A Glimpse of Liturgy and Parish Life in the Late 1920s

I have said the Traditional Latin Mass for all of my many years of priesthood. Back in the late 1980s, only a few priests were “permitted” to do so and there were few resources available to learn it. About the only visual help was the Fulton Sheen film from the 1940s describing the Mass. So, I trained under a few older priests during my seminary years. I moved from being part of the schola in the choir loft, to serving as sub-deacon, then deacon, and finally as priest-celebrant. Solemn High Mass was my specialty; I only learned the low Mass later. Most of us who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass exhibit great care in observing the rubrics and norms and have great esteem for its beauty.

During my training, I asked the older priests why they and their generation got rid of such a beautiful form of the Mass. They often replied that though they came to lament its loss later, at the time it was not always celebrated so beautifully; they spoke of hurried masses, cursory gestures, and mumbled Latin. They indicated that the Solemn High Mass (the form with a priest, a deacon, a sub-deacon, and a bevy of acolytes) was quite rare in Washington, D.C. Even the Missa Cantata (in which some of the parts are sung by the celebrant, but without the deacon and sub-deacon) was limited to one Mass, and many places didn’t even have that. Homilies at weekday Masses were rare and even a good number of Sunday Masses had minimal preaching.

With all the horrifying abuses associated with Masses after the liturgical changes, these problems may seem mild, but in any case, things were not as ideal as I had imagined—at least that was picture these older priests painted for me.

I recently came across a letter from the 1920s in our parish archive that confirms this generally perfunctory quality. It is a lament on this situation from Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore and is directed to his priests.

At that time, the Archdiocese of Washington was still part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Thus, the Archdiocese of Baltimore covered a very large area, stretching from the Delaware border in the east, through Washington, all the way to the western panhandle of Maryland. It contained large city parishes from Baltimore and Washington, a growing number of suburban parishes, and numerous small ones from the large expanses of rural territory.

Regarding the city parishes, remember that the immigrant Church of that period was expanding rapidly and vast numbers of newly immigrated Catholics from all over Europe were filling the pews. One of the needs was thus to schedule numerous Masses to accommodate the numbers. In addition, in those days all Masses had to be finished before noon. All of this led to a hurried morning schedule in which some of the liturgical principles suffered as a result.

And now we proceed to the letter itself. It is hard to imagine a bishop of our times being so informal and blunt, yet those were days in which many bishops and local pastors were known for their large, colorful personalities. Enjoy some excerpts of this colorfully blunt letter, which focused on encouraging priests to be more liturgically minded. I include some brief remarks of my own in red text.

July 9, 1929

Reverend and Dear Father,

Confusion worse confounded has arisen during the past few years in the matter of our Sunday services. An inter-parochial competitive system has ended in chaos and not a little distant disedification. We must now return to sane normal conditions. Hence the following mandatory regulations will be effective Sunday, October 6.

The High Mass (Solemn or Missa Cantata) must be the last of the parish masses and may not be an hour later than eleven. Every church in Baltimore, Washington, and Cumberland is expected to have a High Mass. The same is expected of all parishes outside the above cities where a choir is possible. The choir does not have to be an adult choir. It may be composed of school children. In country parishes where heretofore there has been no High Mass, I desire the pastors to work towards a High Mass. The Missa parochialis must be kept in its honorable place. … Let the well-prepared sermon be short and practical; let the music be strictly liturgical and let the liturgy be carried out with dignity and correctly.

We see that in certain areas, the low Mass (recited and whispered) had come to be the only type celebrated. High Mass, with the priest and choir singing significant portions, was becoming too rare. This afforded less possibility for the faithful to interact with the Liturgy. Further, it excluded a vast repertoire of chant, polyphony, and classical music from the Mass. In response, the Archbishop insisted that at least one parish Mass should open this treasure to God’s people.

The epistle and gospel should be read at all the masses. … A short discourse (of even five-minutes duration) should be given at each mass. The work of instruction should be supplemented by the recommendation of pamphlets as reading matter. No parish church should be without a pamphlet rack.

