Mass Mob fills the pews again at historic St. Mary of Victories

As she served donuts in the parish hall, Emma Balogh beamed as she revisualized the standing-room-only crowd at St. Mary of Victories Church.

The last time the Downtown church hosted a crowd this big was in 1974, when Cardinal József Mindszenty visited St. Louis. The late Hungarian prelate, an avid supporter of religious liberty, spoke to the people about spending years in prison for opposing communism.

This time, the crowd gathered for Palm Sunday Mass — and the sixth St. Louis Mass Mob. The grassroots effort started about a year ago to bring people together for worship and to raise awareness and appreciation for some of the archdiocese's most historic churches. Most Holy Trinity in north St. Louis hosted the first mob in April. Mass Mobs have been at a different church every other month, and each has drawn at least 400-500 people — well more than the normal attendance at these parishes.

"I was just worried," said 80-year-old Balogh, among the Hungarian immigrants who came to St. Mary of Victories after the Hungarian Revolution of the 1950s. "What do they call those little bugs — termites? I was afraid that they would take all the people and go down through the floor."

All joking aside, Balogh was happy to see the church full of people once more. According to chaplain Father Brian Harrison, OS, only about 60 people — total — attend the usual two Sunday Masses, but he estimated about 500 people were at Mass Mob VI. Many stayed for a reception with coffee, donuts and a cookie sale — with proceeds benefiting the struggling church.

"The old-timers have never seen this church with standing-room-only in living memory," he said. "We filled up all of the ciborium that we had and we just made it with a few (communion hosts) left."

In his homily, Father Harrison reflected on the importance of having an informed conscience, especially in light of the upcoming presidential election and Supreme Court vacancy, citing "the epic struggle for the soul of this nation, which we are witnessing right now." Father Harrison touched on several contemporary issues, including immigration, marriage, poverty and respect for human life, born and unborn.

He pointed to the example of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, who preached a two-week mission at St. Mary of Victories in 1865, just after the Civil War. "At that time when the task of overcoming the terrible heritage of slavery was just beginning, Father Seelos was known as a champion of racial harmony and equal dignity," Father Harrison said.

St. Mary of Victories is the second-oldest church in the city (founded in 1843; the Old Cathedral is the oldest), but it's the first in many other aspects. It's the first church for German Catholic immigrants in the archdiocese and later welcomed Hungarian immigrants to St. Louis after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and World War II. (St. Stephen of Hungary Church also served Hungarian immigrants but closed in 1957.) The Sisters of St. Mary, who established what is now SSM Health, got their start at the parish. It also was the first location of the St. Louis Register, the Review's predecessor. The church is the only one in the archdiocese to offer the Novus Ordo (Vatican II) Mass in Latin. The Mass Mob was a reflection of the church's blending of cultures and traditions, with a mixture of English, Hungarian and Latin within the prayers, readings and music.

A surprise snowfall that briefly blanketed the area that morning didn't deter St. Louis Catholics. Parishioner Klara Schwarcz hustled up and down the sidewalk, shielding visitors with an umbrella as they made their way to the church. Schwarcz, who lives in Edwardsville, Ill., joined the parish in August. "I love them all very much," she said. "It's a wonderful, friendly church."

Cathy Saccente, who sings in the schola at the 9 a.m. Sunday Latin Novus Ordo Mass, noticed a difference in the acoustics because of the extra people in the church. "It was absolutely humbling to look out from the choir loft and see every seat filled — and then for them to have to put out more chairs," she said. "This is what the Body of Christ looks like." 

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