Women Leaders in the Liturgical Movement: Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940)

Moderator’s note: Today we start another new Pray Tell series: on women leaders in the Liturgical Movement. Dr. Katharine Harmon will offer a series of posts in this series from now until December 4, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of the approval of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Friend of Jane Addams and passionate advocate for labor reform, Ellen Gates Starr of Chicago, Illinois, discovered the liturgical movement in 1927, just months after the first issues of Orate Fratres (now Worship) appeared. A member of the Progressive movement, Starr was keenly interested in fair labor practices, the dignity of the worker, and the importance of teaching the arts to all Americans, not just the “privileged.” Starr and Virgil Michel, who became her correspondent, found much to talk about, as Michel was interested in social justice, the dignity of the baptized, and the importance of teaching the art of the liturgy to all Roman Catholics. In Starr’s view, the liturgical movement was poised to bring progressive reform to a new edge, by renewing the faith of the Church. She wrote in Orate Fratres in1927:

“The liturgical movement in the Church has much to accomplish, directly and indirectly. The liturgy restored in its full beauty and perfection, and a congregation of the faithful trained to its use, all that is incongruous with it will gradually come to be felt as such, and in due time brought into harmony.”

Starr saw many things which were “incongruous” with the liturgy, perhaps most blatantly, the people’s general lack of understanding of what was happening at Mass. As Starr once related to Michel, she remembered asking her laundress, a “good and very devout” lady, what people did during Mass. The laundress responded, “Oh, some of ‘em stands and some of ‘em sits.”

At the invitation of Michel, Starr began writing for Orate Fratres in 1927, introducing the laity to liturgical prayer, in particular, the breviary, a subject which had not yet been touched by Orate Fratres. Starr believed that educating the faithful in the finely-crafted words of the breviary brought the wonders of liturgical prayer home to Christians who had only experienced sentimental devotional books. For Starr, “to know and understand the liturgy” was the first step to loving it. [Sponsa Regis, 1937] She and Michel both saw the value in a lay woman inspiring popular use of the breviary amongst other lay people. As she wrote to Michel in 1927, a lay person offered a perspective which a priest or religious could not, in advocating for the accessibility and meaningfulness of liturgical prayer.

Relying on the same fearlessness with which she had confronted police officers during her days of striking for labor reform, Starr challenged Catholics armed with rosaries on their way to Mass—even if they were religious sisters. She wrote to Michel in 1930:

“I have railed formally and privately about doing the rosary at Mass for years…. I even arise or depart from a church when I see they are about to do it. I even told a sister, leading her flock into church, while I was going in [that I was going to leave if they started praying the rosary.] ‘You aren’t going to miss Mass!’ she said, in a horror, struck tone. ‘No, I’m going to find a church where I shall not miss Mass.’”

Already elderly (according to standards of the day!) by the 1930s, Starr wrote five articles for Orate Fratres and lectured and advocated for the liturgical movement in Chicago until her health failed. Starr’s energy and skills aided the efforts of the liturgical movement to educate, introduce tools (such as the Breviary), and to invite the faithful to rediscover liturgical prayer. Starr died in 1940 in Suffern, New York.

Katharine E. Harmon, Ph.D., is Lecturer in Theology at Marian University in Indianapolis. She is author of the 2013 Liturgical Press book There Were Also Many Women There: Lay Women in the Liturgical Movement in the United States, 1926-1959.


  1. Am I correct to understand that she was objecting to the public (audible) recitation of the Rosary during Mass? That’s implied in the passage, but not clear.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #1:
      Karl, Thanks for your question. You’re right, Starr was concerned about Catholics praying the rosary (aloud or silently) during Mass instead of “praying the Mass.” At the time she’s writing, “praying the Mass” would have been silently with the aid of a Missal.

      She used a Missal herself, and, like many other liturgical movement folks, tried to encourage others to do so, and to pray the rosary at other times. Starr was not particularly gentle with her “encouragement” though!

  2. What a wonderful preview for this book. I’m looking forward to picking up a copy and to following this series!

  3. Miss Starr is so evocative of Ade Betheune, of blessed memory. I remember her periodical, Sacred Signs, with great delight. Her Sunday afternoon commentaries were always so illuminating.

    1. @Brian Duffy – comment #5:
      Brian, I think you’re absolutely right; I see a lot of parallels between Starr and Bethune, down to their spunky attitudes! Looking at the ideology of the Arts and Crafts movemnet, in which Starr was directly involved and by which Bethune was influenced, you can see a lot of points on which the two women converged. Starr’s interest in fine texts and labor reform resonates with Ade’s interest in fine art & architecture and her devotion to the Catholic Worker.

  4. Did Starr participate in an English translation of the breviary? If so, I’d be very interested in comparing this translation to later bilingual offices, such as the English-Latin editions LitPress published in the 1950s and 1960s.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #6:
      Jordan, Good question regarding Starr–she didn’t, in the end, have involvement with translations, though she certainly had opinons about which ones were better than others. At this point in the liturgical movement, in the 1920s-1930s, advocates for renewal are still assuming that vernacular translations are only aids, and expected Latin to remain the language of the liturgy (this attitude shifts, especially after the Second World War).

      Starr described herself as “no scholar” in Latin, yet she prayed the Breviary in Latin. She preferred a translation by John Patrick Chrichton-Stuart (the “Bute translation”), originally published in 1900 by Burns & Oates. She discusses some recommended English translations for lay people looking to start praying the Breviary in “The Delights of the Breviary,” which appeared in Orate Fratres in 1927. It would have been interesting to see what she thought of those later translations which were so widely used that you mention. I’ve no doubt she would have had an opinion!

  5. This sounds like a book that Pope Francis would enjoy — if his English skills would allow it — and one that might fuel the thinking that he is clearly doing about the role of women.

    (And, parenthetically, I wondered at yesterday’s feast if Mass attendance for St. Francis was up this year because of the Franciscan example now emanating from Rome.)

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