A significant problem in that era was that the readings were proclaimed in Latin by the priest at the altar. Because few if any of the laity knew Latin, the proclamation of the Word mostly fell on deaf ears. A common solution was that the priest would go to the pulpit and repeat the readings in the vernacular, but this lengthened the Mass. Some priests evidently skipped this altogether and merely continued on with the Mass. Some even skipped a sermon of any sort at certain masses. The Archbishop was surely not pleased and insisted that teaching the faith was an essential purpose of any liturgy.

Some of our younger parish clergy read their sermons. This should not be done except for some very special reason. The priest who is not capable of preparing and delivering a brief, clear instruction on Catholic teaching to his people is not fit to be in parish work. The people as a rule do not want to listen to a sermon reader. The reader is usually a poor one and his matter many times is poorer. We do not expect every priest to be a Lacordaire or a Bossuet. We do expect every priest however to be a teacher of God’s word, an intelligent and intelligible one. We have heard splendid eloquence on the subject of card parties, bazaars, church support, etc. and then mental confusion in many cases when the time came for the sermon. Our work as preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ is of infinite importance. It ought to be done with prayerful preparation. The sermon should be delivered in such a manner that our people can hear, understand, and take away with them a better knowledge of their faith and at the same time feel moved to live that faith and more practical way. If the priests of a parish wish to hold her people’s loyalty to their parish church, they cannot do it by competition in the matter of late hours for masses, unbecoming a hurry in the celebration of divine mysteries, or curtailment of devotional church practices.

Tough, but well said.

In some parishes of the cities there is no evening service. The reason given is that the people will not come. If the pastor will only give the people a chance to come, they will come in sufficient numbers to Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. They will come gladly to hear a course of sermons during Advent, Lent, novenas, etc. They will not come to hear the rosary and litany recited in a marathon style. They leave their parish church and go to one where there is devotion in the sanctuary.

We have completed our building program. The brick-and-mortar work is almost over. Let us now apply ourselves to the more important work of gathering our people around the sanctuary in order that we may build Christ our Blessed Lord into their hearts and lives. We have, thank God, many parishes where liturgical functions are carried out with inspiring dignity, order, correctness, and consequent impressiveness. … But where there is a tendency to starve the people spiritually, the priest soon realizes a reaction that, to say the least, is neither healthy nor pleasant.

Beautifully said.

Let us then in God’s name begin with enthusiasm a new era of order in matters liturgical October 6th. 

+ Michael Curley
Archbishop of Baltimore

I hope this provides you with a little picture of liturgy and parish life form the late 1920s. The problems of that time are nothing compared with the disorder often evident from the 1970s through today, but surely the human condition will always require that we battle the perfunctory observance of the sacred liturgy.

This video clip from the beginning of the movie True Confessions shows a beautiful depiction of the Traditional Latin Mass. I first saw it in 1981 and was amazed at the beauty of the Mass. I set about learning this form of the Mass well before it was more widely allowed. Although Solemn High Mass was not unknown in larger city parishes, its celebration complete with all the details was rarer than I thought. Low mass, recited and whispered, was more the norm. This situation led to Archbishop Curley’s request that at least one high Mass be sung in every parish each Sunday. Amen, Archbishop!

15 Replies to “A Glimpse of Liturgy and Parish Life in the Late 1920s”

  1. I can confirm some of what was told you about the old Latin Mass. I became a Catholic in 1960 in New Jersey, when it was still in effect. Sunday Mass was decently done, with the Gospel read in English at the altar, not the pulpit. Weekday Masses, however, drove me crazy. The priest at the altar with his back to me read all or most of the prayers silently. And in a neighboring parish which was near where my dentist was, it took me awhile to learn that the 6:30 am Mass was actually celebrated at 6:25 am. But the Easter Vigil made up for a lot of the defects. It was always beautiful, and I still miss some aspects of it.

