A Glimpse of Liturgy and Parish Life in the 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.

Here are some photos of a Mass at St. Ignatius Church in Chicago Ill. celebrated in 1922. The Pictures were part of an effort to assist priests in fine-tuning their understanding of the rubrics and gestures.

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!

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

  1. The old photos of the mass being performed in the 1920’s brings back fond memories although I wasn’t born until 1951. The comical aspect of the photos is that there are only two people in the pews of an otherwise empty church with the exception of the priest and altar server. The old style altars gave a sense of approaching God compared to the kiss the sky style of today.

  2. Thinking out ‘loud’:

    1. Why is the traditional Liturgy in the Catholic Church spoken in Latin and only in Latin? Why not in Aramaic, or Hebrew, or Yiddish? Or why not in Greek? Is there something special about the Latin language? Do perhaps the spiritual beings (angels) in Heaven prefer to speak in Latin? 🙂

    Well, to answer my own questions: I doubt that there’s anything ‘mystical’ about Latin or more mystical than in the case of other languages. The reasons for the choice of Latin have to do with: history, geography, society, practicality, and last but not least: Godly foresight. During the first centuries A.D., Latin was simply the most common language in the regions around the Mediterranean Sea, where the Church’s initial expansion took place.

    2. A beautiful church building and a beautiful Liturgy are of course nice to have. They inspire awe. But methinks that we should be careful about fastidiousness. Let’s not forget that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have been semi-nomadic herders; or that Simon Peter and Andrew, until their calling, had the occupation of fishers.

    (Apropos paintings: personally, I consider many of the religious paintings – they’re not icons – from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment Eras to be grotesque or even impious. For example, I’ve recently seen one in which the resurrected Christ is depicted as muscular as a wrestler, and additionally beardless. Until I’ve noticed in the painting the wounds of His crucifixion, I’ve initially thought that the depiction was one of Hercules or another mythological hero. I simply can’t stand them – I wouldn’t want them in my house –, and I know of others, including priests, who have expressed similar sentiments.)

    3. How I consider that a sermon or a discourse should be: 1) orthodox in its presented teachings (of course); 2) simple in its choice of words; 3) kind, compassionate, charitable in its tone and ‘attitude’; and if possible, ideally also 4) biblically ‘poetic’ (Christ’s own preachings were ‘poetic’; let’s think only of the Sermon on the Mount). Yet instruction and training in the art of rhetoric is not enough to be able to realize that; an ideal sermon requires to have inner peace and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. The priest must preach with love.

  3. And four months later came the Great Depression, which marked the ending of the great building projects of immigrant Catholicism in the USA; from this point onward, churches – if built – tended to be of from modularly-adaptable cookie cutter type designs, with catalogue rather than commissioned custom art, a tendency reinforced by the post-WW2 Baby Boom and the need to prioritize the devotion of resources to new or expanded schools in parishes. And over the course of this time, American Catholic pastors (and bishops) learned practical lessons of economy rather than beauty and liturgical devotion. And so did their flocks.

  4. Very consoling to see a Bishop show genuine interest in their flock’s SPIRITUAL lives. My anecdotal experience is that nowadays that takes a back seat to nonstop PR efforts to whitewash internal corruption, tisk-tisk “nationalist” politicians…but not the pro-infanticide ones, and haranguing church-goers for $$$.

  5. Thank you Msgr. Pope for this enlightening article. I love Traditional Masses and attend only them whenever I am visiting an area where they are provided. Since you are so knowledgeable on this subject and dedicated as well, I would like to ask a question which has troubled me for a long time. I was an alter server in the 1950s and we were instructed to say our server responses very quickly. I doubt the folks in the pews who were trying to keep up with us, as they silently followed along with their missals, were able to do so. That defect (as I see it) still exists today even at Masses celebrated by outstandingly precise and dedicated traditional priests (again I’m speaking about alter server responses). So it appears that rapidity is still demanded and I wonder why. I must say that some priests also say/pray the prayers of the Mass in rapid fashion as well. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that they’ve truly enunciated all of the words (especially the last gospel). The Mass is not a place for speed-reading. For the most part I’m able to follow along with my missal, but it takes an effort. I do wish the servers could at least pray at a normal speed so that the faithful could make the most of those responses as they silently pray along with them.

    Thank you so much for considering my question.

  6. Why is it that the readings in Latin are a problem? Vernacular readings are the problem. As I asked a priest-friend in a debate about the liturgy: “Father, why are there readings in the Mass.” Thinking about it, he said, “So that the people can know what the word of God says.” I informed him that that is incorrect. As we read from the Gospel of Luke, Our Lord only delivered one, brief homily, ascending the bema, reading the scroll in Hebrew, and closing it said “This prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing.” And this is the point of the Scripture reading, not that we know what it says in the manner of the Protestants, but that we take heart that all those things we hear are fulfilled and made incarnate in the promise and reception of the Holy Eucharist. In that way, the readings are better in Latin, for it is not necessary to translate them, and it is a more apt language for the praising of God in His sacred liturgy by His own words.
    The second question I asked this priest: “Father, we have now experimented with vernacular readings for 50 years and more. Would you say the people are more familiar with Scripture? Or would you say they are familiar, in general, at all?” He answered, “no.” Which is true. They aren’t, and it isn’t for lack of effort on the part of the clergy to concoct numerous schemes to make interesting a liturgy made banal by the designs of dessicated academicians.
    When Ss. Cyril and Methodius converted the Slavs, they requested the Pope to grant the Mass be translated into Slavonic. St. John I conceded with the exception that the reading may only be read in Latin. Even the Canon may be in Slavonic, but not the readings.

