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Brass Rubbings

My Grandparents' Wedding

On church closings in a pandemic.


When people complain to me that the churches shouldn’t have been closed because of the coronavirus, I’ve taken to saying, “I’m not going to stand here and listen to you insult Cardinal Dougherty.” All my life I’ve expected the churches to be closed for an epidemic. This is why. My grandparents were married in Saint James Church at Thirty-Eighth and Chestnut in West Philadelphia, in 1918, during the flu epidemic. Just like this time, theaters and churches—virtually all places where people congregate—were closed for fear of spreading infection. The priest who presided at the wedding had been an Episcopal minister. Five or six converted at one time and he was one of them. Marriages were being conducted in rectories, but the priest said it would be a shame for such a devout couple to be married in the rectory. He told my grandfather that he would marry them in the church, and would leave the side door open for them. Only the wedding party was to attend, though, just as if the wedding were being held in the rectory, and they were to tell no one that they were being married inside the church. When they got there on the day of the wedding, the church was filled up. My grandmother said she looked out, saw all the people, and was never so embarrassed in all her life. The people were there to visit the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. They were not there for Mass. This was before nuptial Masses were common. In those days, other than during an epidemic, Catholic churches were never closed. People visited the Blessed Sacrament at all hours. Consider this from Christopher Morley’s essay “The Parkway, Henry Ford and Billy the Bean Man,” published in 1920 in his book Travels in Philadelphia, originally written for his column in the Public Ledger:
The great churches of the Roman communion are always an inspiration to visit. At almost all hours of the day or night you will find worshippers slipping quietly in and out, generally of the humblest classes. I slipped into the Cathedral for a few minutes and sat there watching the shimmer of color and blended shadows as the vivid sunlight streamed through the semicircular windows above the nave. The body of the church is steeped in that soft dusk described once for all as “a dim religious light,” but the great cream-colored pillars with their heavy gold ornaments lift the eyes upward to the arched ceiling with its small tablets of blue and shining knots of gold. In the dome hung a faint lilac haze of intermingled gentle hues, sifting through the ring of stained windows. The eastern window over the high altar shows one brilliant note of rich blue in the folds of the Madonna’s gown. Over the gleaming terrace of white marble steps hangs a great golden lamp with a small ruby spark glowing through the twilight. Below these steps a plainly dressed little man knelt in prayer all the time I was in the church. The air was faintly fragrant with incense, having almost the aroma of burning cedar wood. A constant patter of hushed footfalls on the marble floor was due to the entrance and exit of stealthy worshipers coming in for a few minutes of silence in the noon recess.
George Barton observed the same thing about Old St. Joseph’s church in Little Journeys Around Old Philadelphia in 1923. Here he is with his own quotation from the London Magazine in the 1730s:
“A small specimen of a notable step which the people of that profession have taken toward the propagation of Popery abroad has come to my notice, and I have it from a gentleman who has lived for many years in Pennsylvania, I confide in the truth of it. In the town of Philadelphia, in that colony, is a public Popish chapel, where that religion has free and open exercise and in all the superstitious rites of that church are as avowedly performed as those of the Church of England are in the Royal Chapel of St. James. And this chapel is not only open upon fasts and festivals, but is so all day and every day in the week, and exceedingly frequented at all hours either for private or public devotion . . .” It is interesting to note that old St. Joseph’s is still open “all day and every day in the week.” . . . As the gossipy and not altogether good-natured correspondent of the London newspaper wrote nearly two hundred years ago it is frequented at “all hours” by those who wish a few minutes of solitude and prayer. The old-fashioned galleries, and the plain pulpit bespeak earlier generations, but the tranquility found there is the atmosphere that has always been characteristic of the place. The red lamp burns always before the tabernacle, and the wayfarer who enters here finds himself far removed from the noise and bustle of the modern world.
When I first heard the wedding story, the explanation was that people saw that the church was open, and they just went in. Eventually I heard a different theory, that some member of the wedding party, despite the priest’s instructions, talked. A certain uncle was suspected. Some indignantly rejected this explanation. If you imagine Saint James Church closely surrounded by row houses, that theory sounds more plausible than if you only considered what that neighborhood is like now. My family’s attitude was that those people who filled the church did a good thing for a good reason, but that the better thing, the more Catholic thing, was to cooperate with the priest’s attempt to obey Cardinal Dougherty’s ruling, and neither to go into the church under those circumstances, nor to tell anyone of the opportunity. Michael Hamill writes from Philadelphia.

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Michael Hamill writes from Philadelphia.