Friday, July 17, 2015

The Latin Mass in Pennsylvania's capital

Last weekend, we sojourned out to central Pennsylvania to visit my grandmother-in-law, so while we were out there, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter's (FSSP's) chapel in Harrisburg for Sunday Mass.

The chapel of Saint Lawrence is situated beside the muddy--err, mighty Susquehanna River, as well as the foot of a grand avenue leading up to the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol building. The Capitol looks quite magnificent from the outside (when President Teddy Roosevelt dedicated it in 1906, he called it "the handsomest building I ever saw"), and I intend to visit it the next time we're in the city. It bewilders me that Madame, a lifelong Pennsylvanian, hasn't yet done her duty as a loyal citizen of the Commonwealth and toured the place. (A native Texan wouldn't dare dream of reaching their 20's without visiting the State Capitol building in Austin.)

Pennsylvania's Capitol complex is so big, in fact, that the Commonwealth bought up the old Saint Lawrence, a parish church built by a German Catholic community, and demolished it for expansions. The current Saint Lawrence was finished in 1918 in the same Gothic style as its predecessor, but as far as I can tell, was never returned to parish status. It became a chapel for the nearby cathedral of the Harrisburg diocese. Over the years, that old German community fizzled out and the chapel collected dust until 2005, when the bishop that year gave the building to the FSSP. Unofficially, I've read that the primary motive was mostly to allow the diocese to compete with an independent priest in York rather than for altruism, but I can't confirm it. Whatever the reasons were, the Fraternity has made good use of the property and placed the old Latin Mass right in the middle of a busy metropolis; a refreshing change from the usual state of affairs, where bishops or the laws of economics sentence Latin Mass communities to death by suburbia.

Wonderful iconography around the Mary altar.
We arrived early enough for me to take a look around the building. The church appeared to be a sturdy Gothic edifice of plaster and stone, and filled with stained-glass, altarpieces, and all the other usual furnishings that we've apparently forgotten how to make over the last century. My only gripes were with the floor tiling which looked like those you'd find in an old Pizza Hut, and the small sanctuary; though, to be fair, even ugly tiling is better than the carpeting I got used to at so many Latin Masses in Texas, and virtually no Catholic parish in America has a properly sized sanctuary with a chancel. As I studied the architecture, the congregation was praying the Rosary, and a few were in line for confessions. It wasn't packed to standing room only, but all the pews were respectably filled out with few gaps in between. Throw in a bunch of lace veils, and it was like stepping back into a Catholicism that virtually no longer exists, even though these sights and sounds were still the norm within my mother-in-law's memory.

Yes, these signs are here for a reason!
At 10, sung Mass begun with the priest and servers processing from the front door of the church to a processional hymn from the Collegeville Hymnal. As with most other Catholic churches in our country, hymnody wasn't one of the more cherished traditions here, so only a few people actually sang. With that done, the celebrating priest began the Asperges and Mass flawlessly. The choir, an all-male schola of five or six guys, made all the responses alone. Though I knew they existed, this was the first time I actually attended Mass with an entirely silent congregation (save for the ones at Clear Creek Abbey, an unusual circumstance). Even at the diocesan TLM where I lived previously, where the vast majority of people weren't much interested in singing the Ordinary of the Mass as a congregation, you could still squeeze some et cum spiritu tuo's out of them. Even the basic responses at Saint Lawrence, though, were sung by the schola alone, albeit done well. They also sang the complete Missa Orbis Factor, even the Gloria, and all the minor propers according to the full melodies in the Liber Usualis.

To be honest, I spent the greater part of Mass in the narthex holding our daughter, who was by far the noisiest person there. From what I could tell going in and out, though, Mass proceeded just as you would expect from a society of priests dedicated to preserving the traditional liturgy; no funny business whatsoever. Another priest, not the celebrant, preached the homily. The substance was a solid, hold-no-punches tour of the errors of religious liberty and the French Revolution, probably timed to precede France's annual celebration of that jailbreak in 1789; perhaps so punchy and replete with quotes going back to Pope Pius VII that one who wasn't already well-formed in the Church's traditional teachings would lose a tooth. I didn't have the heart to ask my mother-in-law, who Madame dragged out with us (and hadn't even attended a TLM since Vatican II), what she thought of the homily afterward. In fact, if such homilies are a normal occurrence at this chapel, I'm surprised the bishop still allows them to operate at all.

The beautiful, but small, sanctuary.
After the last Gospel, the priest and servers exited the church to another English hymn. This time, I made sure to grab a hymnal and turn to the right page, even with baby in tow, but again, not too many other singers. There was, however, still a fundamental difference between how the recessional hymn was treated here versus my old diocesan TLM community back home. In San Antonio, everyone starts filing out as soon as the priest passes the last pew while the choir alone sings two verses of the hymn. There's not even a pretense of trying. But in Harrisburg, although only a few people bothered singing, everyone still stayed standing in their places until all four verses were done. There was, at least, a respect for the hymn's place.

Servers putting the sanctuary in order after Mass.
Following the thanksgiving prayers and so on, I took a few pictures of the church and followed the congregation to the basement, where a farewell reception was being held for their outgoing chaplain, the same one who celebrated Mass. Other than the priests themselves, the people weren't very chatty with newcomers, so I only got to ask two laypeople about the church's history. The schola director actually looked about the same age as me, and I learned he started singing chant around the same time I did. We talked a bit about music, I had a dessert or two, then headed out.

Look at this excellent wooden ceiling!
In leaving, I realized the most unusual thing of all about this community, compared to other TLM venues: there were no female choir members. Usually, the music for sung Masses is provided by a mixed choir of adult men and women (more women than not), or a choir mostly of women augmented by a small men's schola for the proper chants. Although I'm a big proponent of congregational singing, I thought on my way out that perhaps the reason this church was content to leave all the singing to the schola was because the all-male responses, combined with the reverberation from the stone walls and non-carpeted floor, gave the sacred music a strong air of the monastic. I can't say I blame them for not wanting to "ruin" it, at least.

It's not every day that you see even the organ's pipes adorned in Gothic at an American Catholic church.

1 comment:

  1. I used to spend a good deal of time in Harrisburg for work. Attending Mass at St. Lawrence was always one of the highlights of the trip.