A PAGE FROM OUR HISTORY
MID-NIGHT MASS - CHRISTMAS EVE - DECEMBER 25, 1799 Ω THE LEGENDS, THE TRADITIONS LIVE ON Ω Fr. Gallitzin bequeathed very little description of this historic event that took place here in the mountain wilderness at McGuire Settlement in Western Pennsylvania; nor could he have known at that time the chain of events that would come to follow with the profound impact his saintly presence amongst us would have from the light he brought into the darkness of that night so long ago. But that Mass was to dramatically affect the religious and social affairs of our Catholic Loretto Church Community up to the present time, not only here in Loretto, but for all of the virgin territories far beyond at that time. Much is left to our imaginations and to the time-honored traditions, tales, and folklore passed down through the successive generations of our fore fathers and mothers; or gleaned from literature of those times which told of the customs, fashions, attitudes, and ancestral practices of Christmas the immigrants brought with them from their European homelands here to this new settlement on the colonial frontier. We do know that Christmas Eve in the new America in 1799 fell on a Tuesday according to the Gregorian Calandar. According to weather researchers looking over the eastern Pa. newspapers at that time, snows were recorded to have fallen intermittingly throughout the Allegheny Mountains and its western plateau in west-central Pennsylvania. Temperatures were seasonally cold, probably in the mid-twenties, with only moderate winds. But the forecast for Christmas triduum called for continuing snow showers, daily, as a new winter front was expected to descend through the region and on to the coast. But the settlers of the forest at McGuire’s were far removed from the weather prognosticators in Lancaster. They neither read about nor feared the whimsical moods of the mountain weathers. For miles around the folks knew that on this Christmas Eve, Fr. Gallitzin was to celebrate the Holy Nativity Mass at midnight in the little log church, some 44’ X 25’, his men had built and finished just days before. They knew they would gather here for the very first time in the spiritual annals of this bleak and dense land of forests and streams to celebrate for the first time the Feast of the Lord’s birth, offered to God by a priest of the Catholic Church beginning at the very hour of the Christmas Day. During the week leading up to the eve of Christmas, the men of the parish nailed boughs of strung-together evergreens of hemlock, spruce, pine and laurel, simple but tasteful, along the interior walls of the church. The women of the parish placed homemade dipped beeswax candles in front of each window, artfully placed over-hung garlands of nut-and-fruit, ground pine and ivy among the evergreens, and strategically placed candles along the aisles and sanctuary to provide illumination for the priest and congregants. Fr. Gallitzin was not one for ostentatious displays of finery within his church; but with nature providing these God-given accessories, he bent to the will of his people and their strong Germanic and Irish traditions brought with them for the old country. This was, indeed a special night! Even in its festival décor, it was probably remarkably simple and austere, almost Spartan by today’s standards. Of course, there was no heating device of any sort in that log church. The chestnut log benches were systematically arranged within the church proper to allow for a narrow passage aisle down the center; The men to one side, the women and children to the other. An altar railing of polished chestnut graced the space between the sanctuary and the nave. Gallitzin honored the offering of the bread and wine and Holy Communion as the highlight of the Mass. Confession and Fasting attended its reception. There were no sung carols, no organ, no Nativity display, no organized choir, no statues or sacred art there. The altar and the priest, the services in Latin, the plain and reverential presentation of the Mass by a Prince-Priest for the Prince of human-kind, utilizing the bare essentials and utensils brought with him from his missionary circuit - all made for an historic moment in time that was to inspire future generations forever. Imagine the content and presentation of Gallitzin’s homily! And the peoples who were in attendance - some came walking with swinging lanterns, and others in horse-drawn sleds, thru the trackless woods, devoid of roads, to participate in a sacrifice of their own, and would continue to do so, so says the stories, for many a long years. Gloria in Excelsis Deo! f.i.s.