I lost a childhood friend on Jan. 13. His name was Allen Shepard. Many of you may have met him since he was the paint expert at Connolly’s Do It Best Hardware on South Calhoun Street. And if you did meet him you would know he was a kind, gentle soul. To paraphrase Paul Simon, he was my “long lost pal” and “You Can Call (Him) Al.”

Although small in stature Al was the big brother I never had. Together, we learned to play carroms, checkers and chess. We even developed our own “Morris Code” to signal each other by flashlight through our bedroom windows from homes on different streets separated by an alley in between. Al taught me to box, wrestle, and much to my Dad’s dismay, how to drive.

Al was two grades above me at Cathedral Elementary School in downtown Fort Wayne. He helped me learn my Latin as I became an altar boy — server or acolyte if you will — at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Back then the Catholic Mass was in Latin and the server represented the congregation, reciting prayers (in Latin) in answer to the priest celebrant of the Mass.

I’m thinking about this now in particular since the Season of Lent will be ending for several prominent religious denominations prior to Easter Sunday on April 12. Some of these same religions including Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches used incense during Lenten religious services for the past month and may also use it during the Easter Season. And that reminds me of three rather humorous incidents that happened to me involving the use of incense. Please bear with me as we provide some background about what some reverentially call “holy smoke.”

The use of incense in religious worship predates Christianity by thousands of years. The word “incense” is derived from the Latin incendere, which means “to burn.” It is commonly used as a noun to describe aromatic matter that releases fragrant smoke when ignited, to describe the smoke itself and as a verb to describe the process of distributing the smoke.

Incense is made from resins and gums of specific plants, which when burned, produce fragrant smoke. Historically, just about every culture has used it for medicinal and spiritual purposes. Native Americans, for instance, used it in healing and purification rituals. Documented evidence also indicates that incense, especially frankincense, was an important trade product for 1,500 years among ancient Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians and Romans. Reportedly, they valued it more than gold and silver.

The censor, also known as the thurible, holds a piece of burning charcoal. The boat (presumably named as such because many vessels are shaped like a boat) holds the incense before it is placed in the censor by the celebrant or minister. The scent and sight of ascending clouds of smoke is supposed to alert the congregants of God’s presence, help put them in contact with God and send their prayers up to heaven.

After Al and others helped me learn acolyte duties for the Mass I was assigned to serve at a funeral. That’s panic-Ville for an eight-year-old youngster. I was given the boat and told to open the lid after the funeral Mass only when the priest was about to incense the earthly remains of the decedent (in a closed casket, thankfully). Oh my gosh! All those people watching and some were crying! But Al, who was holding the censor, said not to worry because he would tell me when it was my time. And he did just that, elbowing me and whispering, “Flip your lid!” It was all I could do not to laugh out loud. But I’m sure the mourners saw me grinning and trying to stifle a laugh.

For a subsequent funeral I was put in charge of the censor. Admittedly, I didn’t watch Al closely enough because instead of holding the vessel by its chain, I placed it in the palm of my left hand. As the old Monsignor slowly spooned incense onto the red-hot charcoal I suddenly yelled “Ouch!” and dropped the censor from my burning hand. It hit the floor in a shower of sparks as the horrified clergy and congregation looked on. No one was laughing, especially me!

The final incident happened many years later when our family attended a Holy Week liturgy. Our youngest child, Christy, was still in preschool. As the server passed by our pew swinging the censor back-and-forth, she asked, “What’s that?” My wife, Marty quickly shushed her and whispered, “I’ll tell you later!” That didn’t satisfy our precocious daughter. She demanded, “What is that!” Again, my wife whispered, “Tell you later!” By now everyone around us was aware of what was happening. Finally, Christy said out loud, “What is that!” Marty then said emphatically, “Incense!” To which Christy replied astonishingly, “Insects?!”

The liturgy was well underway before the snickering subsided. Al would have enjoyed that one!

Vince LaBarbera
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Vince LaBarbera

Vince is a Fort Wayne native. He earned a master of science degree in journalism and advertising from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. LaBarbera is retired but continues to enjoy freelance writing and serving the Radio Reading Service of the Allen County Public Library. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer