Liturgy in Southbridge, MA: an audio time-capsule of post-conciliar transition

In a comment on Jonathan Day’s post, Scott Knitter said,

I’d love to see a video of a mid-1960s Mass (1965 Rite?) done for educational, comparison purposes.

This of course sent me scurrying off to YouTube to see what I could find. In terms of video, not much. But I did find an audio archive of recordings of liturgies at Sacred Heart Church in Southbridge, MA (closed in 2011), ranging from 1966-1969. The audio is not always very clear, and I will admit that I skipped the homilies (which might themselves have made for fascinating comparisons), but they provide a fascinating glimpse of liturgical changes in one parish.

The earliest, from 1966, shows the first wave of conciliar reforms. The orations and some of the dialogues of the priest are still in Latin, as is the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer. All of the people’s parts (unless responding to the priest’s Latin in the dialogues) are in English. The congregation recites together not only the introit, offertory, and communion, but also the gradual (remember, the responsorial psalm is as yet just a gleam in some liturgist’s eye). Hymns are sung, predictably, at the entrance, offertory, communion, and end, but nothing else is sung. Clearly Low Mass with hymns is the operative model. The liturgy is dominated by the commentator, who not only invites participation, but also reads summaries/paraphrases of the orations before the priest prays them in Latin, as well as inviting the people to pray for the church and the world immediately after the Sanctus, as the still-silent canon is beginning. Indeed, the commentator might, if one excludes the homily, actually speak more audible words in the liturgy than the priest celebrant does. Interestingly, there are no prayers at the foot of the altar to be heard; presumably these are said quietly by the priest and servers during the opening hymn. So the entrance rite takes the form of a hymn, the communally recited introit, and, after a brief invitation by the commentator to ask for God’s mercy, the nine-fold “Lord have mercy.”

The next recording, from 1967, is interesting on a couple of counts. First, the process of vernacularization has advanced. Now everything—except, presumably, the still-silent Canon—is in English. This means the commentator is less prominent in the liturgy, since he no longer has to summarize the Latin prayers. Second, this is a “folk Mass,” and I don’t think you could create a more stereotypical folk Mass if you tried. The opening song is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” but with new, more “churchy,” words. The offertory is to the tune of “Blowing in the Wind” but, again, with churchy words (the sound quality is pretty poor so, alas, I was not able to discern many of these lyrics). For Communion you have the sturdy classic “Sons of God” and for the closing—and I’m really not making this up—“Kumbaya.” Unlike the earlier Mass, here the Amen at the end of the canon is sung (the “Lillies of the Field” tune) and, rather surprisingly, the Prayer of the Faithful to a Byzantine chant (seemingly led by the priest).

From 1968 we have a Mass for the Feast of Christ the King that reflects the changes of 1967’s Tres Abhinc Annos. Everything is in the vernacular, the canon is now recited aloud and in English, and the order of the blessing and dismissal are switched (so that the dismissal follows the blessing, as in the current Missal). Most startling is that instead of the Roman Canon we have Eucharistic Prayer II, complete with the memorial acclamation “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” As before, nothing but the four hymns are sung, and everyone still recites the introit etc. together. The commentator seems to have further receded in importance.

Also from 1968, there is a Mass celebrated by the monks of Weston Priory, who must have visited the church, perhaps to do a parish mission or something. The changes to the Order of Mass seen in the previous Mass are still present, though the Roman Canon is used instead of Eucharistic Prayer II. But we seem to be in a very different world, musically speaking. Not only are the parts of the Mass sung (Kyrie, Gloria, Eucharistic acclamations, Lamb of God), but the prayers of the faithful as well, and the principle celebrant chants the dialogues, the orations, and the preface. Interestingly, instead of one of the prescribed memorial acclamations, the old Young Life camp favorite “I am the resurrection and the life” is sung. It is also interesting to note that after the Lamb of God and before the invitation to communion, people are invited to exchange a sign of peace with each other, even though this would not become part of the Order of Mass until the Missal of Paul VI, a year later. On the whole, this recording suggests that at least in some places the ideal of the sung Mass was being realized. At the same time, the music is quite contemporary and there is no sense that the monks are hankering for “the good old days.”

Finally, there is a first communion Mass from 1969, which is very similar to the first 1968 Mass, except that Eucharistic Prayer III is used. What is noteworthy here is that the exemplary liturgical practice of the Weston Priory monks does not seem to have convinced people in the parish that there was anything wanting in their own practice. It’s still four hymns and everything else recited. The sign of peace has not (yet) caught on.

