and announced that this was the feast day of one of the convent’s nuns. Therefore, instead of lighting just two candles on the altar (as was the norm for weekday masses) could we please light all six. We never queried why she did not raise this matter with Fr McDermott, but naturally complied with her request as a matter of course.  All was well until mass started and Fr McDermott noticed the six candles. He reacted as if it was a raging inferno, and an inquisition took place after mass. He heard our explanations, but was not completely satisfied, and lectured us on the cost of candles (one shilling each!) and the need to avoid waste and extravagance. We have no idea what occurred between him and the nuns on this matter.     

To light the altar candles, we were taught to use a five feet wooden pole, with at one end both a wick and a metallic cone-like object (the latter being employed to extinguish them after mass or benediction). Initially the pole and wick were pointed at an external flame about six or seven feet off the ground. This burned perpetually in the altar area. The wick, once it became alight, was transferred to the candles.  

This manouvere was not as simple as it may appear, and it sometimes took quite a while for the flame to catch the wick, while we stretched up, and were under the watchful eyes of the early arrivals. One such regular early arriver was our grandfather, “Pop” Clifford, who after observing our endeavours over a period of months, asked us “Why don’t you just light the wick with a match?” This had not been considered by us, because this was the way we were trained to do it. We considered adopting his suggestion, but after the six candle incident involving Sister Mary Boniface we were loth to proceed, fearing, validly or not, opposition from Fr McDermott in the form of a lecture on match wastage. 

Finger Clicking as a prime Means of Communication 

A perennial practice of Fr McDermott was that of giving direction during mass or benediction by clicking his fingers. This would be done in one of three ways:-

(a) A simple click to indicate it was time to start something. A prime example of this was his clicking from his sacristy to us in the other sacristy as advice it was time for mass or benediction to commence.

(b) Clicking, followed by some non-verbal directional advice (normally pointing, but sometimes nodding in a specific direction) when one was expected to know what was to be achieved.

(c) Clicking, followed by some verbal instruction.

In respect of (a), in reality the clicking was unnecessary for the start of mass, in that whilst we were vigilant for the clicking, experience showed that immediately prior to it we would hear Fr McDermott emit a loud “aaah”. We assessed this signified either his last intake of a cigarette before mass, or perhaps it was simply his way of collecting his thoughts before beginning.  


Notwithstanding his frugality in other areas, Fr McDermott was generous with the altar boys, and would, almost without fail, pay each server for weekly and Sunday mass duties (though for some reason, not for benediction). He had no obligation to pay us of course, and I have spoken with servers from other parishes who advise that either (a) they enjoyed no such stipend at all, or (b) certainly not of the magnitude, frequency and regularity we did.

A challenge for us was to identify his basis for the amounts given, but over time gave up. For weekday masses he would usually give each boy either one shilling or two shillings.  Sometimes, however, he gave one shilling and six pence. On Sundays we were usually given two shillings, though occasionally two shillings and sixpence was given, and on once memorable occasion, three shillings. Alternatively, I recall one Sunday when I was given only one shilling and sixpence.

There were three masses on Sunday – 6 a.m., 7 a.m., and 9 a.m. There was no variation if a boy served one or two masses – there was only one payment. Similarly, it made no difference if there were one, two, or three servers. It needs to be said that the two early Sunday masses were much favoured by all boys; this was for the simple reason that Fr McDermott usually said those masses, and a visiting priest (from Villanova College, Coorparoo) took the 9 a.m. mass, and no stipend was forthcoming.             

Distractions during Mass – the Bane and Peril of Every Altar Boy 

It was the practice at St. Benedict’s during the Sunday mass sermon that the altar boys would be seated on the steps within the altar area. Simply, this entailed turning around where you knelt and sat facing the congregation. We noted early on that our natural field of vision was bisected by the altar rail.  The effect of this was that if one lowered one’s head even a little, then the congregation was lost from view – or as we termed it, invisible. 

