A Lady Discovers the Latin Mass in West Virginia
I did it. I finally took myself in hand, determined to find a Sunday Latin Mass in rural West Virginia.
The Mass was held at a time (2PM) intended to be convenient for those who might be traveling some distance, in a place, Holy Trinity Catholic Church, conveniently located between the two largest cities in southern West Virginia – Charlestown and Huntington.
The Church is a 70’s building in a depressed residential area with a tiny minority of Catholics, Nitro – a town named for the nitroglycerine industry which was once its economic mainstay.
I arrived an hour early to be sure I was on time for the Mass, and found a young couple quietly contemplating the illuminated sanctuary atop three shallow steps, against a plain back wall. The solid granite altar was covered with a green-and-gold cloth with six tall candlesticks and a covered chalice; off to the side were two small chapels with votive candles dedicated to Our Lady. It was very quiet there, in those dark wooden pews — with kneelers, thankfully.
‘Because I prayed for it’
A half-hour before Mass, K arrived and propped open the church’s double doors. I told her I was taking pictures of the church, and she said she’d turn on the lights for me. We stood before the sanctuary, admiring the altar.
She said she was doing all she could to get the word out about the Traditional Latin Mass. I was glad to hear that. Why, I asked, did the TLM come to this particular town? She replied dryly, ‘Because I prayed for it.’ Then more seriously, ‘Oh, how I prayed so hard for this to come here!’ I understood, and chuckled. I liked K at once.
K used to be a Baptist and converted some twenty years ago when she fell in love with Catholic Masses she saw depicted in the movies. ‘This,’ she said, nodding at the candlestick-laden altar, ‘was why I converted.’ She was dismayed to discover that the Novus Ordo Mass was the dominant form in the real-life Catholic Church, but then decided to just pray fervently for a change.
Why, I asked, did the TLM come to this particular town? She replied dryly, ‘Because I prayed for it.’
She pointed out the life-like crucifix on the centre back wall. ‘That’s new. It came from South America. It’s very interesting because it looks so real. The blood looks like it’s dripping down from Jesus’ head.’ Some people didn’t like it, she said. At the request of father J a parishioner bought it for the church. It replaced the Risen Christ figure typical of the novelties in post-Vatican II Church architecture.
Two old statues; St Anthony of Padua and Thérèse of Lisieux flanked the crucifix. Their countenances were angelic and calm; they looked antique but I couldn’t tell their exact age. The paint was faded, white spots and chips bore witness to their neglect. K told me mysteriously that someone had bought these at ‘some sale.’
A Latin Mass in a Spartan Place
The Mass was about to start. I took my seat, armed with my 1962 Missal. There were just ten of us there, nine adults and one teen – the usual number, I was later told.
Father J conducted the Latin Mass in an unfussy, solemn manner. His soothing tenor gave a nice cadence and smoothness to the Latin text.
Just before the sermon, Father related a fascinating story of how the statues were found. It turns out that they came from the original church, demolished to make way for this new one in 1979. The two statues, each five feet tall, must have been purchased at a very great price many years ago. The family names of the donors remained at the base of each statue.
Shortly after the statues were removed from the original church, a parishioner spotted them on the side of the road, for sale as part of someone’s yard sale. She recognized them and bought them both for 20 dollars! Fortunately, she had a great appreciation for art and preserved them at her home for almost four decades. She was delighted and honored that they could be restored to their rightful places in the Church. Father planned to send the statues to Pennsylvania for restoration. He also intended to restore the tabernacle to its rightful place in the centre of the sanctuary.
The sermon proper began. Father J said that in the secular culture today where moral relativism reigns supreme, proclaiming the Truth of the Catholic Faith was simply not enough. Taking his cue from a recent issue of Latin Mass magazine, he believed that showing the world the beauty inherent in our Catholic music, liturgy, and tradition was going to be more effective. I found myself nodding and smiling at everything he said.
Father brought up a recent performance featuring a motley trio of young men on a TV talent show. They ‘brought down the house’ with their performance, he said, singing an excerpt from the Catholic Requiem Mass – the ‘Pie Jesu’! Yes, Father thought that an excellent example of evangelizing more persuasively by simply sharing the moving artistry and elegance found in this case, Catholic liturgical music. It was very likely that no one in that audience knew what the Latin words meant or the Catholic origins of that ‘song’. That itself, he argued, demonstrates the effectiveness of our beautiful musical and liturgical tradition!
Father then spoke about the tabernacle. Having it right there in the centre of the sanctuary he said, conforms to the current liturgical documents of the Church. It also reminds people that Christ is indeed present inside this church, and that Our Lord deserved due reverence. He related sadly that some parishioners failed to genuflect upon entering the church.
As the Mass resumed, Fr. J worked at a disadvantage as that particular day no altar servers were available to serve; however, a middle-aged gentleman took charge of ringing the bells. The church of course had no communion rail but we all knelt reverently in the front pews to receive Holy Communion.
A Conversation with Father after Mass
About half of us gathered around Father after Mass – a neatly dressed older couple, a fortyish woman with seven children, and K. I was pleased to learn that older couple belonged to my parish. Everyone was here purposefully and serious about their liturgy.
Father was gracious, explaining that he is a member of the worldwide Capuchin-Franciscan Order (the same Order as St. Padre Pio), founded in 1536 and today numbering more than 10,000 members. He was a part of the Province of St. Augustine, centered in Pittsburgh. The Province covers a five state area, numbering just over 100 men. However, the future looks very bright; the Province now has over 50 men in initial formation to become priests and brothers! Father told us that he’d been a Capuchin for 23 years and a priest for 16 years; he is now 46 years old. He had been a missionary working on the South Pacific Island of New Guinea before coming back to the States in 2001.
It was upon his return that Father J first experienced a Traditional Latin Mass. It was, you might say, love at first sight, and hearing. He would soon receive training in the TLM with the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter. Obedient to the expectations of his legitimate religious superior and his bishop, Father also celebrates Holy Mass in the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite.
His superior assigned him to these three small churches one year ago. Why here, of all places? Therein lies another tale…
Catholics Petitioned for the TLM
Several years before, about two hundred Catholics from nearby Charleston and Huntington had petitioned the Bishop for a TLM. By the design of Divine Providence and completely unrelated to that petition but for the grace of God, Father J was assigned to this town located at a relatively equal distance from both cities.
Father J says that there had not been a morning Mass at all in his parish for many years so he decided to offer the TLM at 7 AM, a typical time for morning Mass in this area. However, he explained that he also offers the TLM at 7 AM on Saturday — one of two churches in the whole area to offer a morning Saturday Mass at all. This prudent and diplomatic decision was made to avoid any conflicts with regular parish noon Masses in the three churches. Father J celebrates Mass daily for canonical and devotional reasons, and this sounded reasonable to me.
I shook his hand gratefully, confessing that his homilies were the very kind I had sought at Mass. The future of his TLM parish also looked bright. Father hoped to one day celebrate a High Mass here.
This forlorn 70’s structure was built at a time when modernist churches stripped of any complex religious art or architecture were all the rage. Father intended to improve the situation as much as possible, I could tell that he was sincere in what he said.
Strange and Wonderful
My ears then pricked up when Father let slip that a solemn High TLM might soon be coming to my local parish. ‘Twas another reason to smile, I thought — oh, what a sweet, smart, gentle, and dedicated priest.
My local parish priest was ordained in the early Eighties, and spent a decade as a military chaplain before serving for a few years at a parish further north. To be honest, I was a bit put off at first by his endless joke-telling, even in homilies. Like many priests of his generation who learned to say the Novus Ordo Mass versus populum, I thought perhaps he felt a need to entertain the crowd. To his credit, I conceded that he’d kept liturgical abuse out of his Masses, and performed his priestly duties with gusto.
Before taking my leave, I shook Fr J’s hand once more, thanking him profusely. He smiled and gave me his blessing; I find that TLM priests have generally been much warmer folks.
I’ll be including Fr J in my daily prayers henceforth – and my local parish priest, too. We’re repeatedly told to pray for all priests, but today I just learned something amazing.
To my utter shock, it turns out that my own parish priest took a few lessons in saying the TLM from Fr. J -unbeknownst to all of us!
How strange and wonderful are the ways of God.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Teresa Limjoco is a revert of recent vintage who spends her working hours as a pathologist staring into a microscope, hoping to discover what new mischief and treachery afflicts our little human cells. She is crazy for the Catholic Church, its history, culture and theology, and wishes she could attend the Traditional Latin Mass more often.