High Mass at St. Mary’s

I have saved many of the letters Margie wrote to her ailing mother in Philadelphia, written between 1955 and 1960 when Margie lived in New York.  I keep them in a small box under my bedside table.  They are wonderful letters:  dutiful yet light-hearted, solicitous but newsy.  They are unaffected.  They are Margie, and the letters bring her near, just out of reach.  I will blog excerpts from these letters from time to time.  She would not have approved, but she will forgive me.

Here is one in which she describes High Mass at St. Mary of the Virgin Episcopal Church, located in the theater district of Manhattan, an apt location for it.  She points out its moments of high and low comedy.  Margie’s cousin, Johnny Headley, was a ‘lay-officiant’  (a devotee who has ascended the highest level of pomp) at St. Mary’s.  In 1960, four years later, Johnny gave the bride away when Margie and I were married at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Ludwig’s Corner, Chester County, PA.  Saint Andrew’s is not High church.  Johnny did not comment on the ceremony at Saint Andrew’s, at least not to us.  Listen to Margie describe Mass at Saint Mary’s, which is the Highest of the High.  Saint Mary’s used to produce and sell its incense, made to a secret formula, to Episcopal churches all over the country, even to Catholic churches:

“Sunday I finally attended the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, carefully guided I might add by Johnny’s friend Rena ( of Ed and Rena).   I am still reeling from the experience.  Johnny certainly picked this service with an eye to dazzling the lil Quaker-type cousin.  In case you’d forgotten, last Sunday fell in the Octave of the Corpus Christi feast, so something called a First Degree Mass (??) was celebrated.  Add to all that the presence of the Bishop of Nassau and you have a performance that was straight from Florence in the days of Innocent III.   On and about the altar were about fifteen people, colorfully dressed and terribly busy carrying things back and forth, shaking incense, kneeling, getting up, bowing to the bishop, adding more garments, subtracting same, etc.  The piece de resistance, however, was the procession.  In addition to banner, torches, crucifixes, children strewing rose petals and the like, was a canopy under which walked the rector, holding the host (or something) the Asst. rector and (!) Johnny who was looking very rapt, but actually noting where I and all his friends were sitting.  He was subdeacon, which means he reads the lesson, hence, position of honor.  And following this apparition walked the bishop, short and fat, and following him, shorter and fatter, a little colored man who held before him proudly the bishop’s mitre which he wasn’t allowed to touch but instead had to hold in a scarf of yellow silk.  This procession wound around the church twice, censors swinging all the way.  And every time they came opposite you, you had to kneel, so that it was a most athletic morning.  Lunch with some of the actors was an equally illuminating experience.  They discussed the state of the Bishop’s mitres (he had two) – “Even ours look better than that!” said Johnny;  the ruses needed to keep the Bishop from preaching, the need for even more functionaries on the altar;  the faulty placement of the asst. rector (off center the whole performance) and so forth.  All in all, a most rewarding Sunday morning.  Johnny is certainly right up there in the thick of things, too.”

Last week my daughter and I took a cruise to Bermuda.   While in Bermuda we had tea with Dr. and Mrs. Anthony Hollis, parents of the rector of my daughter’s Episcopal church.  Dr. Hollis is the Anglican bishop of Bermuda.  When we were introduced I addressed him as Reverend but he said call me Tony.  He spoke in a soft U English accent, not in the rollicking accents of Trinidad or Jamaica.  Bermuda is not the Caribbean.   In twenty minutes Tony and I were pals, sharing even the details of our respective by-pass heart operations.   He was dressed casually in slacks and a sport shirt.  “You’re not wearing Bermuda shorts,”  I bantered.  “I don’t have the legs for it,”  he countered.    Bishop Hollis is erudite, cultured and personable;  he is not High Church.