Monday, October 31, 2011

A Halloween Story From The Seventies

This is just perfect for a Catholic Halloween.  Federico Fellini has outdone himself.

Back in my wild and crazy youth I occasionally bent over backwards to prove it.  Usually I had help which only served to make me think what I was about to do was actually not wild and crazy.  Some of that help came in a liquid form.  Anyway, one Halloween a friend and I decided to do Halloween in a big way.  The downtown bars were each holding costume parties and we decided no one but us should win.  My friend happened to be a young priest with keys to a closet full of pre Vatican II vestments, including copes and chasubles full of brocade, embroidery, and gold thread.  It was a costume seeking junkies dream come true.  Especially if the costume junky was looking for the perfect costume to transform herself into Pope Joan.  Which of course I did. Fellini would have been proud.

My friend, the priest, did his best to transform himself into a Borgia Pope.  I forget which one, but who ever it was, that Pope loved lace,  owned a ton of jewelry, used a gallon of perfume and was color blind.  We were quite the sight walking down the main drag with our utterly real costumes, stomping the ground with our utterly real crosiers. We won a lot of costume contests and had a very good time.  

As the night wore one I realized all this clerical regalia was really hot and really heavy, and that Pope Joan could easily have had  a baby underneath it all with no one the wiser.  I think at one point some inebriated person actually asked where my baby was hidden.  Of course I took appropriate offense but so did someone else. Someone who did not think our costuming was at all funny or appropriate, but in fact it was quite sacrilegious.  This person turned us into the bishop.  Party poop.  

I personally did not have to meet with the real Bishop because I was not personally in possession of the key to the vestry. My friend was not so lucky.  Both of us got stuck with a truly monstrous dry cleaning bill which irritated us because we had been ever so careful not to get anything dirty.  We also got to spend the next four weekends driving the Mission circuit, he saying Mass and me providing the music. So much for my week end social life.  

I can remember during one of these Mission weekends we were trying to determine if the whole Halloween thing had been worth it.  We pretty much decided it had been -except for the dry cleaning bill--because we truly thought those vestments and the kind of Church they represented were a thing of the past, but that the vestments were beautiful enough that they deserved one last hurrah amongst the people before they were permanently hidden away in a storage closet.  We also thought we might actually see a Pope Joan in our lifetime.  Turns out we were wrong.  Not just about Pope Joan or the vestments, but about what was really stored in those clerical closets.  That hidden reality turned out to be a very very real horror story for too many Catholic children.  In the meantime it's back to lace, jewelry, perfume, and gold embroidery and there is no way in the world I would ever try that stunt again.  Instead of dry cleaning bill I'd probably wind up with community service of a different sort.


  1. Great story !! Wonderful imagery.

  2. The Fellini video really brings back memories. How time and experience color my reaction now. I really did not have enough life experience to appreciate his genius back then.

    In 1972, the same year as "Fellini's Roma" Ingmar Bergman released "Cries and Whispers" and Woody Allen had a hit with "Everything you always wanted to know about sex* (But were afraid to ask)". The St. Mike's student union would screen their movies which provoked a lot of discussion. No objections from clergy, rather it was seen as a learning opportunity.

    It was a very exciting time to be in Toronto if you loved movies. The Toronto International Film Festival started a few years later. Here's a link to "Da Duva" a short parody of the dour Bergman films that were so underground hits at the time. (It was Madeline Khan's first screen appearance.) The all too arty, all too serious audience exploded with laughter when they knew they had been had because they knew Bergman.

    I associate 1973's "The Exorcist" with Halloween. We talked all night with our resident house adviser, a priest, about exorcism.

    Fellini I associate with Mardi Gras or Carnival.

    As a bonus here's the reluctant sperm, Woody, in all his anxiety just before launch. Around 5:00 you can see who was turning up the guilt reflex after knocking out the conscience and tying him to a chair.


  3. Part Deux (I apologize in advance for some hurtful language, but it has a purpose. Please read to the end.)

    Thinking of my days in residence (dormitory) reminds me of some other stories I associate with Halloween.

