Andrew Rannells Describes Growing Up in, and Leaving, the Catholic Church

Andrew Rannells. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Before he broke out on Broadway in The Book of Mormon and on TV in Girls, Andrew Rannells arrived in New York from Omaha, Nebraska, and spent years trying to make it as an actor. His memoir, Too Much Is Not Enough, chronicles stories from the time before Rannells became famous, mostly his life in New York, but with a few glances back at Nebraska. In one passage, excerpted below, Rannells describes what it was like to grow up as a closeted gay kid in the Catholic church, including life as an altar boy, the priest who would force kisses on him, and when he knew it was time to leave the church.

It’s Never the Priest You Want to Kiss

I would like to clarify that my predicament with the forty-year-old did not stem solely from my involvement in the community theater. I must also acknowledge the contributions of the Catholic Church and its complicated path toward manhood.

There are certain benchmarks in the Catholic Church that mark the passing of time as a kid: the Sacraments. Reconciliation, First Communion, and Confirmation are all a Holy Paper Trail tracking your journey to adulthood. At Our Lady of Lourdes, you made your Reconciliation in second grade and your First Communion in third grade, but it was Confirmation, in eighth grade, that everyone looked forward to. That’s when you became an adult in the church and you got to pick a symbolic name to represent your new position. (Not that anyone ever called you by this name or you would ever use it in any capacity.) I chose Saint Lawrence the Martyr. He was grilled alive on a spit. Very dramatic.

Beyond the Sacraments, there is also an additional rite of passage for Catholic boys that not everyone is invited to partake in. You have to be chosen. It is the time-honored and, in my mind, coveted tradition of becoming an altar boy. My brother Dan was one, so I was familiar with some of the routine and I had already imagined how exciting and, dare I say, glamorous the position could be. Coincidentally, I reached altar boy age just as I was also becoming interested in local theater. Weeks after my devastating Oliver! audition I was pulled aside at school by Sister Idalia, the nun in charge of training the altar boys, who asked me to join her little army. True, it was not as cool as playing a dirty Dickensian orphan, but it felt good to be picked for something. I was in! Catholic mass seemed to be sort of similar to theater. There were lights, music, singing, costumes, special effects, drama, a big magic show at the end, and then more singing to close it out. I just had to deal with Sister Idalia to get there.

Sister Idalia had been my first grade teacher, and she was a tricky lady. She looked like Mrs. Claus, but she acted more like Miss Hannigan, and I’m still scarred by some of my interactions with her. One time on the playground, I noticed a girl in my class standing all alone with her knockoff Cabbage Patch doll. She had brought it for show-and-tell, which obviously had not gone as planned. She hadn’t known that her doll was a knockoff, but she did now and the other girls were making fun of her for it. I felt bad for her, so to try and cheer her up, I took her off-brand doll, and I started doing hopscotch with it. It worked. She started laughing and I felt like I had done something good for another human.

Then Sister Idalia came over to me and said, “Andy, why are you playing like a girl? Boys don’t play hopscotch and they definitely DON’T play with dolls!” Then she laughed like the Wicked Witch of the West. God, I hated her for that. I wanted to scream at her, “You think I want to play hopscotch with this piece of shit doll? I’m just trying to make
this girl feel better, you old bat!” But I didn’t say that to Sister Idalia. Instead I ran to the other side of the playground and left that sad little girl all alone with her sad little doll.

I hadn’t spent much time with Sister Idalia since then, but I thought she might treat me differently now that I was an “older” kid. She didn’t. She was still a nightmare. But she was less of one, because I was trying very hard to nail this altar boy gig. Also, at this point in my Catholic school career, I had figured out how to slip in my secret weapon: I had four great-aunts who were full-blown nuns. None of them lived in Omaha and two of them were dead, so I didn’t know them that well, but I had figured out how to drop that fun fact into religion classes and passing conversations with the nuns at my school. “My aunt has a habit just like yours!” I’d say, or “One of my aunts—WHO’S A NUN—taught me all about virgin births!”

