The Charm of Older Churches
There is a different feel when in an older church than a modern church. I find this to be a charm that is significant.
I have been in older churches. In fact, my parish when I was a child had two Roman Catholic churches. Even back in the fifties, these two churches were old. I was born in New Orleans, and the city has just reached three hundred year. I cannot imagine the much older churches of Europe, and what they must be like.
Over the years there have been parishes split as people built new subdivisions, so new churches had to be constructed. I have been in some of these, and there is a difference. The older churches have a different atmosphere. This charming atmosphere is made of many things. Some might not be known to younger people.
Today, the homily is given from a side of the altar at a podium. But the churches I remember had raised pulpits, each enclosed with a short rail that protected the priests from falling. There were steps, and a gate that could be closed for physical protection. The pulpit often was attached some height above the floor, perhaps about six feet, to a large column, part of the support for a vaulted ceiling high above. Above the pulpit was a wooded shell, designed to reflect sound towards the congregation. These churches were constructed before electricity, so modern sound systems were not part of the original construction.
More About the Parish with Two Churches
The Stained Windows
Stained glass windows were used as teaching tools. They often showed Biblical scenes. There was an effort by the artists who designed them to be accurate. Today, color is all that many stained glass windows have, and those with images usually have fewer graduations from shade to shade. The art is much less impressive in many modern stained glass windows.
The colors on the pews and floors were often diffuse. Glass is amorphic, meaning it has no crystal form. Older windows often look wavy. This is because glass flows, although slowly. Old glass has varied thickness, which causes light to refract with less sharp projections. This is part of the charm.
More on Stained Glass windows
The Altar Rail
Catholics received Communion at a rail while kneeling. The rail separated the altar from the congregation, and gates were kept closed when the priest was not coming forth to enter or leave the pulpit. Modern churches have no altar rail.
The Hat Clamps
On the back of each pew was a row of small, evenly spaced clamps. They were for those in the next pew. These clamps would hold the hats of the men in the congregation, preventing the hats from being accidentally sat upon.
As a boy in a parochial school in the fifties I can be certain they were also used by some to make noise, which got a reaction from the nuns who searched for the source of the noise. The clamps had a button and a spring, so when the button was released the spring caused the clamp to close. With no hat to muffle the sound, it was quite loud.
Our parish churches had a multitude of candles on the altar. I was often sent to the door of the first of our two churches to count the candles that had been lighted. Two meant low Mass, six meant high Mass, and twelve meant solemn high Mass. The low Mass had little or no singing, the high Mass had some singing, and the solemn high Mass was sung, or chanted, almost entirely except for the homily. Of course, the length of the Mass increased as more candles became necessary.
Our churches had high, vaulted ceilings. There one could gaze at wonderful artwork. Art often also adorned the area behind the altar in most older churches. Even the fourteen Stations of the Cross were realistic scenes. Now, it is not uncommon to find abstract art Stations of the Cross.
Older churches have had candles, including countless votives, burn in multitude over many years. And incense was used more frequently than it is today. The wood and plaster absorbed the aromas, and gave older churches a distinctive pleasantness.
I am certain I have left things out, but there were differences. Some of the charm has been lost to needs, such as wiring for lights and sound having to not be enclosed behind walls and ceilings. But, a visit to an older church is something that can add to the experience of attendance.
Of course, a visit to a Byzantine older church should be an even more enhanced experience. The Byzantine Rite is the lesser known part of the Roman Catholic Church in the west. A Byzantine church is quite ornate, even the modern ones.
The introduction image is our own.
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