Thursday, September 23, 2010


A long-time parishioner recently lent me a copy (one of the few still in existence, I suspect) of the 1902 Official Guide Book of General Information Pertaining to the Church of the Immaculate Conception.

What a treasure is contained in that little blue booklet’s 96 pages! (Half the pages are advertisements, and what a picture they paint of Turn-of-the-20th-Century Knoxville – complete with an ad for $13.50 bicycles!) The booklet lists the names of the pastor and his one assistant, the parish ushers, and other prominent parishioners and a full roster of parish societies (Altar Society, Young Ladies Sodality, Newman Literary Circle, League of the Sacred Heart, Boys Sodality, Catholic Knights and Ladies of America, Knights of Columbus, Ancient Order of Hibernians, and Irish Benevolent Society). Low Mass on Sundays was at 8:00 a.m., followed by Sunday School at 9:15, and High Mass at 10:30. Baptisms were celebrated on Sunday afternoons at 2:00 and there were Vespers, Lecture, and Benediction at 7:30 p.m. Weekday Masses were at 6:30 and 8:00 a.m. Confessions were heard every Saturday afternoon and evening, before Sunday and weekday Masses, and on the afternoon and evening before First Friday.

Apart from such specifics, however, the bulk of the booklet is, as it professes to be, “General Information” – in effect, a kind of mini-Catechism. It explains the different sacraments and various sacramentals, prayers, and devotions. It provides practical norms for how to behave in church, how to send for a priest to visit the sick, and how to prepare the sickroom for the celebration of the sacraments. It explains Mass stipends, the precepts of the Church, holydays of obligation, fast and abstinence, what is expected of a godparent, the importance of Catholic education and the Catholic press – and much more. The total number of Catholics in the area at the time may have been modest when compared with elsewhere in the country, but notable effort was obviously being expended on their instruction in the faith and their formation as a vibrant Church community.

A person of my generation would have no trouble recognizing and relating to the Church life revealed in those pages, despite the occasional quaintness of expression in the language. Indeed, sometimes the situations described can seem quite contemporary. Consider, for example, this sentence about what might be called “parish shopping”.

To go now to one and then to another for various purposes, merely to enjoy a personal advantage, merely to enjoy a personal advantage in the one and to escape a burden in the other, is unjust, productive of confusion, and renders one liable to be overlooked in the hour of need, with no one to blame but oneself.

Sometimes, however, the quaint mode of expression offers insight into a now seemingly long-lost religious universe. For example:

Do not greet your acquaintances in church, much less hold conversation with them there. Do not be offended, if your friends, holding the church more sacred than yourself, take little or no notice of your courtesies. Do not expect the priest to notice you, even in the rear of the church.

Through it all, one senses the deep faith, commitment to the Church, and serene self-confidence which have characterized the American Catholic community for most of its history.

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