I would be less than forthright if I did not admit that during these our formative years, and particularly if the mass happened to be the second one of the morning at which one served, my brothers and I found these dissertations less than stimulating. To relieve ennui the Campbells devised a simple game. All we had to do was lower our heads to below the alter railing, and then very slowly bring them up so that eventually heads of the congregation came into view. In this way we were able to identify who was first in view (the “tallest head” as we termed it).  Actually this boiled down to which lady wore the “highest hat”. In those days elaborate headgear was worn to mass by ladies as a matter of course – and a resplendent selection, frequently festooned with something floral, was on view each Sunday at East Brisbane.

(I digress; women were required to have some form of head covering whenever they entered the church. This could be anything and I recall observing the ladies of the parish, when coming for a quick “visitation”, placing a handkerchief on the head before entering the portals. For some reason we boys found this quaint, and at one early point thought that to ignore this practice was a sin. As we got older we came to accept it simply as a sign of respect.

Sometimes it occurred that a lady parishioner would display a handkerchief or the like at mass, even Sunday mass.  This was frowned on by some of the congregation, and disapproval was evident on the faces of some, especially if the lady “paraded” for communion and thus was on view. On the other hand, there was no indication of any priest displaying exception to the practice.

Fr McDermott was not averse to passing other comment from the pulpit on mode of dress for mass, however, and I recall his deprecating such lascivious habits as the wearing of dresses without sleeves. Similarly, he encouraged the best in pedal deportment by opposing the wearing of sandals.)     

To return to the subject of our game; one may suggest that ladies’ headgear represented an unfair advantage to them; moreover, one may opine that being seated closer to the front of the church also gave those parishioners an unfair benefit. However, I hasten to advise that the object was simply to see who amongst us could spot the tallest the quicker or quickest. Any other rules or regulations were never fully ratified, and further, you would be surprised at the frequency that someone towards the rear of the church was the tallest. This says a lot for the milliners of Brisbane.  

Once you identified what you thought was the “tallest head”, the task was to communicate this to the other participant(s). A simple nod in the direction of a head usually sufficed.

Ultimately, this part of the game was to be my downfall.

Somehow, on one memorable Sunday, Fr McDermott discerned that something was afoot. I do not suggest he had stumbled on the specifics of what we, or rather, I was doing but he must have observed enough to promote an investigation immediately after mass. Present at this inquisition were myself and Cliff.

I have always admired his approach on that occasion. It was simple – he said to me “Campbell, what was today’s sermon about?”

I of course was bereft of any generic or specific subject matter, and it was pointless looking to Cliff for help. I thought I would seek refuge in the short-priced favourite, “Father, you talked about God.”

My reply was obviously far from satisfactory, and Fr McDermott gritted his teeth and asked “What things about God?”

Again my reply was poor: “Holy things”.

Remarkably, he reacted with moderate anger only, but he did lecture us on the importance of learning from the Gospels. He still paid us for this Sunday Mass, as was his practice, but we cannot recall the amount. However, the impact of this incident caused us to abandon this pastime immediately – except, of course, when another priest said Sunday mass.

Nuptial Mass – a Lucrative Highlight for Any Altar Boy, Except…….

Occasionally there occurred a marriage in the parish. These were splendid occasions and normally comprised a Nuptial Mass. They always took place at 9 a.m. on Saturday, and seemed to be summer events.

In those days the bride and groom had to abstain from food and drink (except water) from midnight the night before, so that they might take communion. As a result, the bride, particularly, always appeared somewhat emaciated and I always felt for them. (In these enlightened times of course no such fasting is required.)  Brides were always resplendent in white gowns with trains. The grooms seemed to wear either a brown or blue suit.

I have spoken earlier of the practice that females were not allowed inside the altar, except to do servile work. The one exception to this occurred during nuptial mass when both the bride and groom heard mass from a position inside the altar – one on each side: the groom on the right as one viewed the altar from the congregation, and the bride on the left, as occurs nowadays.

