Thurber’s St. Barbara Stirs to Life

St. Barbara’s Church Walls

Hear Echoes from its Past

The Latin Mass in Thurber

By Jeff Clark

It’s black dark here in the long-deserted Thurber Cemetery , a mere hint of orange sunset visible to the west. Tonight is New Year’s Eve – the beginning and hopefully the end. Forty-seven pilgrims, good people ranging from pre-teen to senior citizen kneel in a circle around their priest, in the flat dead winter grass beside one lonely grave.

I won’t water this down. The presence of the Lord is tangibly inside this forgotten place tonight, among and around these people. They are in communion with Thurber’s departed fathers, mothers and children at rest beneath and around us, their souls or their memories or their tragedies as present to me this night as my own distant heartbeat – perhaps more so. Father Kenneth Novak’s words waft skyward:

“Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine,
et lux perpetua luceat ei.”

“Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord.
And let perpetual light, shine upon him.”

This is a prayer for the repose of this mining town’s lost, buried for eternity within these tombstone-speckled nine acres, spreading like a flickering Easter candle into the darkness around us. If there are ghosts within this place, tonight they welcome this throng to their table.

The circled parish quietly answers their shepherd: “Amen”.

The priest lifts his strong voice into the night: “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” Hands touch foreheads, heart, left then right across their chests. These new friends to Thurber Cemetery rise. The cold wind turns warm in celebration. We return quietly to our cars, headlights come on in the darkness, a slow procession of 14 vehicles snakes slowly along the cemetery’s serpentine center road, then along the fence, leaving this hallowed ground to its peaceful night.

I’m beginning to wonder if there’s such a thing as chance encounter. Last week, my friend Leo was tending to this cemetery, as he has for many years. Father Novak of El Paso shows up, completely at random Leo tells me later, a priest from the Pius X Society.

The Pius X Society is a conservative Catholic group that believes the Catholic Church departed from its true path after Vatican II (1962-1965). Father Novak is excited about Thurber’s story, Leo tells me. Wants to bring his parishioners out here, hold a Tridentine Mass in Latin that dates back to 1570, inside Thurber’s 1892 St. Barbara’s church, resting peacefully at the foot of New York Hill. Leo agrees.

I was baptized into the Catholic Church when I was thirty-eight-years-old, following a year much like this last one. Never baptized or saved or any of that before one dark fateful Easter Vigil evening, back in the big city. I’ve attended Masses all over the South – in pre-dawn Spanish at San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral, at a sprawling Jesuit monastery beside the lumbering Mississippi River, and with a couple of once-ordained friends nearing the end of their own personal crises. I’ve never seen the Latin Mass performed, at least not in person.

Friday morning, I met Leo at St. Barbara’s. Father Novak’s flock began arriving soon after. It was clear from the cardboard boxes, the number of altar boys, the stream of cars pulling up outside this church that history was about to make itself visible inside this little wooden church.

Weekly Mass has not been said at St. Barbara’s in many, many years. This proud white building originally sat below Graveyard Hill until it was moved to Mingus in the 1930s, until it returned here to Thurber in 1995.

Father Novak swept into the old church building, wearing a traditional black cassock. He is a force, a sparking current of energy that can take the unprepared aback. His exuberance would give my seven-year-old a run for her money. He shakes Leo’s hand, then begins issuing orders – candles go here, reliquaries there – a throng follow him down the wood plank floored aisle to make ready. His followers love their charismatic leader. St. Barbara’s stirs to life.

Four altar boys light the candles, six white tapers lining the space behind St. Barbara’s front altar. Two statues are delicately lifted into place, atop empty white perches where St. Barbara’s own sculpted saints once stood. The red Gospel is placed lightly on the altar. The golden chalice moves into view. Men bow to their Lord when stepping in front of the front altar, turn and bow again upon leaving.

Father Novak is a teaching priest, explaining to the assembled that because there’s no altar stone in St. Barbara’s, that linens containing holy relics sealed within wax will help consecrate their communion rite, that clean linens atop these will be in place as tradition demands.

The Latin Mass is celebrated with the priest facing away from the congregation. Father Novak’s words were sometimes too quiet to hear, though God undoubtedly received the prayers heading His way. One of the prayers was sung, the haunting Gregorian chant rising to the ceiling like sweet-smelling incense. St. Barbara’s communion rail has been put back in place, restoring authenticity to its pre-Vatican II legacy.

