By Paul McMullen
In 1986, less than a generation after it had enjoyed the highest newspaper circulation in Baltimore, The News American went out of business. A few years later, The Sun opened a state-of-the art printing operation at Port Covington, banishing daily newspaper pressmen from downtown for good and putting another hitch into what St. Vincent de Paul Parish still calls its “Printers’ Mass.”
The tradition began in 1914, before World War I, let alone World War II and Vatican II. That conclave lifted the decree that Sunday worship not start more than one hour before dawn and opened the door for Saturday afternoon Mass, which made the only regularly-scheduled midnight Mass in the Archdiocese of Baltimore an anachronism.
The original 2:30 a.m. Printers’ Mass accommodated legions of pressmen producing fat Sunday issues of The Sun and ancestors of The News American. By the time they rode the streetcar home and cleaned up from what could be a very messy business, a bed rather than a kneeler was in order.
Ink-stained wretches nod at that recounting. The most severe lecture I ever received at Sunday Mass was from one of my brothers, admonishing me for not bathing properly and removing the newsprint from my neck after serving the 100 homes on my News American route.
According to a parish history, the 12:15 a.m. Sunday Mass that St. Vincent de Paul currently offers was added to the 2:30 a.m. in 1941. At one point, concurrent Masses were celebrated in the basement chapel, with as many as 1,400 tending to their Sunday obligation in the wee hours.
Eventually, the Printers’ Mass was populated less by pressmen, policemen, firefighters and nurses, and more by late-night revelers, the occasional crabber and guys looking to impress a date’s parents.
Tom and Gerry Fialkowski, parishioners still, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this summer. On their first official date, after a Johnny Mathis concert at the old Lyric Theater and dinner in Little Italy, they went to Mass at St. Vincent de Paul. Gerry arrived home at 4 a.m. to a mother who was irate – until she learned of her whereabouts.
Father Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul since 1973, remembers the drill.
“The Printers’ Mass saved my life more than once,” he said. “As a freshman, sophomore at Loyola College, you’d go to a dance that ended at 1, buy a lady a drink and take her to 2:30 Mass. You’d fold the bulletin into your jacket, and get her home at dawn to a father demanding to know, ‘Where have you been with my daughter?’
“With the bulletin, you went from being the scoundrel of the world to a prospective son-in-law.”
Now the Printers’ Mass is dotted with night owls, insomniacs and denizens of the homeless camp on the south side of the church. Including a reader and eucharistic minister, 16 were in the congregation June 8, and the time has come to end the tradition.
“I’m not retiring, but I am going to reduce my workload,” said Father Lawrence, who is moving out of the parish rectory. “With the archbishop’s permission, I’m buying a condo at Scarlett Place. The idea of Midnight Mass, then closing up the church, waking up and preparing for Sunday Masses … that’s just no longer do-able.”
St. Vincent de Paul will honor Father Lawrence’s 40 years at the parish June 30, with a special 10:30 a.m. Mass. Earlier that day, he will celebrate the final 12:15 a.m. Printers’ Mass, with a small reception to follow.
Parishioners and past attendees are invited. It’s late at night, but you might want to get there early.
Paul McMullen is managing editor of The Catholic Review.
Copyright (c) June 13, 2013 CatholicReview.org