Truth be told, the only insight that my Sister aunts offered me was how unfairly they were treated by the church and how depressing their lives could be. I had heard my grandmother talk about how some of her Sister sisters were given electroshock therapy in the late 1960s for depression when they went through menopause. Living in basic poverty, working tirelessly seven days a week, promising yourself to a man who never came it didn’t seem like a lot of fun. I wasn’t really factoring all of this information into my feelings for Sister Idalia at this point, but I think it did make me a little more sensitive to her mood swings. And like I said, I was trying VERY hard to be good. I was a total kiss-ass and it was working.

Once we learned all the choreography for the mass, we would rehearse it over and over again. Sister Idalia would play the priest, and we would take turns practicing the different altar boy positions. If you were on the right, your show was very different from the kid’s on the left. Each side had its own important jobs, but in my mind, the right side was more important. It did most of the vital chores when it came to the big magic trick at the end. You got to hand the hosts and wine over to the priest before he turned them into flesh and blood. I remember wondering if I was going to get to see them really transform since I would be standing so close. I would later be disappointed to see there was no physical change whatsoever. Although, I don’t know what I would have done if something had actually happened. Sure, the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood is fun in theory … but if push comes to shove, I think that’s a big “No, thank you.”

Sister Idalia was a stern taskmaster during rehearsals. She was like the Jerome Robbins of Our Lady of Lourdes Church. She would make us practice the mass until we were perfect. She knew every word by heart, and she took her role of playing the priest very seriously. Looking back now, I think it must have been hard for her to only get to run the show at altar boy practice. She was good at it. She was reverent and dramatic when she needed to be. She was thoughtful and graceful. I’ll bet she would have given a good homily, too. She was like the stage manager who dreamed of being the star but who would never be given the chance. It was another reason to feel sad for these ladies: They were never given the responsibilities they so clearly would have excelled at.

One of the final steps of altar boy practice was adding in the costume—I mean, the cassock. It was probably what I was most excited about. The cassocks were white and long, and they had a hood that hung dramatically off the back. Sister Idalia told us we were never, NEVER to put the hoods on. Now I realize that it was because we would have looked like members of the KKK, but I didn’t know what that was in the fourth grade, so I just assumed it was because of something mysteriously religious. The accessories for this outfit were a simple wooden cross and a sash that came in all sorts of colors corresponding with the different holy days. Red was my favorite; that was for feast days of martyrs. I think it appealed to me on two levels: I’ve always loved a martyr story— please see above about Saint Lawrence the Martyr—and I love a classic pop of color. I was dramatic and stylish even as a fourth grader.

I remember putting it all on for the first time and looking in the mirror. I loved my Catholic mass costume. I felt so official and so important. It gave me an identity and a purpose, particularly since I would not be appearing at the Emmy Gifford Theater in the foreseeable future. This Catholic mass stage would have to do for now. Altar boy rehearsals only lasted a couple weeks, and then we were handed over to the priests to perform real mass for a packed church. We had a week of previews first though. We would serve—that’s what they call it—Monday through Friday at 6:45 a.m. mass, and then, if all went well, we would take on the Saturday show at 5:30 p.m.

Sister Idalia made it  clear that the most important job  of the altar boy was to support the needs of his priest. They all had slightly different styles, and we had to adjust to each one accordingly. We understood and observed each priest carefully, trying to figure out how we could be his perfect servant. (It wasn’t until many years, multiple therapists, and some serious journaling later, that I realized that Sister Idalia was responsible for two very different but very important, and occasionally self-destructive, drives that would shape my adult life: an ambitious need for a career in show business and the feeling that you have to serve older men who are in a position of power in your life. Thanks, Sister.)

While Sister Idalia had successfully briefed us on the different priests’ needs, what she hadn’t prepared us for were their different personalities. I quickly learned that Father Russ was kind and patient. Father Tom was rough and his hands shook. Father Rodney was cold and wouldn’t look you in the eye. Father Russ was my favorite because he was so nice, but I wanted to impress Father Tom the most. He was the most withholding, so naturally I needed him to like me and say it often. (I’m still unpacking that one with the help of Oprah’s Master Class.) Father Tom was also the most handsome. He was tall and fit and he had silver hair. Not gray. Silver. He usually looked sunburned. I now know that flush was from alcohol, but it still suited him. He was probably in his early fifties and he seemed so manly to me. So authoritative. My mother had a name for priests like Father Tom. She called them “Father What a Waste”s. They were too attractive to be priests, to be celibate. I grew up with this phrase as a useful way to categorize priests at school. If we got a new priest, my mother would ask, “Is he a Father What a Waste?” I got very good at deciding which ones were.

