There were no Catholics in our town before JFK. If there were, none of the kids in my gang knew about them. It was rumored that they had a church in town somewhere behind the local A & P, but I never found it. I was already in my teens before I saw my first real life Catholic. He didn't look much different than me, but my mother acted like I had spoken to the anti-Christ himself!
As a kid growing up in the south in the early '60s, our church was the spiritual center of our universe. My family was all Southern Baptists, as were most of my friends. A few acquaintances of mine went to the Methodist Church and one to a Church of God. We just didn't know any Catholics and probably would've been afraid of them if one had showed up on our door step.
I don't think they were really hiding; it's just that no one paid them any attention. That all changed when John F. Kennedy became President of the United States of America! My Sunday School teacher at that time, speaking for many in the south, declared in a fearful voice that the 1960 presidential race could mean the end to Christianity as we knew it! There was a catholic running for that high office and as far as she was concerned, he was the devil himself and she knew without a doubt that we would all go to hell if he were elected!
The Bible belt at that time was against anyone or anything that promised change. John F. Kennedy wasn't a Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ or even Pentecostal! He was an outsider and not to be trusted with the leadership of our country!
These sentiments belonged to many in the south during that decade and they weren't confined to Sunday school teachers. Social changes are often served on the same platter with fear of the unknown. A different wind was definitely blowing through our southern cotton fields.
With President Kennedy in the White House, attitudes in the south slowly began to change; not over night. There was civil unrest in many parts of the country, a war in Viet Nam and we began to find Catholics everywhere in our little town! In fact, folks we'd known for years were now proudly admitting to being Catholic! This was part of the change that was taking place throughout the country.
Most of the crowd I ran with, having been sheltered from anything that might have been considered social or spiritual advancement, soon found that our newly discovered Catholic friends were still the good folks they were before JFK! One of my pals at the time went to Mass every Sunday but I never knew that until after the John Kennedy was elected president.
Sadly in the south, President John F. Kennedy was blamed for every perceived difficulty that anyone faced at that time. While not through his first term as president, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas one bright November afternoon in 1963.
Everyone who was living at that time knows exactly where and what they were doing when they heard news of the shooting. I was working for a residential construction company at the time, carrying unused concrete blocks to the back of the house we were building, where they would be hauled to the next job.
We had a radio setting on a stack of brick and George Jones was singing when the music was interrupted by a somber voice telling us that President Kennedy had been shot an hour before in Texas.
I recall as vividly as if it were yesterday that there was a dozen laborers and brick masons working, including me, when the announcement was made. There was a moment of shocked silence and then a loud and raucous cheer went up from the laborers and brick masons working on the house.
"I hope the S.O.B. dies!" yelled one of them.
"They ought to give the guy who shot him a medal!" screamed another.
"It's about time someone had the guts to kill that S.O.B." shouted a guy with a shovel in his hands.
Those were a few of the nicer comments from a blue collar working crew in the south at the time. I've often wondered if President Kennedy had announced that he was a Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian, would he have sparked such outrage in the south. Maybe, maybe not. I guess I'll never know.