Once upon a time: In praise of improvements for celebrating Mass

Times have changed since ‘midnight Masses’ at 5 a.m., 100-degree choir lofts, long Eucharistic fasts

I have served in several parishes by now, but in only one of them do I find the cavities cut in the pews for hinges to the wee doors that once were affixed to every pew.

I presume the doors were on the pews at Immaculate Conception in Knoxville from the time the church was completed [late 1880s]. They were no longer there [except for the indentations into which the hinges fit on the pew side of the hinge] by the time I was baptized at Immaculate Conception [the church on the “hill”] in late 1935.

You may be thinking what a racket all those doors opening and closing at Communion would make. But remember before Pope Saint Pius X encouraged frequent and early Holy Communion, people before then received only once (Easter) or twice a year (Christmas and Easter). Then, as the frequency of people receiving Communion began to increase at the early Masses, the Eucharistic fast rules kept many from the railing if the Mass began much after 9:30 or 10 a.m.

In the old days, fasting included nothing to eat or drink from midnight that day, so people who received holy Communion regularly went to the earliest available Masses. At IC, that Mass was at 7 a.m. and nearly everyone present did receive our Precious Lord. The next Mass, at 9:30 a.m., saw fewer than one-half approaching the Communion railing, and by the 10:30 a.m. [and last] Mass the railing was filled less than one time. If a 6 p.m. Mass had prevailed under those circumstances perhaps no one other than the celebrant [a weakened one at that] would have communicated. Times, they do a-change.

I cannot remember if it was a World War II thing or not, but for several years our “midnight Masses” were celebrated at 5 a.m. Since there were no Vigil Masses in those days, 5 a.m. was the first Mass of Christmas. It was packed. With 600 to 700 people or more jammed into a building designed for 525, the ushers had their crowd-control assignments cut out for them. The heat was stifling, the choir sang like the angelic host, the pipe organ never sounded so splendid as the violinist, clarinetist, and perhaps a trumpeter added to the splendor.

Our pastor was Monsignor Francis Dominic Grady, educated in Louvain for the priesthood in the Diocese of Nashville. Until I was 4 or 5 years old, I thought the celebrant was a statue [he was dressed much like the statues were dressed!] and pushed to and fro on wheels. I remember he wore the stiff-clothed “fiddle back” chasubles, so popular in those days.

It was Father Christopher Power Murray, STB, ordained 1929, and pastor there from 1941-55 who made us all aware that the pastor is not a dummy. He introduced a microphone into the pulpit. There was no problem hearing other parts of the Mass—they were in Latin except for the Leonine prayers for the conversion of Russia recited after a low [recited] Mass. Add a nervous cross-bearer, two or four acolytes whose development of symmetry was minimal, an equally nervous thurifer who left a trail of incense grains wherever he went and we see that the call to simplicity voiced by the Constitution on the Liturgy at Vatican II was more than warranted.

I also recall that ushers approached fisticuffs as they tried so valiantly to “save” aisle seats for those who arrived fashionably late for Mass. One or two of the pews at IC still had the two-inch cushions across the seat and were welcomed for at least two reasons: 1) they were much softer than the oak seat upon which they were installed; 2) they raised at least the four or five people seated on that cushion so that they could see and hear better.

And then there was the prototype for all future efforts of the Ladies of Charity, the Legion of Mary, the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and Catholic Charities: the janitor. There he stood before and after each of the Christmas Masses with the largest black felt hat I ever saw. It was open to the sky. With my daddy’s help, I got the distinct impression that all of our hard-hearted lack of giving to the mile-o-dimes, community chest, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, etc., could be rectified with a large contribution placed in that hat. We have more sophisticated ways of saying thank you today. But in those days the large black felt hat worked very well.

Heat rises and by the time the floor of the Church was warmed (the little doors to eliminate drafts had long been removed) against the cold of opening and closing of the big doors, the choir loft thermometer, if such had existed, would have pushed the mercury up to more than 100 degrees. I recall that only one lady ever fainted from the heat of midnight Mass.

The same lady, who did have a beautiful alto voice, fainted at least once during the 10:30 Sunday morning Mass, not from excessive heat but from keeping the Eucharist fast. She lived on a farm and helped milk the cows at 4:30 or 5 a.m. And even if she got a bit of sleep between then and the departure by car for the “hill,” still she was weak from fasting. I believe one of the reasons I ended up as an altar boy every Sunday that I was at the 10:30 a.m. Mass was that I did not care to be part of the smelling salts and moist towel routine that some three or four students were assigned to by Sister Mary Elizabeth Gleason or another Sister who directed the choir.

After Masses the adults gathered on the sidewalk in front of the church for conversation a plenty. We children did not stray very far from our parents because Vine Avenue, Walnut Street, and Market Street in downtown Knoxville were two-way streets then (and no wider than they are now), so it wasn’t safe to drift very far from parents, uncles, aunts or grandparents. As is the case today, there was very limited parking available to automobiles. The closest a city bus or electric streetcar came was down the hill east on Gay Street or south to Union Avenue. The whole process of attending Sunday Mass was really sort of an adventure. And that scene was repeated all over the country in towns of any size where the church had a downtown presence with little or no parking.

Things are so much better today that our memories of former inconveniences fade quickly. We are truly blessed indeed to have what we have, from transportation to Mass schedules and from a one-hour Eucharistic fast to liturgies in our own language.

For now, the Holiest Happiest New Year to one and all.

Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general of the diocese and the pastor of Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville.

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