  2. Our parish in Oklahoma had a high mass every Sunday which was always beautiful and done as the letter describes. Hearing the mass in Latin was never a problem because everyone had a missal with the English on one side of the page and Latin on the other. The readings also were in English in my missal. (1950) I never once felt deprived. In the ’20 the school children of immigrants were learning English and were equipped with Missals. Surely, their parents and grandparents brought from their homeland a similar missal with their native language along side the Latin. It wasn’t the problem the anti-Latin advocates would lead us to believe. (No doubt there were abuses.) An understanding of what happened during the Mass depended more on their formation and parental example. (Still true today.) We were taught the mass required ACTS on our part to be meaningful. We participated in Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication.

  3. How I wish I have a place to attend the solemn high mass every Sunday here in Lagos, Nigeria. I have watched several videos of it on YouTube and I love it. I was born in the era of the novus ordo though I feel so much attracted to the traditional Latin mass.

  4. Yes, reminds me of a book I picked up a while back, Catholic Church Music, I believe it was by Paul Hume. What I thought was going to be a primer on Gregorian chant turned out to be a 150 page lament about how awful Church music was in his day, and how all taste for traditional liturgical music had all but disappeared. The book was published in the 50’s. For anybody thinking that liturgical decline began with Vatican II, and that the Council was mistaken in addressing liturgical reform, it is important to come across works like this that show it was a cultural problem a long time in the making.

    1. Yes, the Book Why Catholics Can’t Sing makes a similar point. There was a lot of very bad choral music mid-centruy and before. The The Choral Mass sung in the Fulton Sheen video from the 40s is just dreadful. See here: https://youtu.be/R6AOvStZS64?t=894
      The chant is done pretty well though. It is the same with the movie “Christmas Holiday” featuring a latin Mass and also filmed in the 1940s https://youtu.be/L9up_t8w2ic

      The warbling trebles make me cringe

      1. The warbling trebles made me cringe even as a small child; however, as I’ve since come to learn, it was actually the approved style for female voices, and had been for quite some time. (Doubt me? Go watch Walt Disney’s “Snow White” and listen to Snow White sing. It’s flat-out awful.
        Some people have that warble naturally; they even speak with it. I’m not talking about them; they can’t help it. But our choirmaster had his work cut out for him when he first came to our parish, to teach the older ladies on our choir how to stop doing what they spent a lifetime learning to do.
        As for the abuses…yeah, I saw plenty of them myself, and my brother, who was an altar boy, told us about more. Let’s face it, priests are as human as anybody else, and with schedules that tight, a lot of them felt they didn’t have a choice. Heck, in my parish, when we had three priests, the one who was scheduled to say the next Mass was waiting in the sacristy, already in all his vestments, waiting to start only a few minutes after the priest and people from the current Mass left. Usually you’d still have the next congregation coming in while the priest was already saying the prayers at the foot of the altar.

  5. How I wish I could have a parish in Lagos, Nigeria where I could attend the solemn high mass every Sunday. I was born in the era of the novus ordo but feel so much attracted to the traditional Latin mass having watched several clips of it on YouTube.

  6. This boils down to a basic element of both human psychology and human history: We tend to remember the extremes.

    In this particular case, people see the “Latin Mass” (although that is technically an incorrect term since the N.O. can be said in Latin) at its best and compare it with the typical Novus Ordo. Of course, there is not much difference in human nature between 2017 and 1917. Priests rush – or were rushed – to say Mass then just as they do now. There was the same lack of care in places then as there is now.

    A priest tells me the story of the first day in his first parish back in the 40’s. The superior of the convent where he was assigned to say Mass told him that he had only 10 minutes to say Mass. (And people think women have no authority or power in the Church.) Then on Sunday, his pastor told him that is should take no more than 20 minutes to say “Low Mass.” The priests of that era are rapidly dying out, but part of the unofficial Convocation entertainment in the evening was to hear these guys do “speed speaking” – they were better than the man on the original “FedEx” commercials.)

    There was a reason why there was a driving force for liturgical reform. In a plurality of pre-Vatican II parishes Mass was simply a Latin speed-reading competition. It is the same dynamic as poorly done liturgy today causing people to migrate towards the E.F.

    Human activity generally conforms to a Gaussian (“normal”) Distribution. Basically, this means that as more priests and parishes move to the Extraordinary Form, more will do the Extraordinary From poorly.

