December 23, 1895
On December 23, 1895 the St. John’s newspaper The Daily News announced that:
“His Lordship the Right Reverend Dr. Michael F. Howley (Roman Catholic Bishop of St. John’s, Newfoundland) has decided to revive the custom of celebrating the first Mass of Christmas morning at the very opening of the ever glorious day.”
Bishop Howley was reviving the tradition of the celebration of Midnight Mass, a custom that has continued at the Roman Catholic Cathedral (now Basilica) since that announcement in 1895.
Bishop Howley noted that midnight mass was “long in existence in the Roman Catholic Church though allowed to lapse for some years past in this country – Newfoundland.”
The article does not explain why the tradition of the midnight mass was dropped before 1895 in St. John’s.
The newspaper account went on to describe the elaborate decorations of the cathedral.
“The interior of the Roman Catholic Cathedral is already beginning to assume the festive garb which always marks the anniversary of the Nativity. The altars and the pulpit are artistically festooned with evergreen to which will be added extensive floral ornamentations interspersed with countless twinkling lights, before the joy bells ring out their glad peal at midnight, to proclaim the birth of the God Man.”
Many theologians say that the Midnight Mass evolved from individuals making pilgrimages to the Holy Land and the actual birthplace of Christ. Because the Bible states that Jesus was born at night and in a manger, to fully immerse oneself in the story and the liturgical significance of the moment, a Midnight Mass seems the best place to achieve these goals. The darkness and the gentle hush that nighttime helps set the scene and enhance the spiritual component of Christmas.
On the Christian calendar – Midnight mass has been observed since at least the year 381. In 381 a Christian woman named Egeria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, observing for three years and keeping a journal of the customs and liturgies she saw there. She witnessed the Christians celebrating the birth of Christ at midnight with a vigil in Bethlehem, which was followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalemculminating with a gathering in Jerusalemat dawn.
Recommended Archival Collection: Archives of the R.C. Archdiocese of St. John’s, Bishop Michael Francis Howley Collection.
Recommended Reading: The Story of the Basilica of St. John the Baptist by: Susan Chalker Browne . Flanker Press, St. John’s, 2015. There have always been many rumours, tales and fiction told about the securing of the land, the money and the stone and the construction of the imposing building. Susan Chalker Browne has written a book to sort fact from fiction.