Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Roamin’ Catholic: St Francis de Sales (Benedict MD)

With this entry, I begin to chronicle my temporary Sunday wanderlust, in the form of an experience at a different parish church each Sunday. It will run each week until I'm tired of running.

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One need not go far from Arlington, Virginia, to see a dramatic change in the topography, from that of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to the Piedmont region. In less than an hour, the rolling hills where was fought the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas, depending on your point of view) become the flat lowlands where the tropical winds are more likely to reach, where corn and tobacco still rule the landscape, and where the Faith was first brought by the Jesuit missionaries, to what became the colony named for the Blessed Mother. To this day, many of the native tribes that greeted the men in black robes still have a presence -- the Piscataway and Powhatan in Maryland, or the Chickahominy and Mattaponi in Virginia, to name a few -- if only a smaller (and in some cases, intermarried) version of their former selves.

IMAGE: Oyster boats and pleasure craft docked in the Patuxent River at Benedict, 1941. (National Archives)

In the midst of the low country that is southern Maryland, is the little fishing village once established in 1683 as Benedict-Leonardtown (named for the Benedict Leonard Calvert, who eventually became Proprietary Governor of Maryland), and the site of two British invasions (both the Revolution and the War of 1812), the place eventually known as Benedict remains the oldest surviving town in Charles County, and one of the oldest in Maryland, albeit with a population of less than three hundred. Although unincorporated, it has its own post office, a fire station for the county, two seafood restaurants, and what has been up to now the only church in southern Maryland that offers the Traditional Latin Mass.

St Francis de Sales was established as a mission in 1896, and as a parish in 1903. The small wooden structure that served as the original mission eventually succumbed to a fire, and the present stucco building was completed in 1924. To enter the little town just off State Route 231 is to emerge in a sort of Lake Wobegon kind of place, and one is first greeted by the little country church on the side of the road.

Looks quaint, doesn't it?

You pass by that little country church on the side of the road, and you expect to walk in and step back in time just a little, don't you? If that church is Catholic, this would have been likely in the 1970s. But try that today, and you'll probably step back into the 1970s, complete with ill-conceived renovations, a mismatched free-standing altar, and a little old lady who couldn't play canasta on a good day, much less the church organ, pumping out tunes from the Saint Louis Jesuits, or maybe some ditty about banging "glad tambourines" (which never seemed to inspire waking up, much less playing them, but anyway ...)

When the current pastor, Father Kevin Michael Cusick, took over the parish several years ago, it was more like that than unlike that.

Gregarious, welcoming, and with the distinct bearing of a military man (which is fitting for a Navy chaplain serving the Marines), the good Father set about to enact a "reform of the reform." Altar service was returned to the boys (and the men), traditional hymnody became the standard fare, and the sanctuary was eventually restored to its former glory, without the excessive wallpapered ornamental decoration, the type that typified American parish churches from the mid-19th to mid-20th century. The free-standing altar is still brought out from its place as a side altar for some Masses, but Father is gradually weaning the parish toward a steady diet of "turning toward the Lord" for worship, at the traditional altar, regardless of which set of books is being used.

The parish has a Traditional Latin Mass every Sunday at 11:00am. The first Sunday of the month is reserved for a “Missa Cantata” (High Mass). That was what I was expecting. But when I walked in, I could already hear the murmuring about the change in plans. Between the previous day's wedding, and the coming Thursday's traditional commemoration of the Ascension, a burnout situation was anticipated. An executive decision was made, to go with Plan B, a Low Mass with hymns.

(This is what became known in the past century --- a hymn for the entrance, offertory, communion, and recession -- as the “four-hymn sandwich.” While acceptable for a missa recitata in and of itself, it has in the reformed liturgy become the basis for any form of sung Mass, as opposed to a schola or cantor singing the "propers," the antiphon and/or psalm verse for the Mass of the day. This was never intended, but that's another story ...)

The coffee hour afterwords was at the parish hall just a short walk from the church (or an even shorter drive when it's raining). They make a complete stranger feel right at home. It probably didn't hurt that they recognized the hat. (What can I tell you?) And while some have walked away from changes that were only made for their own good, others have taken their place, including young adults and young families from the surrounding countryside, throughout Charles County, and even beyond. (The scholameister comes all the way from Manassas, Virginia, which is which is even farther away than yours truly.) All in all, that little country church on the side of the road must be doing something right.

I imagine living in a small town, and being able to walk to a church like this one. Indeed, the fictional Lake Woebegon is described as “the little town that time forgot, and the decades cannot improve.” A faithful Catholic who likes to "kick it old school" might find his own piece of that here, then head down to the local establishment for a taste of fruits of the sea. This weary traveler hopes to visit that little country church again on some first Sunday later in the year.

I should probably call first.


stpete78 said...

God bless you for your fair recounting. I lived in St. Mary's and now VA. I still am blessed by the opportunity to drive back when the opportunity presents. One will find themselves considering the possibility of moving to the Peoples Republic of Maryland just to live near this type of church community. I highly recommend the Canons of New Jerusalem in Charles Town WV. Your mind and soul will be blown away by the efforts of Fr. Daniel and his brother monk/priests. In Deus

David L Alexander said...

I've been to the priory in Charles Town more than once. They're on the list. Stay tuned ...