A local reporter for Kitchener newspaper The Record, curious why OLMC Chapel is outgrowing her walls while so many other churches are closing down, narrates the "unusual" habits she observed...
A CHURCH APART: ‘WE CALL IT THE TRUE MASS’
Schismatic Catholic school, congregation adheres to Latin mass, conservative teachings
Attending high mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel feels a bit like a step back in time.
The men and boys wear dress shirts and ties. Every woman and girl wears a conservatively cut dress, and her head is covered with a scarf or a lace mantilla. All of the 90-minute mass is chanted in Latin, save for a couple of hymns and the priest's sermon.
The mass is strikingly ritualized, with altar servers kissing the priest's hands as they assist him with changes to his vestments, and as he doffs and dons a black, four-cornered hat known as a biretta.
Worshippers kneel before the priest to receive communion, taking the host on their tongue rather than in their hand.
The faithful at Our Lady of Mount Carmel adhere to the rites of the Tridentine mass, rites most Roman Catholics haven't experienced in 50 years, since the Second Vatican Council. That is when the church undertook a modernization of Catholic doctrine that allowed the celebration of mass in local languages and encouraged greater ties among the world's churches.
Members of the Mount Carmel congregation, who number about 150, reject many of those reforms, choosing a more "traditional" Catholic practice that in some cases has come at great financial sacrifice, and at the cost of a rift with the mother church.
Many congregants uprooted their families and moved to the New Hamburg area from as far as Saskatchewan and Alberta, to be able to worship as they choose and have their children educated as they see fit.
The congregation and the private school attached to it are founded by the Society of St. Pius X, an organization of traditionalist Catholic priests. The society had been looking to establish a school in Ontario — it has a French-language school in Lévis, Que., and a kindergarten-Grade 8 school in Calgary.
In 2007 the opportunity came to buy the disused Wilmot Township Senior Public School, at Bleams and Sandhills roads, for $1.2 million. The priests renovated it and made it a magnet for traditional Catholics, who feel modernization and liberalization of the mainstream Catholic Church has gone too far.
The school opened five years ago with a handful of students. It now teaches some 75 students from kindergarten to Grade 12, including 47 boarders, who come from as far afield as the northern United States, Mexico and Malaysia.
Today, the congregation is growing, says parishioner James Paraschuk, and is looking for a building that could accommodate up to 400 worshippers.
Mount Carmel is not the only local church that celebrates the mass in Latin. St. Anne's in Kitchener attracts about 40 worshippers every Sunday at 3 p.m. But the mass at Mount Carmel is underpinned by a value system that is much more traditional, and at odds with the practices in most Catholic parishes.
The mass at Mount Carmel has a formality and solemnity that is unusual. The priest has his back to the congregation for most of the mass, and many of the prayers are recited in a low voice that can't be heard distinctly by worshippers. The service is punctuated by lengthy silences.
"There's so much going on in that silence," says parishioner Mary Zepf.
After mass, Paul Zepf says he feels "a peace of mind, a tranquility of the soul."
"If you can convince an engineer, you can convince anybody," laughs his wife Mary. "Engineers are very practical people. They're not dreamy people."
The reformed mass puts worshippers on the same level as God, Mary Zepf says, while the mass at Mount Carmel — "We call it the true mass" — focuses on the mystery of God.
"The true mass honours God in every way, from the music to what the priest is doing," she said.
"They changed things they shouldn't have" when the bishops adopted the new mass, agrees Linda Paraschuk.
Although Catholics enjoy a constitutionally guaranteed right to a publicly funded faith-based education, the parents at Mount Carmel didn't want to be "dictated" by the standard school curriculum. So, like adherents of other religions who want a faith-based education for their children, they are willing to pay thousands of dollars a year to provide that.
Mary Zepf says her family had drifted from their faith. "Our faith had gotten very soft because of the changes (stemming from Vatican II), and you end up not caring anymore."
Her kids were in the Catholic school system, but she had serious concerns, particularly around the "family life" curriculum. "Then the teachers went on strike yet again, and I said, 'This is the time, we're pulling them out.' "
The two priests at Mount Carmel are among the 16-member staff at the school, and wear the traditional long, black cassock rather than a dark suit and clerical collar. Students attend mass almost daily, study Latin and do not study the standard Ontario curriculum. Carmel students wanting admission to university must write the standardized scholastic assessment test or SAT.
James Paraschuk moved from Prince Albert, Sask., so his two sons could be educated at the academy. "I had a computer business and it had sort of plateaued, so we figured we had nothing to lose by moving here, and a lot to gain," he said.
"You focus on the spiritual in every single subject," explained math teacher Thomas Zepf.
"You're not forced to water down your faith," says Rev. Dominic May, one of two priests at Mount Carmel.
The school doesn't teach a literal, Biblical view of science, but treads a sort of middle ground that blends Catholic theology and "provable" science, May said. Teachers do not deny the fossil record that underpins the theory of evolution, for instance, but reject the idea that humans are direct descendants of apes, since traditionalists believe that apes, while sentient beings, do not, like humans, have souls.
"We teach what the science textbooks provide … but we're not going to say we teach modern-world science and forget about the soul. The soul is very important for a Catholic," May said.
The society isn't without controversy. One family acknowledged that fact when they refused to be quoted for this story, for fear their views and attachment to Mount Carmel might attract criticism.
The Hamilton diocese of the Catholic Church views the Society of St. Pius X as being in schism with both the diocese and the Vatican, meaning that the society is viewed as being apart from the church.
But the worshippers at Mount Carmel believe firmly they are following their faith as they must, even if it means controversy and personal sacrifice.
"Our whole reason for being is the Roman Catholic faith," said Mary Zepf.
Waterloo Region Record
By Catherine Thompson