Taking Mass outside
Loretto’s Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel welcomes all to outdoor services at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Alleghenies
LORETTO — With birds singing and the wind whispering through the trees, the outdoor Sunday Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Alleghenies draws parishioners from throughout the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, said Diane Gowen.
Gowen, her mother, Janet Bloom, and sister, Patty Fox, walked across the road to the shrine adjacent to the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel.
Bloom and her husband, Bud, raised their family in a house just a few hundred yards from the basilica and have lived there for more than 60 years, Gowen said. When the idea was floated to have an outdoor Mass in the summer, she said her dad was on board and helped to organize the event.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said, indicating the shrine among the trees, complete with a raised dais and a pool containing fish, lily pads and a fountain.
Although Bud passed away more than a year ago, Bloom and other family members continue to celebrate their faith and gather outside each Sunday evening during the summer to enjoy Mass.
And they are far from alone.
Several hundred people turned out on a recent Sunday evening, spreading blankets on the lawn for the children and unfolding lawn chairs for the adults. Many leaned against the stone wall, while others sat at picnic tables situated among the trees.
The peaceful setting was interrupted on occasion by traffic on a nearby road, but once Mass began, that noise faded to the background as those gathered took part in the service.
“We get between 400 and 650 people each Sunday,” said the Very Rev. Father John David Byrnes, rector of the basilica, who noted that some people who are unable to gather on the lawn sit in their cars and listen to the service, audible through the speaker system set up for the event.
The outdoor Mass is a tradition that goes back 17 or 18 years, Byrnes said. It was originally sponsored by the diocese, but a few years ago the basilica took over the care of the shrine and the organization of the service, he said.
He’s often asked if the outdoor services could go longer into the year — currently the Masses wrap up Labor Day weekend — but with a laugh, Byrnes said Loretto evenings can be cold and “we have snow from October to May.”
“We are the only outdoor Mass in the diocese that is held regularly,” Byrnes said, noting that congregants come from Johnstown and Altoona and from smaller communities in the region. In addition, folks traveling through the area also stop in to celebrate their faith in the outdoor setting, he said.
“We’re getting so many, many visitors,” he added.
Those who call the basilica their home church consider the outdoor Mass “an act of evangelism,” Byrnes said. “It’s something we can do.”
It takes a small army to bring the service outside.
Without the dedicated volunteers — 25 or 30 each week — who show up an hour early and stay an hour later to set up and take down everything from the sound system to the altar, the service wouldn’t be possible, Byrnes said. “It takes many hands.”
One of those hands, Steve Hogue, chair of the outdoor Mass committee, along with Byrnes, keeps a close watch on the weather.
“He and I talk every week,” Byrnes said. “We have our smartphones to see what the weather is.”
If rain is forecast for the service time, the Mass is moved indoors to the basilica, he said, noting the decision is made by 6 p.m. That’s happened three times this summer, he said, adding that it’s nice to have the technology available to avoid having to move everything indoors halfway through a service.
“Father John Byrnes and his team of volunteers from the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel do an amazing job each week,” said Tony DeGol, diocese spokesman.
“It takes a huge logistical effort to celebrate an outdoor Mass, but they have it down to a science,” he said. “Thanks to their dedication, so many faithful from throughout the diocese have the opportunity to attend Mass in such a beautiful, inviting and worshipful setting.”
About a half hour before the 7 p.m. Mass, the Rosary is recited, often led by the Knights of Columbus or spontaneously by others, Byrnes said.
Jonathan Nagy, director of music, makes sure the music portion of the service goes off without a hitch, and Celeste Stolz, director of religious education, “dedicates herself to making sure the Mass is celebrated properly … taking care of the sacred vessels,” he said.
“When I attend an outdoor Mass in Loretto, I am always thrilled to see people from so many other towns, such as Altoona, Johnstown and State College,” DeGol continued. “By no means is this just a Mass for Basilica parishioners or neighboring parishes. I cannot help but think that Father Gallitzin would be so proud that Catholics from all corners of the diocese travel for Mass to the spot that was home to his own ministry.”
Mass in the outdoor setting is indeed beautiful, Byrnes said, and to add to that experience, he wants to encourage people to visit all of Loretto as part of a “religious pilgrimage.”
Loretto was named after Loretto, Italy, by Father Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, who wanted the area to be a place of prayer, Byrnes said.
The town is home to Saint Francis University, which has the Immaculate Conception Chapel that holds daily, weekend and holy day Masses. Also at Saint Francis, an outdoor spiritual space includes a replica of Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, the Pieta statue, a Nativity scene and the Stations of the Cross.
The Schwab gardens, part of the former Charles M. Schwab Estate, now Mount Assisi Friary, are also open to the public, Byrnes said. The Italian Renaissance-style garden was created by Charles Wellford Leavite Jr., a landscape engineer who also designed Forbes Field.
The Shrine of Our Lady of the Alleghenies has been here since 1951, Byrnes said, and sits on the site of the original St. Aloysius Academy and Convent that was opened in 1853 as a day school for girls. After the academy relocated to Cresson in 1897, the Loretto facility became a children’s home until it was destroyed by fire in 1904.
The Sisters of Mercy donated the piece of land to the diocese and the shrine was created, Byrnes said.
In addition to the shrine, the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel is open every day and visitors are welcome.
Near the basilica is the Prince Gallitzin Chapel House, of which Byrnes is the curator. Tours of the chapel house can be arranged, he said, noting “there is quite a bit to see … for a religious pilgrim.”
“Many, many people come for a day of prayer,” he added. “We welcome people from all denominations.” The religious sites and the architecture create “a little touch of Europe in the center of our area.”
Mass for students
Bishop Mark Bartchak typically celebrates two of the outdoor Masses each year at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Alleghenies.
The outdoor Mass for married couples was held July 15 and drew a huge crowd. “It was a very, very large Mass,” said the Very Rev. Father John David Byrnes.
The bishop also celebrates a Mass for students entering or returning to college. This year, that Mass is set for Sunday, Aug. 5.
“The college Mass is a tradition the bishop began several years ago,” DeGol said. “It is an opportunity for the bishop to spend time with young men and women as they embark on the journey of higher education and remind them that they should never forget who they are as Catholic young adults.”
In his homily, the bishop will offer practical advice about the importance of staying engaged in the faith, taking good physical care and avoiding bad lifestyle choices, DeGol said.
“There is always a little humor mixed in, but — make no mistake — it is a sobering message for young men and women. It is something every parent would want their son or daughter to hear before heading off to college,” he added.
At the end of the Mass, the bishop will invite students forward and give them a special blessing. He will then present them with a small gift, such as Rosary beads, DeGol explained.
Those who just graduated from high school and are entering the workforce or joining the military are also invited to the liturgy, DeGol said.
In the event of rain, the Mass will be moved to the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel.