Saturday 29 March 2008

Parish Life 200 Years Ago

Some of you will know Catholic London A Century Ago, first published in 1905 by Bernard Ward (later first bishop of Brentwood). There are some fascinating details about English Catholic life two hundred years ago, in the aftermath of the Catholic Relief Acts of 1778 and 1791:
  • Catholic churches looked very different from the ones built later in the nineteenth century - no side altars, minimal decoration and divisions in the church seating for the different classes of person. The best seats cost a shilling or sixpence and could be found in the 'Tribune' or the 'Enclosure' immediately in front of the sanctuary. You can see such privileged positions in the picture above of the old Sardinian Chapel (the ancestor of SS Anselm and Cecilia, Kingsway). The poorer members stood behind in the 'Body of the Church' and this section often had its own communion rail. I wonder if this is one reason why so many Catholics instinctively tend to sit at the back of the church?!

  • Apparently, 'the subdeacon of the [High] Mass was usually the preacher, but before the sermon he would disappear into the sacristy to take off his tunicle and come out to preach in cotta and stole.'

  • Confessionals were rare. Ward writes that 'there are those still alive who have described the scene on a Saturday evening, when the line of penitents were kneeling all up the stairs of the priest's house, taking their turns for admissions to his room.'
  • There is a wonderful description of Tenebrae that has come down to us thanks to Thomas Doyle, later Provost of Southwark. He wrote (and it is quoted by Ward): 'Dr Bramston used to describe with much effect the Tenebrae in Castle Street, Holborn, where he, a limb of the law [before ordination], and Charles Butler, another limb, and the Rev. Mr Lindow, and Bishop Douglass, met in the “Episcopal palace” in an upper chamber, at the fourth house on the right hand – and a dirty, dingy, shabby-genteel house it was – for the purpose of reciting the Divine Office. They met and separated, too thankful that even that much was done, and hoped for better days.’ Many churches followed the French custom of decorating the 'Easter sepulchre' with empty chalices and other church plate.

  • Priests no longer wore wigs in the nineteenth century but tended to powder their hair - the first to discard the custom of powdering before singing Mass was Dr Weathers, later Auxiliary to Cardinal Manning (ordained priest 1838). When whiskers became fashionable, priests sported what was called the 'clerical inch' so as not to draw attention to themselves. Interestingly, the first priest in England to wear black clothing (rather than brown or other sober colours) was Joseph Berington, considered by many of his contemporaries as an 'arch-liberal' and Cisalpine - his writings shared many of the proposals of the 1786 Synod of Pistoia (eg Mass in the vernacular, greater democracy in the Church, etc).

  • Ward writes: 'A custom of administering wine from the chalice to children with whooping-cough lasted on till my own time - it was administered to myself under these circumstances - but I have never heard of its being done in recent years.' He adds in a footnote that he had heard 'that there are one or two parishes in London in which the practice still obtains' at the time of writing (1905). I assume the wine was unconsecrated. Does anyone know anything more about this strange practice?



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I have heard that people standing at the back of churches in Ireland is a holdover from the days of the Penal Laws, when people would be posted too keep lookout while Mass was being offered.

But I don't really believe it. Some pople just want to arrive late and leave early without being seen, and they simply don't have as much interest in what's going on in the sanctuary.

1:14 pm  
Blogger Fr Nicholas said...

Yes, it's the same in Italy where the men congregate at the back with their mobiles.

1:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember the same from my youth in Ireland, not that very long ago. There was always a group of men, usually farmers, and a bit uncouth, for want of a better term, at the back of the church, often in the porch, ( though the doors through to it were left open). I have to say they seemed quite devout, said the rosary and knelt on the floor, usually on their hankerchiefs, for the consecration. They never seemed to receive and all disappeared, to the pub I think, immediately after the priest's communion. As time went on, we had a rather new type of priest who insisted on inviting them into the body of the church and indeed I remember one saying, " there's plenty of room up front, Gentlemen!" With this and the liturgical changes these men, rough country fellows, rather than coming and sitting in the main part of the church ceased to come at all. I am reminded of the comments made after the first experimental Novus Ordo Mass in the Sistine Chapel that only women and children would attend it.