The men led the rosary before Mass began, gleaming beads in hands as confessions were received by the priest in the confessional along St. Barbara’s back wall. Four ornate golden reliquaries graced the altar. St. Barbara’s white wooden tabernacle against the front wall is original. The tops of women’s heads are graced with delicate lace veils. These worshippers in the Latin rite have traveled here from all over North Texas . The lights are on. The bathroom door is unlocked. The floor is swept. This church, at least for today, is back in business.

My eyes were fixed forward, sitting in the back pew with Leo. Edging majestically into the silence, the sound of St. Barbara’s original foot-pumped organ announced the opening words of Mass. “I haven’t heard that organ play in over 60 years,” Leo whispered to me. You have to pump both your feet at the same time, while playing the keyboard to make the thing sing – not a common skill in this post-modern age.

This organ was heard by coal miners coming here for Mass over ninety years ago. Leo’s Big Ciocia (Polish, “Big Aunt”) played this same organ. His mother Lottie sang in the choir. Today the organ’s tone was again strong, was haunting in its beauty. Leo was baptized in this building, married here, and served as an altar boy here.

Father Novak preached of the history of this town – about the fleeting cities of man, about the eternal City of God . His masculine last words stayed with me: “Lord, we’re coming. We’re on our way.”

I believe him.

Toward the end of Mass the church’s steeple bell began to peel, each strike carefully timed to fit the choreography within Father Novak’s traditional liturgy. That long-silent historic bell could be heard all the way north to Mingus back in the day – its first toll to get dressed (church starts in 30 minutes), then to head for the church (15 minutes left), and then to take a seat in your pew (five minutes til kickoff).

I sat there wondering if New York Hill Restaurant diners up the hill knew that the St. Barbara’s bell they were hearing from their tables was singing its part this last day of 2010 in a centuries-old celebration. That Thurber’s heart had come back to life.

After Mass ended, the worshippers left the church and climbed the steep Thurber-brick steps to New York Hill’s scenic overlook, bringing to mind Christ’s last sorrowful journey on this earth. A catfish dinner was served by New York Hill Restaurant, being Friday and all. Leo gives a talk about Thurber, about scanning for graves. The room warms to his stories.

The group adjourned for a short tour of the museum down the hill, then drove across I-20 to the Thurber Cemetery . Kids and adults were taught to scan – new graves were located. Stories were told among new family –about the Spanish influenza mass graves, about the two Marys, about our sleeping friend Vincenzo. We talked about the past, about the holy duty of handing our stories forward to their futures, through kids and grandkids – through ink onto paper. Someday those descendents will need to know who they are. We told one short ghost story, then moved away.

There is a concept in Catholicism known as ecumenicalism – the simplified definition explains that though there are important differences between the various denominations, we should all reach out in fellowship and love one another as Jesus did, as Jesus does. People of good will should join hands, the thinking goes, no matter what the sign says on the front of their church building, on the front of their cardboard box home beneath that lonely freeway bridge.

I meet many new people each week. After “I live in Weatherford”, I often get asked which church I attend. The answer is complicated, as I feel connected to the Holy Roman Catholic Church (Mother Church versus some of her recent drivers), the Church of Christ (special friends and ancestors), the Baptists (my two daughters and grandparents), the Buddhists (Catholic friend Thomas Merton saw the same bridge here, I believe), to the Native whispers I’ve begun to hear from this part of Texas and to the many other “unseen churches” that I happen upon in senior citizens’ homes around the state. God is not just an inside-some-church-building deity. The gleaming megawatt cathedral of worship these kind folks brought to life this night in Thurber Cemetery proves this, at least to me.

Thurber Cemetery contains believers’ graves of many stripes, probably some non-believers too. In this quiet darkness, I prayed as rarely before for 2010 to be finally over. I prayed that conflict would end its too-long stay outside our doorsteps. And I listened for the future.

These kind people who I now consider friends remind me of the earliest Christians, holding their assemblies below the streets in dark catacombs. They knew what they believed. Their parents or grandparents has seen Jesus in the flesh, had known the sacrifice that their faith might extract from their too-fragile lives. Those catacomb warriors joined these new friends worshiping in the dark last night – they knew that One was more powerful than many. I respect these people’s return to their tradition, their fidelity to what they know is right.

There are no chance meetings. Let us leave it at that. May this New Year bring us back to that knowledge. May we all see what God puts before us. And act. Amen.

The “lonely grave” mentioned above is that of Barbara and John Lorenz, its perimeter “fenced” with vertical oil field pipes. When first discovered, only the date “January 31, 1931” was visible. Research into 1931 church records restored their names to the roll call of this physical place. Special thanks to Danny Silva for the amazing photography yesterday. Jeff may be reached at jdclark3312@aol.com or http://TexasTabernacle.blogspot.com.

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