Once an altar server, always an altar server.
That’s the guiding principle for three Steuben County octogenarians who are familiar presences alongside their priests: Ralph Vona at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Addison; Bob Young at St. Joseph, Campbell; and Gene Tunney at All Saints, Corning/Painted Post.
All three men have reacquired altar-serving duties in adulthood after faithfully filling the role as youngsters. And, since they also served in the United States Army near the end of World War II, you’d expect nothing less than strong commitments from this trio.
"I have always been either volunteering or trying to help somebody if I could. (Altar serving) was, for some reason, very natural to me, I guess," said Young, a past Grand Knight for Knights of Columbus Corning Council 281.
"I just feel that it’s an honor for me to serve — when you can serve the priest, who is a representative of Jesus Christ," Tunney added.
For Vona’s part, his commitment to altar serving is basic: "I don’t know, I like to help," he said, adding that he’s also a sacristan and extraordinary minister of holy Communion.
Vona, who will turn 85 in January, is the trio’s senior member. He began altar-serving at age 7 — "right after my first Communion. The nuns were the ones who trained me," he said. Vona recalled that he and fellow altar servers "used to practically kill each other to get assigned to the funeral Masses. Not only did it get us out of school, but occasionally the family would give us a quarter."
Vona regularly altar served into high school, then did spot duty at Masses while in the Army. Altar serving wasn’t a part of his 37 years as a local dentist, but two years ago he was asked by Father Patrick Connor, pastor of St. Catherine of Siena, to serve a funeral Mass. That started the ball rolling again.
"Now I sort of pinch-hit," Vona said, noting that he serves at many funerals and steps in for other liturgies when scheduled altar servers don’t show up.
Young, 84, began altar serving as a 6-year-old and kept that going until entering the Army. Even then he was quite active, serving in various parts of Europe. In fact, he assisted a priest "who would have Mass on the front of his Jeep," he noted.
Back home, Young was a substitute altar server for many years. He was pressed back into regular service in 1990 after doing an impromptu turn at a Stations of the Cross helping Father Gerald O’Connor, retired pastor of St. Joseph Parish. Father O’Connor subsequently inquired if Young could serve Saturday-evening Masses due to a lack of young altar servers.
"I said, ‘I haven’t (served) for a couple of years, but I can.’ And he said, ‘Well, what are we waiting for?" Young recalled. So Young started helping on Saturdays, and has glued himself to that time slot ever since.
"I don’t think I’ve missed once (Saturday) since I started," he said, adding that he’s now training a young altar boy.
Tunney, who will turn 83 in February, altar served in fourth grade through high school. After taking up the practice again as an adult, he has served daily Mass and funeral liturgies at all of the All Saints worship sites: St. Mary, St. Vincent de Paul and the now-closed St. Patrick, all in Corning; and Immaculate Heart of Mary in Painted Post.
Despite a lapse of many years before returning to altar serving, Tunney said he had no problem remembering his duties.
"It’s like riding a bike. It becomes natural," Tunney said, although he did note a few post-Vatican II liturgical differences between childhood and adulthood: In addition to Masses formerly being recited in Latin, "you knelt a lot of the time. And, of course, you had the old altar rail," he said.
Vona, meanwhile, observed another evolution — the addition of females in a role that was formerly performed by males only.
"We don’t have any altar boys (at St. Catherine of Siena)," he said. "They’re all altar girls, and they’re fairly young."
Vona added that he implores younger altar servers to take their roles as seriously as he does, by being reverent on the altar and faithful to their scheduled times.
"If I ever missed my altar-serving assignments, my mother would have skinned me alive," he said with a laugh.