  7. Thank you, Msgr., for offering much needed perspective. I was born after 1970, but have come to love the Extraordinary Form (Traditional Latin Mass). But I dislike a sense I sometimes get…that seems like clinging to the 1950s, as if Vat II was the source of all liturgical change. Other lovers of the EF/TLM have informed me that Pope St. Pius X was really the first major liturgical reformer of the 20th century – and they are not big fans of his changes to the breviary.

    However, where we stand today – it seems as though there is a major crisis of philosophy and theology in the Church, which must, in part, stem from our highest form of prayer – Holy Mass. Lex orandi, lex credendi. But, I suppose, as you noted above, a similar crisis can arise from any form of Holy Mass done badly. However, in my opinion, even just the prayers of the EF/TLM (Intriot, Collect, Secret, Offertory, Communion, Postcommunion) have a richness and depth that I don’t find in the N.O.

    Also, while most daily EF Holy Masses (in my parish) are more silent low Masses without a homily, I found myself in desperate need of this silence when I began attending years ago. At first, I felt like I was going insane because of the silence, but then I realized that I needed to quiet my interior and detox from a very noisy life. Thus, while I always prefer a High Mass (and wish they were every day), it is precisely the silence of the low Mass can be beneficial for modern man, who is heavily saturated in noise. But it does take effort and education for the laity to properly engage.

    1. it is precisely the silence of the low Mass can be beneficial for modern man, who is heavily saturated in noise.

      amen, I am so tired of the constant noise of the OF, that silence is a blessing
      a simple quite holy low mass for me

  8. Years ago when I was a seminarian a wise Dominican professor taught us that the best demonstration St. Thomas Aquinas gives for the existence of God is the fourth one, that is, from beauty in the universe. (I paraphrase, of course.) But the professor also told us at the same time that this is the most difficult “proof” or demonstration.
    I think his point was that the appreciation of beauty, even in small things, is difficult for us all. This may account for poor quality liturgies of all times and traditions. Fallen man does not easily perceive the glory of God!

  9. yes there were thirty minute masses, however the ones around here were weekdays, it was amazing how many went to mass before or after work (night shift) some came after mass started some had to leave early but as our priest at the time told me ” these people are making an effort to be here on a work day, they need to be at work on time, the least i can do is get on with it, they came to worship God not listen to me make them late, there is plenty of time for sermons on Sundays” We are a rural area and the earliest one was the “milk haulers mass” at 5 o’clock daily and Sunday. milk truck drivers came and then went to their shops, washed and sanitized their trucks and ran a route seven days a week usually finishing about 4 or later

  10. I’m a convert to Catholicism, had always heard how beautiful the traditional Latin Mass was. A few years ago I heard there was a priest in a parish not too far from me who had begun doing the traditional Mass, so I decided to go.

    Turns out it was a low Mass, though on Sunday morning. There was no singing, no processional or recessional. The priest entered in silence, recited everything quickly in a whisper with his back turned to us, and it was over in half an hour. It was the most boring, uninspiring half hour I’ve ever spent in church – and I’m a very devout, prayer and silent contemplation-loving Catholic. If that’s how the Mass was done, no wonder people wanted to change it.

    Since then I’ve been to Latin Masses done well, all high Masses, both in a Cathedral with a professional choir, and in a small parish with a handful of volunteers from the congregation to lead the chanting. Both very beautiful and uplifting. So high Masses can be done well even in small parishes! The low Mass, though, I’ll take a pass on that.

    But honestly, I think we need chant Masses in the vernacular. Why give up chanting just to have our own language? I’ve come across beautiful English chant Novus Ordo Mass settings, both Gregorian and polyphonic style, more being written all the time it seems. But good luck getting a Novus Ordo parish to allow one! I have yet to actually hear one in a parish or find anyone receptive to it. How they love their insipid 70’s style folk music.

  11. Msgr.,

    I was wondering if you could maybe briefly explain why in my diocese, the bishop allows only certain churches to say the Traditional Latin Mass. The priest at my own parish is no longer allowed to say it in our church. Why has this become such a “bad” thing to say the mass in this form?

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