When Bryce McLanahan walked up the aisle of St. Joseph Cathedral to receive his award as one of the Altar Servers of the Year, it was the final steps in a unique journey for the Amherst teen. Although baptized in the Catholic Church, he grew up not attending regular Mass with his family. Instead, he forged his own spiritual path.
McLanahan, 18, attended St. Leo the Great School in Amherst from kindergarten before entering Cardinal O'Hara High School in Tonawanda. Both schools celebrate regular Masses for the students, but that was the extent of McLanahan's formation. His father is not Catholic and his mother, a nurse often works third shift at a nursing home, so Sunday morning Mass was not part of his upbringing. Neither were the sacraments, other than baptism.
When altar servers were requested at a school Mass, McLanahan volunteered, helping to distribute the Eucharist, even though he himself had not received his First Communion.
"When we were supposed to get our First Communion, I didn't really quite understand everything that goes with it," he said. "So, I felt I wasn't ready at the time. So, I didn't take it then."
"It's a testament to the kind of person he is to be up there, assisting the priest, and having to put your hands over your heart and not be able to accept until he went through the (instructional) process," said Jeanne Wantz, campus minister for Cardinal O'Hara High School. "I don't know how many kids would have done that."
Msgr. Leo McCarthy, chaplain at Cardinal O'Hara, saw no reason why the lad couldn't still help at the altar, but also encouraged him to learn about the Eucharist. At the end of his freshman year, McLanahan began taking instructions, then received First Communion and confirmation.
"I've been serving here ever since," he said. "I just enjoyed being able to help with the Mass and help teach about God."
He also volunteers every summer at the Vacation Bible School at St. Leo's.
"I like to help the kids learn about God and at the same time, they learn about life lessons in the videos they show. It's fun to help motivate them to believe," he said.
His parents supported him the whole time, allowing him to take things at his own pace. Instruction on the sacraments are usually given out at the parish, so the school did not get actively involved in McLanahan's journey other to give him guidance. Msgr. McCarthy served as a mentor to the boy.
McLanahan took a slower approach than most kids his age. He had reconciliation first, then First Communion, then confirmation, while in high school. These steps usually take place between the ages of 7 and 16.
"He's very reverent. He had some good mentors - veteran altar servers who taught him the ropes," said Wantz.
A quiet kid who has aspirations of becoming either a chef or robotics engineer, "I really enjoy finding out how things work and making them," he said, McLanahan now helps teach confirmation and first Communion prep classes at St. Leo's. He likes the supportive, unifying aspect of attending Catholic school. "I like that it's a school where most of the time everyone is kind to each other and can connect with each other. It's a place where you can just talk with people and they won't ignore you," he said.
Wantz, who has served in religious education for several years, sees McLanahan has an uncommon case.
"Your faith is brought to you through your family," she said. "In a lot of circumstances, we know that it's tradition. You're in second or third grade and you're going to receive reconciliation and First Communion. Then you're going to come into middle school and high school and receive confirmation. It's an automatic, this is what you're supposed to do. In his case, it was his choosing, which was fun to watch."
The Altar Server of the Year Award is presented to one person from each of the diocese's parish and school communities who has demonstrated exemplary diligence, reverence, dependability and enthusiasm for the faith through assisting at Masses.
"Msgr. McCarthy and I talked about who should be altar server of the year. We unanimously looked at each other and said, 'Bryce.' It was an automatic," Wantz explained. "I think it's unique because of the fact that he is a very devoted altar server. There is never a question, when we have Mass every month, there's no hesitation. He's one of them who is going to be there."
McLanahan was one of 79 recipients of the award this year, presented by the diocesan Vocations office on March 24, at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Buffalo.