The First National Eucharistic Congress
by Reverend Paul Liston, Senior Priest
There were two days early in October 1895 when the eyes of the Church in the U.S. were focused upon Saint Patrick's. The parish was just celebrating its centenary and the Catholic Church was beginning to gain prominence in the nation's captial. St. Patrick's parish was the setting for the first National Eucharistic Congress. This effort at the end of the 19th century sought to enhance the understanding and appreciation of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
The present structure of Saint Patrick's Church was barely a decade old when it was lavishly outfitted by the pastor, John Gloyd, with a new gothic altar, elaborate frescoes, and the largest organ in the city in preparation for the grand event. The opening Mass on October 2 saw Cardinal Gibbons along with the first apostolic delegate to the United States, 20 archbishops and bishops, and a cluster of monsignori crowded into our sanctuary. Some 300 priests attended as well as many laity. One of the most noted preachers of the day, Bishop John Keane, the first rector of the newly founded Catholic University, spoke on the occasion. (Keane had labored as assistant priest in this parish for a dozen years before his elevation to bishop.) His sermon topic was Jesus who calls us not servants, but friends.
Still there is no better way to explain the Eucharist than as a call to friendship and intimacy. Unless you come to appreciate your Christian life as an invitation to close friendship with Jesus, you have missed the point entirely. And the possibility of such closeness with God can transform your whole life view as well as deepen every human friendship. But, as the saying goes, "to have a friend you have to be a friend."
The eyes of the awe-struck press focussed on accounts of the decade-old new structure--the pastor had replaced gas lighting with electricity! "The elaborate sanctuary lamp alone (reportedly the first in the world to use electric light) was $1,000! . . ." Much was made in the newspapers of the day over the new electric lighting designed by the New York artist, D. Columbani. The florid reports themselves glowed, for example in the Washington Post: "From around the pillars and statues and suspended from the arches the incandescent lamps threw their radiance against teh walls and ceiling, bringing out the beautiful coloring and exquisite decoration. . . . The new altar was lighted by hundreds of wax candles, whose luster was heightened by a number of electric lights encased in globes of unique design."
The Church News marveled how appropriately red and white lights were placed by the tabernacle door, to be used as needed according to the feast celebrated. And most marvelous of all, the lights here and there could be activated at the flick of a switch!"
The Tuesday evening preceding the Congress witnessed the official opening. "In addition to choral and instrumental offerings, the new pipe organ [46 speaking stops and 2,300 pipes] and the church's novel electric fixtures came into prominent play. According to the mood of the music, lighting was varied about the church and waned or waxed in intensity. Rather curious now, yet characteristic of the time, organ selections included transcriptions of Chopin's Military Polonaise and Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite." Also notable was the fact that during the next morning's liturgy, the homily was given after the Mass.
To read the original Washington Post coverage of the 1895 Mass, click on the image at the top of this page.
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