I managed to make it through my first week as an altar boy without any incident. I did everything almost perfectly. Sister Idalia even said so. So did Father Tom. He patted me hard on the back. I felt good about my first week in his service.

I continued to have my crush on Father Tom, although at that age that’s not what I would have called it, and he continued to usually ignore me. It was fine though; I grew to appreciate and romanticize the distance, a pattern that would only become more ingrained in my heart and mind as I grew older. Annoyingly, Father Rodney was the one who always wanted to talk. He always wanted to ask questions about school and teachers and what sports we played. I never liked serving with him. He often seemed sweaty and nervous during mass, and he was always looking over your head or to the side, never right in your eyes. But after mass, it was all chitchat and awkward jokes. I always felt trapped.

Don’t worry, this story is not headed where you think it might be headed (at least not yet). Father Rodney never touched me. As weird as he was, he never physically abused anyone to my knowledge. He just had the misfortune of seeming like a creep. That only made my affection for the stern and stoic Father Tom grow even stronger.

From fourth through eighth grade I served those priests well. I was a real Altar Star at Our Lady of Lourdes! But as my Catholic star rose, so did my place on the secular community theater stage, and I was more than happy to trade Christ for lines and better costumes. It was way more fun. My retirement from the altar came just as my interest in it disappeared, but my relationship to priests was just about to kick into high gear.

While my grade school had been run by nuns, my high school, Creighton Prep, was run by priests, Jesuit priests. Widely considered to be the “cool kids” of the Catholic Church, the Jesuits taught you to question the Church, to rebel at times. To think critically about the teachings of the Church. Some of these priests had been married in the past, some admitted to having sex (only with women), some talked about drinking and smoking. They just seemed … cool. And as my mother pointed out, there were several “Father What a Waste”s there.

Freshman year I met another Father Tom. This one was much younger, probably in his early twenties, and very handsome. He taught my Freshman Theology class with a contagious amount of enthusiasm for the Church. He pushed us all to ask questions and wasn’t afraid to tell us if he had the same questions. He took note of me early on, and saw that while I might look confident, I wasn’t. The first few weeks at Creighton Prep I often ate lunch by myself or sometimes in the bathroom, which now seems insanely unsanitary, but it was better than being seen eating alone.

Father Tom figured this out and asked me if I wanted to eat lunch with him in his office. I agreed, and I found that he had assembled a small group of other awkward freshmen who had also been eating alone. We eventually got to know one another and formed a little group of our own. Father Tom suggested at some point that we all venture out into the lunchroom together. We did and it worked. He had fully assimilated us into the general population. I was grateful to him for that. Afterward, I still visited Father Tom’s office from time to time, even after he was no longer my teacher.  I had developed a strong crush on him. (At this age, I was fairly certain that’s exactly what I’d have called it.) I would often hover in his office, my sexual frustrations spilling out all over the place. I must have reeked of hormonal tension and vulnerability. To his credit, Father Tom never acknowledged my desperation, but other priests did.

Father Don was mostly retired. Old and doughy, he would totter through the halls, talking to young men about classes and sports, usually ending the conversation with a smack on the ass. He used to find me in study hall. He would bend down close to my face and whisper questions in my ear with one hand firmly planted on either my knee or my shoulder. Usually my knee. Sometimes he would just appear behind me and rub my shoulders while talking to me. He started to get bolder as the months went by and would sloppily kiss my cheek when he greeted me, always getting closer and closer to my mouth. This was around the time that I misplaced my virginity with the forty-year-old. I think Father Don sensed that.

And then there was the most disappointing priest of all— I’ll call him Father Dominic. He was probably in his sixties, but he worked out every day and remained lean and sinewy. He also took an interest in me because I did well in his classes. That’s what I thought anyway. When things really started to get complicated with the forty-year-old, I was at a total loss for adult connection and assistance. My grades were plummeting, I constantly had a stomachache, and I thought my life was crumbling around me. Having no one to talk to about my terrible relationship and feeling hopeless, I decided I would confess to Father Dominic at the next mass. He seemed so strong, but so kind, and I was hopeful that he could save me from myself.

