'Printer's Mass' nears the end of its long run at St. Vincent's

Established for newspaper workers, it endured well into the digital age

June 21, 2013|Dan Rodricks

A report from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers says Americans with tablets and smartphones spend as much time reading newspapers online as do those who still prefer the printed editions. The same is true for readers in Western Europe.

The report estimates that, around the world, 2.5 billion adults read newspapers in print while more than 600 million people get their papers in digital form, and that number grows each year.

Publishing has set sail for the digital universe, and one day the printed version of a newspaper, magazine or book may be strictly commemorative. (When the Orioles win the World Series, or the Ravens take another Lombardi Trophy, there certainly will have to be print editions of The Sun.)

This summer marks 40 years since I got my first newspaper job, and back then, even in the midst of the Watergate scandal — brought to us by dogged newspaper reporters — I heard veteran editors and reporters predict the demise of newspapers. The big villain then was television, and certainly massive numbers of Americans opted for that form of news over a printed newspaper and never looked back.

All that happened long before the digital age. In Baltimore, Hearst's News-American folded in 1986, and The Evening Sun folded into the morning newspaper about a decade later. In between, The Sun moved its printing operation — and its printers — out of our Calvert Street building to Port Covington, away from downtown.

This is all back story to the news I have for you today, a modest milestone on the way to the future: The last Baltimore "printer's Mass" will be celebrated at St. Vincent de Paul Church, starting 15 minutes into next Sunday, 12:15 a.m. June 30.

If you've never heard of the midnight "printer's Mass," or if you knew about it but assumed it was long gone — that's OK, too. We are talking about a religious relic.

A century ago, when the Sunday Sun and its Hearst competitor were printed in downtown Baltimore, the "printer's Mass" allowed the Catholic men of that ink-stained craft to fulfill their Sunday obligation by stopping at St. Vincent's on their way home after the Saturday night press runs.

The tradition, established with special permission from the Vatican, began in 1914 with a 2:30 a.m. Mass at the 172-year-old church on Front Street. Printers attended, as did railroad and postal workers, police officers and firefighters. Even some of the employees from the burlesque halls and clubs on The Block came to appreciate the early-morning Mass.

In 1941, St. Vincent's added the 12:15 a.m. Mass. In fact, according to a history provided by the church, two additional Masses were added in the basement chapel to handle overflow crowds. At one time, as many as 1,400 worshipers showed up to praise God in the wee hours.

According to Christopher McCullough, pastoral associate at St. Vincent's, the services also became popular with young people out on Saturday night dates. Parentally imposed curfews could be violated without consequence if a date ended with the "printer's Mass."

As you might imagine, attendance at the remaining "printer's Mass" — the 12:15 — has fallen off considerably. The Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, the longtime pastor, likes to say that the Mass usually "attracts enough for a minyan," meaning at least 10. Paul McMullen of The Catholic Review reported 16 worshipers at the June 8 service, and that included the Gospel reader and Eucharistic minister.

So next Sunday, St. Vincent's retires the Baltimore printer's Mass, just as Lawrence prepares to retire after 40 years as pastor. A deeply thoughtful and eloquent homilist, he will no longer have to pray and preach at midnight, close the church, sleep, then rise for Sunday Masses. The ritual lasted long after its original purpose became a thing of memory — and well into the digital age — solely because of the priest's devotion to his church and its history.


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