So there you have it. What is striking is that, as far as I can tell from the recordings, the liturgical culture of the parish does not seem all that much changed from 1966 to 1969. It is still basically Low Mass with hymns, all gotten through in about 45-50 minutes. Obviously the shift to the vernacular made things seems different to people. Maybe some missed the long silence of the canon, and maybe others were now glad not to be left along with their thoughts in the silence. But other than that, and apart from the Weston Priory Mass, the sound of the Mass doesn’t really change that much.


  1. This is a fantastic post and hopefully some folks who might have video/audio of Masses from this time period will see it and perhaps post them online.

    1. …which implies it was by then a corpse rather than a living body! 🙂
      I believe it was Fr. Louis Bouyer who said that Trent killed the liturgy and Vatican II finally buried the corpse (I don’t have at hand the exact quotation). That sounds about right.

      1. You’re pretty close (ad mentem patris Ludovici). What he wrote in “La décomposition du catholicisme” (1968) was “la liturgie d’hier n’était plus guère qu’un cadavre embaumé. Ce qu’on appelle liturgie aujourd’hui n’est plus guère que ce cadavre décomposé” ; “yesterday’s liturgy was little more than an embalmed body. What passes for liturgy today is little more than the same body in a state of decomposition”. I should perhaps point out that during all the years that Fr. Bouyer lived with my community, he concelebrated daily at the conventual Mass (after helping us as a “peritus” during the implementation of the liturgical reform), and was just as scathing towards traditionalists as he was towards what the French call “progressistes” (which doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “progressives”). He wasn’t addressing the liturgical reform as such, but what he considered to be erroneous applications of the reform.

  2. I actually find the “explainer” in the first video the most annoying feature. I suppose it was necessary in a sense at the time, but mercifully it ended. Nothing destroys a ritual like “explaining it” while you are doing it. Too bad they couldn’t just have them visit a high anglo-catholic episcopal church of the era and say : this more or less is how we want to do it. 🙂

    1. I was only five or six at the time but clearly remember the two lecterns, one on each side of the sanctuary, where stood a lector and a commentator. The commentator would even explain what the lector was about to do. And one Sunday the commentator started saying, before each hymn, “Let us pray the hymn…” apparently in response to an idea of the pastor or perhaps a directive from the archbishop.

      Fritz, thank you so much for your thoughtful and fascinating post and links in response to my small question!

    2. During the nightmare of the Vatican II changes I found a refuge in an high Episcopal Church along with many other exiles from Rome where I became addicted to the BCP and the KJV used with proper Roman ceremonial.

      I had tried the traddies but they were so narrow-minded and bitter. I also couldn’t abide people advocating Latin without knowing a word thereof. (Indeed I read some nonsense only yesterday stating that the lections are mainly to glorify God and not so much for the edification of the faithful. They use this tosh to justify using Latin lections, but I never hear of them giving Ecclesiastical Latin instruction to those in the pews in order to make Latin a language understanded of the people.)

      The Episcopalians taught me that the changes were not unlike those experienced by their ancestors at the reformation, and that all would fall into place. They also gave me an appreciation for the role of women in the church. Back in the seventies a retired bishop of NY even predicted that at some point the Romans would reclaim their traditions. Latin would reappear. Sanctuaries would be made traditional once again. His Lordship was quite prescient.

      Suffice it to say that the Episcopalian experience has been very positive for me by transforming indignation into understanding.

    1. I’ve heard a number of Mass settings that were popular back then, but not this one. I wonder what it is called. It’s pretty.

      1. I’ve got one in my head from the mid-1960s that I’ve been trying to identify. I’ve even paged through some of the hymnals from the time, like the St. Gregory and St. Basel ones, but maybe the setting will live on only in my head.
        Let me take this opportunity to once again thank Fritz Bauerschmidt for his post and the good deal of effort that went into it. Hearing the liturgy from those days, even though I was just a kindergartner at the time, does evoke memories (I was a weird kid and studied my missal as soon as I could read).

  3. After “outgrowing” the acolyte/altar boy service in my suburban Milwaukee parish, I graduated to becoming a Commentator…I actually liked explaining the wonderful changes to the way the Mass was celebrated. My worst experience was when my Pastor “elected” me to be the Cantor in front of a microphone, next to the organ (on the Epistle side of the church” and lead the congregational hymn singing. While it undoubtably encouraged me to take the chance and begin chanting the Lutheran Mass, it was a terrifying place for this teenager who couldn’t read music to be! Kylie eleison!

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