We were made to go to mass once a week, but mass was sort of a hippie affair. It was held in our indoor quad, which was modern for the nineties, and they would start by dimming the lights. We would all sit on the floor, and it all felt very earthy and Jesus-y. Priests mostly didn’t wear robes; they just wore their casual, Daytime Priest looks, and we would listen to Toad the Wet Sprocket songs instead of singing traditional church music. It was pretty rad, but at this reconciliation mass, my surging anxiety just wouldn’t let me enjoy “I Will Not Take These Things for Granted” for the hundredth time.

Confessions were heard at the end. Again, this was not your typical confession with private rooms and curtains drawn. Priests would set up two chairs close to each other in various darkened corners of the quad, turn on music at a low volume to muddle the sound of confessions, and then you would basically just get right up in a priest’s face and whisper your sins. Sometimes he would close his eyes and grab the back of your neck firmly while you confessed. It seemed very “Roman Wrestler” at the time, but looking back it was also very “Abusive Pimp.” I waited in line to talk with Father Dominic, who was popular for confessions. I told myself that he was going to be helpful, that this was my best option.

I sat across from him in a dark corner, our knees touching. He grabbed my neck, as expected, and I started to talk. I started to try to explain what was happening with me, but I couldn’t make the words come out right. Instead, I started to cry. I was so embarrassed. Father Dominic squeezed my neck harder, and he grabbed both my hands with his free hand. His hands were like baseball mitts. We just sat there while I cried. He finally said, “It’s okay. You’ve done nothing wrong.” It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it still felt nice. He stood up and pulled me up with him. He hugged me tightly. I felt safe and heard and understood. Then, with unexpected force, he kissed me. On the lips. He muscled his tongue into my mouth and held the back of my head still. Then he released me and made the sign of the cross on my forehead. He smiled.

I walked away, stunned. How could he do that? Right in the open. In a daze I walked through the quad. No one had seen it. How was that possible? I mostly tried to avoid Father Dominic for the rest of the year, but when my mother suggested we invite him, along with some of my teachers, to my graduation party, I didn’t have the courage to say, “No, he’s a real fucking creep.” I had too many other problems at the time. So instead I said, “Great idea, Mom.” (I did successfully leave out Father Don. Since he was mostly retired, my parents didn’t really know him. I was spared a back rub, so that was a minor win.)

When the happy graduation day rolled around, Father Dominic and some other priests, including both Father Toms, celebrated my graduation with my family at a backyard barbecue. The forty-year-old was also there. (It was a real emotional minefield.) At some point, Father Dominic needed to leave, and he asked if I could show him out. I knew what was coming, but at this point, I didn’t care. I had performed and received numerous sex acts with a man I didn’t care about, and I just walked around feeling damaged. So what did I care if one more creepy man wanted to kiss me? What did it matter? We stood at my parents’ front door and said our good-byes for the final time, and then he grabbed me by the back of the neck and forced his tongue in my mouth. I just stood there and let him. I didn’t kiss back, but I also didn’t move. He smiled at me and walked to his car. I went into our kitchen and slammed a glass of wine before going back out to the party.

Shortly after, the two Father Toms left, and each gave me a congratulatory handshake. Firmly, fatherly, without an ounce of sexuality or menace. In other words, AN APPROPRIATE GOOD-BYE FOR A GRADUATION PARTY. I was able to get the forty-year-old to leave without incident by promising to see him later. He still managed to steal a quick kiss and a grope on his way out. Again, I just let it happen.

Cleaning up after the party, I felt a little numb. I thought, How many teenage boys have to deal with this shit at their graduation parties? Am I the only one? Or was Father Dominic just taking a tour of homes and forcing French kisses on young men throughout the city? If I had to kiss a priest at my graduation party, why couldn’t it have been a priest I wanted to kiss? More important, why did I have to kiss anyone?

It was time to leave. It was time to leave high school, it was time to leave the Catholic Church, it was time to leave Omaha, and it was time to leave this idea that I had to go along with whatever older man was calling the shots, behind. I was eighteen years old, and I couldn’t be anybody’s altar boy anymore.

From the book TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH by Andrew Rannells. Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Rannells. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Andrew Rannells Describes Growing Up As a Closeted Catholic