    Food for thought from a layman.

    1. Maxwell G. – Notice that Jesus says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” How could they have known what “this Scripture” meant unless they actually understood the Hebrew? (Because most of those who attended would have been the men who had been trained in familiarity with the Hebrew Scripture.) So the comparison to the laity hearing readings in Latin does not hold up.
      If one can’t understand the words, how does one derive any benefit? It will turn the words themselves into some sort of incantation or talisman. Jesus preached to the people in their own language. An obsession with retaining Latin does NOT serve the people of God. “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” -St. Jerome

  7. Great article. The late Fr. Groeschel from EWTN also spoke about abuses in the Latin mass, including priests hurrying through the Latin as fast as they could. For all the complaints that one hears about the “Novus Ordo” mass, I visit many parishes and in my experience most have beautiful and reverent masses.

    Interestingly, it was Pope Pius X who first was pushing for the laity to be more involved in the liturgy, instead of just saying the Rosary while the priest mumbled through the mass in Latin.

    In the wake of two world wars within 20 years, where Christians were slaughtering each other, Vatican II was a call for the laity to become more involved, beginning with a better participation at the mass, having an actual transformation of heart, not just following laws with a fear of committing mortal sin, but yo be transformed and fulfill their role to evangelize.

    Archbishop Sheen spoke about this issue in these two brief talks:



  8. As the article said, yes, there were these things happening, but really they were no big deal compared to the things in the 1970s, some of which are continuing to this day. I don’t miss the Latin, but what is missing in many of today’s Masses is the reverence and the quiet. I have heard more talking and carrying on before and during Mass than I hear in a movie theater before and during the movie.

  9. Honestly, I too prefer the harmony of the traditional Liturgy – or more specifically, of the traditional chanting. Except for the Latin, simply because I don’t speak Latin – though I understand that there can appear some difficulties/complications with the translating of the texts of the chants (because of the differing syllables counts of the translated words compared to the Latin words, and so forth).

    » “‘Some of our younger parish clergy read their sermons. . . . 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.’

    Did Catholic priests in the 1920s, and do the contemporary ones now, actually receive any serious (or any at all) instruction and training in the art of rhetoric? Memorizing a speech is not enough.

    I’ve seen on television that Buddhist monks (some of them) do. They train together in rhetoric, including in when and how to intonate which words, and when and what gestures to make. They even hold competitions of rhetoric.

    Though I’d say (again) that both the memorizing of a speech and having training/experience in rhetoric are not sufficient for a perfect sermon. A priest has to ideally preach and teach with love (agape).

    “Who has ever seen people persuaded to love God by harshness?” (St John of the Cross)

  10. I believe the yearning for the Tridentine Mass (which is beautiful) comes from the way the Novus Ordo is commonly celebrated. The Novus Ordo can be beautiful if properly celebrated.

  11. I was a child in the 1950’s but retain very clear memories of attending mass at that time. We resided in the Diocese of Brooklyn which encompassed all of Brooklyn, Quens and Long Island. This was post war America and Catholic schools were packed to capacity along with the churches. At that time, police were needed to direct traffic after each mass on Sunday (now seen on Fridays at the local mosque). This was before air conditioning and microphones. Women’s heads had to be covered; it was not uncommon to see someone place a tissue or handkerchief on their head because they forgot their hat or veil. We followed the mass with our own, personal missal.

    The priest, facing east, was difficult to hear, especially in warm weather when fans were turned on. Ditto for the altar servers. We in the pews, tried to catch up when the priest turned to say “Oremus”. The pews were filled with lots of children (this is the time of the baby boomer births) and parents did their best to keep them quiet. The 9am mass was the children’s mass and those of us who attended the parish school, were required to sit with our classmates and teacher. Sister would use a clicker to let us know when to stand, kneel, sit, etc. She also took a head count and those who were absent had to supply a parent’s note on Monday to explain the absence.

    The mass was non participatory insofar as responses or singing. The choir sang and the altar servers gave the responses. Perhaps, for that reason, it was not uncommon to see parishioners praying the rosary during the mass. With such large attendance, it was necessary to schedule multiple masses on Sunday. We were also assured that if we missed mass on Sunday, we would burn in hell for all eternity. No, I am not exaggerating.

    I also vividly recall the transition post Vatican Council II. The changes emerged weekly, so fast that it was shocking. From one week to the next, the altar was turned arond or replaced with a temporary one. Choirs were moved from the rear of the church to behind the altar. Organs were replaced by guitars and/or keyboards. Communion on the tongue was now distributed by lay people, in the hand. It was a total shock to the system! Nothing was familiar; everything was strange. Instead of altar servers responding, it was now our responsibility, along with singing the hymns. Initially, it seemed a bit uncomfortable but, with time, it became a welcome change.

