Once upon a time: ‘Tis the season for the Prince of Peace

Christmas evokes memories of people who decorated our lives during the sacred holiday

By Monsignor Xavier Mankel

Christmas time again.

While it’s one thing to wish peace on earth o people of good will, those sentiments won’t fit in all cases (as much as you and I wish such sentiments to prevail). It seems to be a world of terrorism exaggerated by events in the Near East and in France within the last few days.

The Prince of Peace came from the Near East and for hundreds of years France was called the eldest daughter of the Church.

During the Second World War, Bishop William L. Adrian forbade midnight Masses in our parishes. There were no vigil Masses in those days so the earliest a Christmas Mass could begin was at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning. In those days there were only three priests in the entire Knoxville area: the pastors at Immaculate Conception and Holy Ghost parishes, and the chaplain at St. Mary’s Memorial Hospital.

With so few places to have Masses, it’s not hard to figure out why the few parishes were so very crowded on Christmas and Easter. In Immaculate Conception, the 5 a.m. Mass had an overflow crowd and the other two were equally packed. I remember the heat (it’s hard to regulate steam heat, so even with a trace of steam coming in from the basement, it was much too hot).

Immaculate Conception seats about 550 people, and the church ushers crammed in several hundred more people for Christmas Masses. The hottest place of all was the choir loft. It was not unusual for singers to faint. When I was a child our family sat on row 15. But with all the cramming, children could not see what was going on in the sanctuary. I must have been in the second or third grade before I figured out that the priest and servers were real people, not just statues with vestments on.

When we went to Mass it was dark (when we came home it was dark, too), and those who decorated used cedar trees. The odor, plus the heat, made it very different from the pictures we get of Christmas carols sung over the radio.

Other Christmas memories: There was an elderly lady from Immaculate Conception who added to her meager income by decorating Christmas candles. People used them for wreaths, table decorations, or at their doors. The candles ranged in length from nine inches to two feet, and from half an inch to five inches in diameter.

Mrs. Elly Long would take orders beginning in the fall. Most of the candles were red and were decorated in green. A few benefactors kept Mrs. Elly supplied, so her overhead was very low. She delivered the decorated candles in shopping bags stuffed with tissue paper to keep the contents from breaking. Her Christmas gifts to people were rosaries. I had asthma as a child, and it was not unusual for Mrs. Elly to pray 10 rosaries that I would be able to breathe more comfortably. She was interested in vocations, too. There is no telling how many Hail Marys she prayed for that intention. Our diocese has been blessed with saints who offered their prayers for the needs of the Church.

At an early morning Mass (once we were permitted to have a midnight Mass once again), Father Christopher P. Murray, the pastor, was preaching. Sitting on the uncomfortable sedilia were the celebrant, Father Ned Elliott, the assistant pastor, and two servers, John T. O’Connor and I (it must have been Christmas 1945). A child seated with his parents broke loose and came toward the pulpit. He climbed through the Communion rail and headed for the Nativity crib.

Father Murray spotted the child and motioned to Father Elliott to handle the matter. He turned and told John O’Connor, the oldest of six children, to get the child, which he did by picking the child up from behind. All was going well until the server and his unusual load entered the dark sacristy and the little boy began to scream. At that moment the distraught mother entered the sacristy, retrieved her child, and things began to settle down.

Father Murray finished his sermon, the Mass continued, and all was well. Many other parishes had similar stories to tell.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! ■

Monsignor Mankel is a vicar general and the historical archivist for the Diocese of Knoxville.

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