The following essay was inspired by an assignment for my English 404, Creative Nonfiction class: My Childhood in a Cult by Guinevere Turner

Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay

I was kneeling in the pew section reserved for the high school sophomores surrounded by the ostentatious glory of Our Lady of Mount Carmel at Saint Albert’s Junior Seminary dressed in my Sunday best, a black suit, white shirt, black tie, black shoes, my black hair oily from too much pomade, parted on the right with a slight wave of hair on the left rolled back like a small pompadour, a style popular in 1964 with Puerto Rican-Dominicans. I prayed for forgiveness for all the impure thoughts I had granted myself during the Easter break when I slow danced with a brown-skinned Puerto Rican girl in her tight pants in the painted blue apartment with the plastic-covered sofa and Puerto Rican flag draped alongside the picture of Jesus with his red heart glowing in 3D with no witnesses to the carnal thoughts floating between us as I pressed my body against hers. The unexpected physical reactions (I had never been this close to a female before) flowed through my fifteen-year-old virgin groin. I was embarrassed, joyful, and unable to process what I should do next. I mean, I was studying to be a priest. I had told myself that this feeling flowing through me was corrupt.

Now, kneeling in the seminary chapel a week after my return from the Easter break, I prayed for direction seeking it inside the marble altar underneath the gold crucifix, knowing that this would be my last day at Saint Albert’s. I would blame it on finding my hormones because I met a girl, but I knew the real reason. The girl was a cover story. In my heart and soul, the truth was that I could no longer tolerate being beaten down by my fellow seminarians into an angry, confused, and prophetically anti-catholic refugee from the hypocrisy of Catholicism and religion. I told myself that if this is what they accept as Catholicism while teaching peace and love, then forget it.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When I was ten years old, as I was praying during mass while performing my duties as an altar boy in the basement church named St. Rita of Cascia, kneeling before the raised altar, the gold cross hanging above it, the smell of incense wafting around me, the Irish priest draped in his gold and white silk vestments, the strong urge of spirit enveloping me. I decided that I, too, was going to be a priest. This Puerto Rican-Dominican boy would make his parents proud as they would be able to share with the rest of the clan that their prayers were answered, their faith in their god, and the saints and blessings of the heaven above would be certified. A son as a priest would be their reward for all their hard work and religious servitude.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: What does a ten-year-old boy know about making a life-defining decision to be a priest? Well. I would point to my cousin, who entered a convent at a young age (in her teens) and became a catholic nun (although she left at some point to marry a Jewish man and move to Florida). I saw her dedication to serving our shared religion as a sign that, well, in the fifties, was proof that we could all be part of the all-powerful Catholic Church during a time when the majority of protestant America looked on Catholics as servants of the Pope in Rome. Catholics were a threat to America, they believed. The nation was founded to be controlled by the WASP establishment and southern Christians (Yes, that was a thing in America).

We didn’t care. In our neighborhood, the Italian and Irish kids were all Catholics. Most of the Puerto Ricans were Catholics. The Dominicans were another matter (they were Protestants), but my mother converted to Catholicism to marry my father, so all was right with the world. There were some Black Catholics, but most were Protestants. All that mattered was that we were Catholics and willing to die for our faith because, well, we were the only true religion as defined by the Pope of Rome and the priests who performed the sacred rituals of the sacraments and the nuns who taught us the word from the religious holy catechism which we swore to memorize until it was a part of every day, every moment consciousness.

At the age of thirteen, I entered Saint Albert’s Junior Seminary in Middletown, New York, seventy-two miles northwest of Bronx, New York, in the most rural area of the state full of dairy farms. The first four years were equivalent to any high school except in this isolated all-boys school, your entire purpose for being was to be trained in the fine arts of catholic dogma and practices so that one day you would go on to college and the novitiate and priesthood where you would then be dispersed all around the world to minister to the young, the old, the sick, the weak, the gullible, in the hope that you will convert millions of people to Catholicism and devotion to the pope in Rome.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Mass every day. Religious study every day. Study hall. Meditation. Quiet time. Praying time. No asking too many questions time. But there was time to question who was this thirteen-year-old from the ghetto (I’m not sure I would call it a ghetto in 1962) who seemed to appear a little darker than the rest of the boys, some of whom asked, what the hell are you doing here with the rest of us friendly white people. They didn’t wait for an answer. All that mattered was that they were white, and this boy (meaning me) from the South Bronx wasn’t white. And they let me know it.

For nearly the first two years of high school, I tried to be just one of everyone. Despite being called Pancho (another story) and a pejorative word used against Puerto Ricans, which I refuse to dignify now by repeating it on paper, I concluded in my second year that I didn’t need to suffer quietly at the hands of young people that I was convinced was no better than me. At the dawn of the Civil Rights era in America, the March on Washington, and the terror of southern brutality against Freedom Riders captured by television, I decided that I didn’t have to put up with this minor in comparison bullshit.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

It took me years to recover from the PTSD (we didn’t know what that meant back then) but not before I turned to the religion of drugs in the sixties, man. You escape from one cult of immersion in fantasy to another cult of immersion in another fantasy. It was all the same. Genuflect before some imaginary power you think is higher than you in search of an answer to escape the real world around you, and all you end up with is emptiness because, in the end, what you must only believe in to make it through the day is yourself. Brain. Knowledge. Wisdom. And the faith that you will know how to use it to escape the mumbo jumbo of a cult following dogma and service to the invisible fantasy they call a god to make it through today.

Author: Antonio Pedro Ruiz

Antonio Ruiz is an ex-junkie-alcoholic, former seminarian, one-time radio host-producer, past community organizer, continuing to be a media advocate, retired television reporter, ex-commission executive director, once a street vendor of jewelry and gloves, waitron (waiter to you), a former bartender who drank too much on the job, an ex-motorcycle courier who learned to ride a bike just for the job, ex-airport shuttle driver, former Entertainment news director-producer, the best time of my life, one-time live TV events red carpet producer-executive producer, ex-small business consultant, ex-youth media and journalism mentor, and now a college student who also has been married three times (thirds the charm), and just couldn't help living with two other women because well, that's part of my story.

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