For our first nuptial mass, it fell to me to look after the bride and Cliff to look after the groom. This arrangement was to promote almost the direst of consequences. My normal position was to kneel behind the bride and to the left. At a certain point in the mass, just before communion, the bride and the groom moved up the stairs to kneel and take the host. Unfortunately, in so doing, the cheat sheet somehow became entangled in the bride’s train. This presented me with a dilemma: should I move forward and attempt to retrieve the document from within the train, or forget about it, with it being lost forever – “Mass litany? – what mass litany?”

I chose the former. I began to creep up the stairs, reached into the folds of the train, got hold of the sheet and yanked it out. Unbeknown to me, and regrettably, the train was actually some part of the bride’s headdress. The result of this manoeuvre was that this particular bride was the only one at St. Benedict’s to have suffered, albeit minor, whiplash.

Thankfully, the moment seemed to pass in a split second. Thankfully again, the bridal party had gifted us BEFORE the mass. Would you believe the princely sum of one pound each?

The matter of the cheat sheet retrieval was never referred to by anyone.     


Sunday evening Benediction was attended by the same, small clientele as weekday masses.  I always thought it theatrical, with the monstrance, the incense and the hymns, particularly “Tantum Ergo”.  Father McDermott always officiated.

Central to proceedings was the use of a two-piece metal chalice instrument, with a chain attachment for carrying and opening the apparatus, thus allowing the placing of incense inside. It was called a thurible, and after the incense was lit an altar boy kept it going.

This was achieved by swinging it from side to side so that the incense could have appropriate ventilation.  Some may not be surprised to learn that, in keeping with the spirit of the previously described “tallest-head” pastime, a competitive attitude pervaded amongst altar boys. Very simply it entailed who could swing the thurible in the highest arc.

One evening, I suppose inevitably, a catastrophe occurred. I was swinging the thurible in as wide an arc as possible, but forgot just how close I was to the sacristy wall.

Bang (that’s the apparatus striking the wall). Clang (that’s the chains). Splot (that’s the whole lot hitting the floor), and most disastrously, fizz. (That’s the lit incense falling out and beginning to burn the altar’s newish Axminster carpet.)

It was then a case, literally, of all hands to the pump, with my brother Cliff and I and Fr McDermott rushing to put out the fire with water. We managed to do this utilizing the taps in the priest’s sacristy, with a minimum of damage.

Fr McDermott conveyed without speaking that he was much displeased, and of course not unreasonably so, and Campbell awaited his vitriol with what surely would be a new high in vituperation.

That did not eventuate and we thought this was a ploy by letting me stew before the wrath. His only rebuke, when it did come, could only be described as mild, and I can only conclude he interpreted the incident as totally accidental and unfortunate, possibly reinforced by my remorse and trepidation over pending retribution. (What is particularly remarkable is that it was said he had a great fear of fire, and would accompany us outside after benediction to ensure the incense was doused.)

We never again played “the Highest Arc”.

Ornithological, Weather and Baby Fixations 

I have spoken of Fr McDermott’s possessing particular habits, foibles and eccentricities. These were much varied, but amongst his prime concerns during mass were:

(1) a dislike of bird life in the church and a refusal to accept their presence as inevitable,

(2) an aversion to any discernible movement of air within the altar area itself, and indeed the whole church,

(3) intolerance of any vocal displays during mass by babies or infants.

I will deal with these individually.

The Birds

Swallows and sparrows were in abundance at East Brisbane, and our church yard and accompanying environment had sufficient trees and the like to attract them. The church had a plethora of windows – narrow but high – running along each side. Thus, particularly in the summer months, we had the phenomenon of two or more birds chasing one another, usually around the church ceiling, and making noise.

St Benedict’s had, typically, a very high ceiling especially when viewed by an eight-year-old. It was about 30 feet high, but to me and my brothers it seemed like Mt Everest. The antics of these birds would get the better of Fr McDermott during mass, and he could instruct us to “chase them out”.  This was to be achieved as per previous briefings from him by:

(a) opening up fully all windows in the church that were not open or not fully open, 

(b) utilizing the candle lighter to chase the birds.  