    There were about 40 young men in my "house". A small group, perhaps half a dozen, one might identify as effeminate or gay. A person's sexuality was a tightly guarded secret in those days.

    Halloween was a great occasion for one flamboyant young man. He smuggled a gas burner into his room (a huge violation of policy) and would spend the afternoon preparing a party dressed in a nun's habit. He was obsessed with nuns habits and constantly borrowed the illustrated book of nuns (I am sure that is not the name of the book.) He would fuss about preparing Crepes Suzette and drink Benedictine, the not-so-secret ingredient in his recipe. We would all get in the conspiratorial spirit of the thing. I have never had better Crepes Suzettes! Eventually we would all head off to other parties or a dance in full costume. One Halloween some of the other guys said "Come on down to the St. Charles Tavern to see the fags." Canadian law at the time prohibited men from cross dressing except on Halloween. It was a drag queen show! Cops had to clear the hundreds of gawkers from Yonge St. to let the taxis deliver the Dolls in all their feathery finery. Then, to our shame some started pelting eggs. It was the first time I had witnessed such hate.

    About 2:00 AM on a Saturday a few weeks later I was awakened from a deep sleep. There was an emergency, could I help someone who needed first aid? I ran down the hall to the room of a boy whose roommate decided to return that night instead of taking a bus home as planned. We got him just in time. The ambulance crew arrived shortly afterward. As I write this I don't remember how I got to the hospital but I know I stayed in the emergency room with him all night long. After dawn the priest who was Director of the Men's Residence was located and contacted. He arrived promptly to take care of the details that I could not. (Payment was not an issue because we have public health care.) I just didn't have any information about his family or who else to call. Others were working on that part of the problem.

    Father X. invited me to breakfast at a fancy restaurant across from the hospital. We both knew it had been a suicide attempt. I had seen the evidence he intended to leave for his mother. Father X, a big man who was always immaculately groomed suggested Eggs Benedict so we might contemplate what had happened.

    Our friend in the recovery room was not coping with his homosexuality. He wasn't one of the half dozen we thought might be gay. In those days there wasn't any support. That point was made clear that spring when another young man on campus committed suicide at exam time. But I did not know it at the time. Twenty five years later another friend told me the truth about the unexpected death of a 20 year old.

    I will always admire and remember Father's kindness and how he used his discretion to protect the young man's privacy.

    We left the restaurant, mid morning. I didn't realize I had been barefoot in the snow until that moment. I must have looked like a homeless person in a t-shirt and sweatpants. The waiters, to their credit did not bat an eye.

    And to this day I have never been able to contemplate another serving of Eggs Benedict.


  4. Wow, I do know where you are coming from with you stories. Every thing was so closeted back then and Halloween was a time to come out. I can vividly remember one gay seminarian who did the exact same thing you describe in your story. He died early of a virulent auto immune disease, which is another form of attack against the self.

    We had a real class for credit in the dour Bergman films which is why I knew who Max Von Sydow was in the Exorcist. Fr Marin was the same kind of character really. Interestingly I watched The Exorcist last night and still had the same impression. I can remember when the movie first came out we had a German priest on campus who looked very much like Fr Marin. He would bum car rides from me to get to and from his various self appointed rounds and one time he told me the Exorcist was not not something I should see. Of course when I saw the movie I thought it was the Von Sydow character he didn't want me to see. Turns out my taciturn priest buddy was the diocesan exorcist. Sometimes real life is as really weird as movie life. Happy Halloween.

  5. Post script.

    It just sickens p2p when I think about all the young men back then who we suspected were gay and then wound up attending their funerals. There will be a price to pay for that. But you are right, Halloween was the one day they could be who they were and not pay the same kind of price they would on any other day.

    Oh God, why did we think it was OK to be themselves one day of the year and not the rest.
    Thank God, things are changing because for so many of them, things did not get better.

  6. Colleen,

    Thank you for your blog. Your topics are always interesting and often touch me deeply. These were bittersweet memories I shared under the cover of anonymity.

    I did a bit of browsing and found a video on this page of a magazine/website that serves the Toronto gay community. I had remembered correctly.

    Happy Halloween, All Saints and All Souls.