For 6 a.m. mass altar boys had to be there 30 minutes earlier to give us time to slip into our brightly-coloured robes - an elderly nun was always at hand to assist us with the crispy-clean and starched garments which were already laid out in front of us. The Priest would then inspect us closely, straightening out this collar, tugging at that cummerbund and even running his fingers through our hair should he find it too dishevelled. Candles had to be lit, bells checked, the incense and the Holy water had to be restocked, and when the organist played his tune we were prepared and ready to march into the packed Church, the Priest sprinkled Holy water over the congregation and I swayed the chain holding the incense back and forth sending plumes of lovely smelling smoke curling up towards the high Cathedrals ceiling - I loved all this pomp and ceremony, the smell of the incense, the ringing of the bells, but mostly I loved the hot glass of Nespray milk and thick jam sandwiches that we were given as a reward back at school for serving at early mass.
Come rain or shine I was up before the crack of dawn wading my way through mist-covered streets and dark alleyways, through the icy frost, over the biting cold tarmac, concrete, and frosty grass towards our great big Cathedral with its awe-inspiring stained-glass windows - windows with the most heavenly paintings on its glass, deep blue, green, yellow, purple colours all dancing together to create figures of angels and babies and mothers all lying about, arms outstretched to the heavens and towards each other, longing and loving looks in their eyes. Some were pictures of Jesus, tall, blue-eyed, straight, blond hair, walking with a semi-circle over his head to represent a halo, a flock of sheep or lamb following meekly behind him, of Adam and Eve, some were pictures of his mom and dad, Mary and Joseph with their new-born baby on a bale of hay in the manger, three wise men to one side bearing gifts. The rest of the chapel was made out of wood with a straight long red cushion between every bench for genuflecting.
A lot of negative publicity surrounds the Catholic Church, a lot of it well-deserved, but for most of us, those old German nuns were our salvation – I remember the many Christmas parties those nuns held for us, parties where we had our names called one-by-one to receive the only Christmas presents we’d ever get, and sometimes we’d have a gift-hamper basket filled with delicious creamy white cheese, biscuits, sweets and chocolates to take home, we’d sing Christmas carols, run around playing with our new toys and for a while, be the happiest little kids on earth. I remember choir practice at St Joseph’s School in Umtata where I heard the most memorable voices (some being memorable for the wrong reasons), the concert productions and all the interesting times we spent practicing, and one year we had pots and pots full of bratwurst sausages (which as always) we wolfed down good and proper adequately satisfying our ravenous youthful appetites, confession to the Priest was compulsory and frequent.
In short, most Nuns and Priests made a positive and lasting difference to many of us, they took care of us, just a shame on those who abuse their positions.
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