The effect of these measures was, alas, doomed to failure. I recall the provision of more apertures, as well as providing an exit, facilitated the entry of more birds into the church. Secondly, the candle lighter was only about 5 feet long, and no matter how it was brandished, presented little or no impediment to the birds’ progress. Furthermore, if one was unlucky, there was the matter of the aforementioned overlong soutane to contend with. It was not conducive to any rapid movement beyond a brisk or deliberate walk.   (There was stumbling but no actual fall.)

Whilst our endeavours were obviously next to hopeless, from the altar, Fr McDermott, undaunted, would spur us on to greater effort. Mass was interrupted until he terminated our activities after either a singular lack of achievement or he was apparently satisfied with the most minimal of success.   

In later life, I met someone who revealed that he loved attending mass at St Benedict’s   and always hoped that a bird chasing episode would be incorporated in proceedings.

The Discernable Movement of Air and its Remedy. 

Winds prevailed at East Brisbane mostly during the months of July and August. The location of St Benedict’s on a hill did nothing to quell the presence. Fr McDermott’s aversion to any discernible movement of air was therefore most manifest during those months.

At each side of the altar was a large stained window about seven feet high and about six inches wide. They were manipulated by a sliding catch which was loosened with a wing nut, and then tightened when the window was in the selected position. These catches and wing nuts were always stiff, especially in winter. Such controls were also in place for the many similar windows which ran down each side of the church proper.  

During a mass and without warning Father McDermott would become annoyed, halt proceedings, and tell one or more of the servers to change the settings on one or more altar windows. This presented no insurmountable problem when we were directed to the church proper – “Close those windows on the left side of the church.”

However, Fr McDermott never seemed satisfied with the outcome of manoeuvres with the altar windows. For example, he would say, pointing to the left window “Close that one and open the other one.” Then shortly after, “Close both of them,” to be followed once we were back in position with “Open both of them.” Inevitably, it seemed, this would be followed by “Leave the left one open and close the right one.” And so on.

I have tried to picture how this must have looked to the congregation, and can only conclude it must have resembled a Marx brothers’ farce.

Vocal Displays by Babies or Infants

One particular 9 a.m. Sunday mass was remarkable for what took place, and its aftermath. I do not know what impacted upon Fr McDermott’s sensibilities that hot summer morning, except we did know that he regarded people who attended mass at this time as “lazy”, and much preferred parishioners to patronize the 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. masses.

The consecration is considered as central to the mass, with the bread and wine changing into the body and blood of Christ. On the day in question, a baby began to cry at that point.  Fr McDermott took it for a time, but eventually ceased proceedings, turned around and said “Keep that baby quiet!” He added a few words stressing the importance of concentration at the consecration.

The mass continued but, needless to say, his comments had no affect, and he again stopped and turned to the congregation and with hands on hips said “I’ll bet that’s a girl!”

My recollection is that at this point there was no discernible reaction for the congregation, except that the child’s mother did take the child to the front door of the church.

One wonders in these enlightened times what tumultuous sequels there would have been to Fr McDermott’s utterances. I was aware that the child’s father did visit Fr McDermott in the sacristy after mass and “a conversation occurred”. Its contents remain unknown, but it was later rumoured the matter reached the ears of the Archbishop and Fr McDermott was counselled, but nothing emerged to confirm this.

Such fixations as these were born, I suspect, of a belief that the mass was the most important vehicle of adoration, and any distraction was to be avoided. It was generally accepted that Fr McDermott did not have a great deal of time for the female of the species, and whilst his behavior in respect of the baby crying was inexcusable, I believe it resulted primarily from this profound fervour for the mass, and particularly the consecration, rather than any deep-seated misogyny . One may argue that his resolution strategies prompted more diversion than the offending incidents themselves, but our role was not to query.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Altar Boy. 

Weekday 6 a.m. masses, especially in winter, could be a rather drab affair. They were patronized by some ten to twenty persons only – all regulars and almost all women, as they say, of “a certain age”, plus some nuns.

On one such weekday, Cliff and I arrived as usual, opened up and prepared.  By five minutes to six there was no sign of Father McDermott. 6 a.m. came and passed – no appearance. At ten minutes past six we decided that I would attempt to locate the good father and resolve what was fast becoming, in our minds anyway, a crisis.