    I am happy to see a resurgence in the traditional Latin Mass as it should be properly celebrated. God willing, more young people will be drawn to the beauty and reverence of this liturgy.

  12. I’m 80. I deplored the rushed Latin Mass, and I deplore the rushed “let’s eat and run” of so many new ones. The language is not the issue (I like a mixture of both at Mass). Twice a month I attend an available Anglican Use Mass (like the old Latin Mass, but in English).
    I also recommend readers watch a video of St Mary, Greenville, SC, to learn how the new Mass can be awesome (https://smcgvl.org/).

  13. What seems to have been omitted here is that almost everyone, including children, had a missal with both latin and the vernacular. Everyone followed the Mass in detail and knew the principal parts. I say ‘everyone’ in that it was the common, ordinary way for the people: one would never have set out for Mass without one’s Missal. Latin was not an alien language, as people could and did know the Common by heart and, when the opportunity arose, sing the parts, especially the Creed. We knew all the Marian Antiphons for the different seasons: Salve, Alma, Ave Regina, Regina Coeli…… as well as other beautiful Marian hymns: Salve Mater, O Sanctissima etc etc. The Corpus Christi Liturgy etc etc. Yes, sometimes Mass was said in a peremptory and rushed manner at times, but speed did not necessarily equate with lack of reverence.

    And, by the way, the priest today – and every Sunday here – reads, gabbles the ‘sermon’. It nearly sends me round the twist.

    1. I don’t think it was omitted. Though missals existed in the 1920s they were not often used by the faithful. Thus, in the 1940s there began a big movement to get the faithful to use missals. Fulton Sheen was a big part of this movement and the famous black and white movie of a solemn latin Mass in Chicago’s Our Lady of Sorrows was filed to help spearhead the project. Most people, when they went to Mass prayed the rosary quietly or said other devotional prayers. It was more like going to adoration. The strong promotion for the use of missals was a project of the post-war period primarily. You are right that there was also the practice of singing certain hymns, even occasionally at a low Mass during certain points of the Mass. But this varied

    2. Thank you, Mary Smith — we share the same memories of the personal missal in Latin and English. How I loved reading both translations as a child. At age 66, I still have and treasure my St. Joseph’s continuous missal from grade school. (It’s so much more meaningful than the toss-back-in-the-pew-and-then- dispose/recycle “missalettes.”) The physical act of taking this holy book with you to Mass and carrying it back home with you amplified the impact of the priest’s “Ite Missa est.”

      With our rising sadness and anger over the hierarchy’s internationally publicized financial and sexual abuse scandals, I can’t help but think that a revival of this simple ritual would ease and strengthen the hearts of many desolate pew-sitters. These days, we need every small opportunity for grace we can find.

  14. Msgr Pope,
    Thank you very much for a extremely interesting article. I recently joined a Traditional Latin Parish (FSSP), and I don’t think I could ever go back to the Novis Ordo unless it was the only alternative. It seems like every time I go to Sunday Mass, the Church is increasingly crowded (which I am only too delighted to see) with rapt parishioners, and I’m not exaggerating. I contacted the Bishop to petition an increase in the number of Latin Masses in the diocese (of Richmond) and was essentially told, after about three months and two letters, that there were not enough priests who were trained in the Latin Mass, and he didn’t seem too interested in my comments. I firmly believe that the survival of the Church will not be due to an increased effort at ecumenism or making the Church more ‘hip’ to younger parishioners, but by returning to fundamentals by the leadership of the Church- something that is sorely lacking, but is increasingly apparent to the laity.

  15. I love Tridentine Mass as well as Novus Ordo Mass. Both of the forms could be beautiful, and both of them could be disastrous, when celebrated not properly. And both of them are the source and summit of the life and mission of the Church, as both of them are the same liturgy.
    In Poland there are several places where Tridentine Mass is celebrated. This Mass has not become very widespread as optimistically expected 10 years ago after “Summorum Pontificum”. Latin is still a big barrier and discourages people.
    I have been singing Gregorian Chant during Tridentine Mass in the neighouring parish and since 2 years I have been recording Gregorian Chant on YouTube. Welcome to my Channel:
    God bless you all +

  16. Thank you Monsignor. The “mumbled” “speed reading” Mass is often used as an excuse for almost the entire Novus Ordo project. While I appreciate a well enunciated saying of the Mass, I have had a very devout priest who knows his Latin very well indicate that he is just reading/saying the prayers at what is a normal pace for him. Obviously, any native speaker speaks too quickly for those from another language group. Also, I have noticed from going around the country, that what is rapid fire in Texas is slow in New York. I also know a devout priest who speaks the English so slowly that I feel like I’m in a time warp. So…as with everything, I would encourage people to not be quick to judge but to prepare themselves well for Mass so that the priest’s and congregation’s speed or lack thereof isn’t a stumbling block of their own making.

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