Mass in the Forest

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER III (12) start of chapter

Early on the Sunday morning the roads presented an unusually animated appearance, as groups of settlers moved towards the little chapel in which the Bishop was to celebrate Mass at eight o'clock. Keen was the wind and sharp the air as the faithful appeared in view, issuing from the forest in various directions, some with horse and waggon, but the greater number sturdily completing a smart walk of five, six, and even ten miles. Bright and cheerful and happy they all appeared on this auspicious occasion, when they were to hear the voice of their pastor, and join in the most solemn act of Christian worship.

There was no tawdry finery among the women, no dressing beyond their condition with the men; both were decently and suitably clad, good strong homespun being rather common with the latter. That the ladies had not exhausted the wealth of their wardrobes, or brought out their best at so unfavourable an hour for legitimate display, I was impressively assured; and more than one of the sex—in each case a matron of mature years—volunteered an apology for alleged inelegance of costume, the result, as they urged in extenuation of their sins against Fashion, of the haste required in order 'to overtake Mass.' As a proof that there is no lack of sympathy between the occupant of the palace and the tenant of the wilderness, I may mention, as an interesting fact, that on the wall of the bedroom in which I enjoyed my first and last night's repose in the midst of an American forest, I observed a specimen of that intricate arrangement which is said to have had a royal origin, and is known to the world, admired or execrated, by the name of crinoline. This is given as an instance, not alone of the omnipotent rule and universal sway of Fashion, but of the progress of an Irish settlement in the path of modern civilisation.

Beneath the groined roof of lofty cathedral there never knelt a more devout congregation than that which bowed in lowly reverence before the rude altar of the little rustic chapel of Johnville. Here was no magnificence of architecture, no pomp of ceremonial, no pealing organ, no glorious work of the great masters of sacred song; here were no gorgeous pictures glowing from painted windows, no myriad lights on the altar and in the sanctuary, no priests in golden vestments, no robed attendants swinging silver thuribles filled with perfumed incense,—none of these; but a little structure of the simplest form, covered with shingle, and as free from ornament or decoration as the shanty of the settler—with an altar of boards clumsily put together, and covered with a clean but scanty linen cloth. But those who knelt there that morning felt no want, missed no accessory, sighed for no splendour; their piety required no aid to inflame or to sustain it. Exiles from a Catholic land, they were once more under a sacred roof, once more listening to the voice of their Church—once more assisting at the celebration of Mass. And when the Bishop addressed them in simple and impressive language, such as a father might fittingly address to his children, and promised that he was about to gratify the wish of their hearts by sending a priest to live amongst them, a deep murmur of delight evinced the joy and gratitude of the devoted people. These, indeed, were tidings of gladness, the fulfilment of their fondest hopes, wanting which, material comfort and worldly prosperity would be in vain.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America