Therefore, in full regalia but being less than intrepid, I ventured outside the sacristy, down the stairs, across the girls’ netball court, past the toilet block, down the large concrete steps (“the fort”), across the “big boys’’’ playground, through the large gate to the presbytery, down the side of the residence, around the back and up some stairs to a stable door.  I knocked after composing myself.

No response.

I knocked again, and eventually the top half of the stable door was swung open, and there was Fr McDermott, surrounded by a pungent odour I now recognize as whisky-derived.

Initially he did not see me as I was so small, but eventually he spied me and I began to address the problem at hand, but not in any loquacious or really cogent manner.

“Father, I’ve come from the um, church, and um, the people are there, and um, I’m wondering what time mass will begin?”

He seemed to consider the matter briefly and then exhorted “There will be no mass today!” simultaneously slamming the door.

I was left standing there wondering what to do. In the end I made the long way back to the altar boys’ sacristy. “He’s not coming,” I said to Cliff. We decided I would have to inform the congregation. Therefore, at eight years of age I proceeded halfway along the altar, faced the congregation, and began my first ever public address. 

 It went something like this: “Well, um, I’ve been down and seen Fr McDermott, and …..and …….. there won’t be a mass today.”

The affect of this address on the congregation still resides with me.


I stood rigid and resolved to speak again: “Well, as I say, I’ve seen Father, and there will be no mass today.”

The result: nothing.

After what seemed an eternity, and as I continued to stand in place, an elderly woman, unknown to me but to whom I have been forever grateful, shuffled up and slowly made for the door.

With that, the remainder of the congregation, as if on cue, replicated her actions, and the church was eventually left bare, save for me still standing there as if riveted to the spot.

(There were never any known repercussions to these events. Certainly Father McDermott never referred to it. In my experience and to my knowledge, he never again missed mass.)       


This then is an evocation of the life of an adolescent altar boy in a Brisbane Catholic parish in the 1950s. Hopefully the insight will serve in some small way to enlighten later generations of what life was like for us.

Some may say my brothers and I were irreverent, and at times we were, but we never set out to be “sinful” or really disrespectful. When one participates in so many masses, and over a brief period like a week, things can become facile and repetitious, especially for such young people. In the environment we served I suggest it was the impetuosity of youth and a concatenation with the Australian penchant for irreverence that promoted a want for distraction.  So be it.

We never regretted our time as altar boys and regarded the experience largely as a learning adventure. The catalyst in that respect was Fr McDermott himself, who sought to engender an intellectual curiosity in us, and an awareness that there is much to be known, and for that we were grateful, especially as we got older. Of course, exposure to some elements of his personality was a baptism of fire, but who knows what he had endured before coming to us.  We Campbell boys always thought fondly of him, and appreciated his great generosity towards us; by this I do not refer simply to regular monetary gifts for serving, but to his willingness of spirit in taking time for us all.   

Much has been said of grossly improper actions of some priests of these and later times, but at no time did Fr McDermott act with us with anything other than the utmost propriety. Unfortunately we live in a generation such that I have felt the need to include this disclaimer, and that is sad.

What is sadder is that Fr McDermott ultimately perished in a fire at the presbytery in 1963. It was resolved that he fell asleep whilst smoking or a fallen butt started the fire, and this news caused us to contemplate what a lonely existence he must have had.     

Cliff and I left St Benedict’s and altar boy service in 1955 for Villanova College, Coorparoo initially, and then to St. Laurence’s, South Brisbane. Bernie joined us there from 1960, but tragically passed away in Brisbane in June 1962 after a long battle with hepatitis.

Eventually the school closed and the remaining nuns relocated, with masses becoming part of what is known as a “cluster” with surrounding parishes; such is the dearth of priests.

My own view is that the church should have priests who may marry, and certainly there should be female priests. Whilst that is another story, in contemplating the imprint Fr McDermott left on us, the question presents itself: what different outcomes may have occurred in such novel circumstances?