6:23 pm  
Blogger Embajador said...

In Spain it is also customary to sit at the back of the church.

Years ago one the priests in our parish would always start the homily by inviting "those at the back" to come forward and sit in the front rows. He would not start the homily until at least 10 people had complied. He was so insistent that at the end everyone got the message and at least in our parish the front rows are always occupied.

No one wants to risk having to walk through the middle of a packed church in "shame" anymore.

He did, however, loose the Battle of the Crying Babies. The parish is set in an area very well known for its prolific families. No one really cares about crying babies, as we all have at least one. You get used to following the Holy Mass properly and devoutly even in the middle of a hurricane. But it took the priest a while to get inmersed in the local culture. He would stop the homily if a baby cried. After a while he realised families here put a great emphasis in attending Mass all together and that babies crying was considered a "lesser evil". The most vocal women bitterly complained to the pastor to the extent that given that Church was supposed to be fostering large families it made no sense not wanting to have them at Mass.

These days both the priest in question and the pastor are greatly respected and loved by all.

8:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this, I am very proud to be a member of the parish of St Anselm and St Caecilia and am interested in its history and connection with the Sardinian Chapel. We still have the Sardinian coat of arms on a wall in the church. The present church on Kingsway will be celebrating its centenary next year.

12:19 am  
Blogger GOR said...

Yes, the comments about men populating the back of the church brought back memories of childhood in Ireland. The men would congregate at the church gate, waiting for the “Five minute bell” before shuffling slowly to the back door of the church (like the schoolboy in As You Like It: “creeping, like snail, unwillingly to school...”). In the vestibule some would even engage in a game of “Pitch and Toss”…!

However, that this was not just a recent phenomenon (except for the Pitch and Toss, perhaps…) came home to me many years ago when I read of a bishop in early Christian times who admonished the faithful to move up in the church and not stay at the back…

Plus ca change…

1:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry Fr! Just choked on my coffee! All I saw was Priests wearing wigs! lol

2:30 pm  
Blogger Joshua said...

Fortescue, I think, or Jungmann, notes that there was a medieval custom of administering either the ablutions themselves, or just a draught of unconsecrated water or wine, from the chalice, which was regarded as a general cure-all.

12:01 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The church where I used to attend mass was in a bit of town which had been a farming village before the suburbs came. This was at Graz in Southern Austria and, lo and behold, the same group of men, standing at the back, just like in England, Ireland or Spain. Some of them must have come and done that when this was a farmers' church, not a suburbian sanctuary (as it is now). The local priest, however, is from farming stock himself and so never forced anyone to come near the altar. I do not know whether the men are still at the back, because I have moved and the church was uglifi... ahm, renovated years ago.


12:29 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old St Joseph's Catholic Church in Philadelphia is very similar in style. Dating from 1733, it was the first RC church known in the Union and really doesn't strike one as a catholic church. Despite this, President John Adams once wrote in his diary, "Went in the Afternoon to the Romish Chappell and heard a good discourse upon the Duty of Parents to their Children, founded in justice and Charity. The Scenery and the Musick is so calculated to take in Mankind that I wonder the Reformation ever succeeded."

5:51 pm  
Blogger M.J. said...

Old St Joseph's Catholic Church in Philadelphia is very similar in style. Dating from 1733, it was the first RC church known in the Union and really doesn't strike one as a catholic church..."

I think you mean the first RC church known in the English Colonies. Mission San Miguel in Santa Fe predates Old St. Joe's.

From the archives of the Christian Brothers, New Orleans/Santa Fe Disctrict:

8:08 pm  
Blogger Paul Goings said...

No, I think that he is correct. When did Santa Fe become a part of these United States?

9:36 pm  

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