Sunday Vespers in the Parish Church

By Andersen, Eric M. | Sacred Music, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Sunday Vespers in the Parish Church

Andersen, Eric M., Sacred Music

Sunday Vespers in the parish church is still part of the living memory of Americans who came of age in the decades before and after World War II. Up through the middle of the twentieth century, "Vespers were a part of regular Sunday observance in virtually every parish church." (1) The liturgical movement of the twentieth century helped formulate a theology of liturgy which (became defined at Vatican II as "full public worship ... performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members." (2) Liturgy, so defined, includes both the Mass and the Divine Office. In 1963, the first constitution promulgated at Vatican II encouraged the continuation of a long-standing liturgical practice. Sacrosanctum Concilium stated: "Pastors of souls should see to it that the principal hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and on the more solemn feasts." (3) By the end of the 1960s, however, liturgists were lamenting that Vespers had all but disappeared from parish life. Why did this form of full public worship fall out of widespread practice? There may be no complete answer. It is hoped that by looking at the history, theology, and practical application of Sunday Vespers in the parish, this practice may experience a revival in the weekly life of Catholics.


In 1791, Bishop John Carroll assembled the first Synod of Baltimore and issued decrees regarding the regulation of the Divine Office and the observance of feasts:

   Statute 17 mandated that on Sundays and holy days, the Missa
   Cantata was to be celebrated, where possible; the Litany of the
   Blessed Virgin was to be sung or recited; the Asperges was to begin
   the Missa Cantata on Sunday; the Sermon at Mass was obligatory;
   Vespers and Benediction were to be celebrated in the afternoon; and
   vernacular hymns were to be used by the people. (4)

Catholic life in the early years of the United States was admittedly different from other parts of the world. This was mainly due to an undeveloped infrastructure of parishes and priests owing to the fact that the original thirteen states were officially Protestant. By the mid-nineteenth century, Catholic parishes in which the priest resided were becoming more common and "lay Catholics could for the first time internalize the rhythms of week-to-week religious practice," (5) which included Mass in the morning and Vespers in the afternoon. Vespers was "in most places offered at three in the afternoon during the summer and at two in the winter." (6) The parish schola cantorum would sing the music for both, probably using the book The Morning and Evening Service of the Catholic Church published by a Boston firm in 1841. This book contained "almost fifty pages of psalms for use during Vespers." (7)

It is hard to gauge the attendance at Sunday Vespers in these parish churches. By the late nineteenth century, there are reports boasting of large numbers attending as well as others which complain of just the opposite:

   attendance was often thin, to the consternation of the clergy.
   "People who habitually stay away from Vespers for apparently no
   reason," one priest complained in 1897, "understand little what the
   divine law demands of them ... and can hardly lay any claim to the
   name of good Catholics." It was discouraging, he thought, "where at
   Vespers you meet only the school children and a few pious women."

If regular attendance was sometimes sparse, the liturgy itself was certainly known and experienced by many, at least on special occasions. An article in The New York Times dated June 1886 reports on the blessing of new churches in which "the evening vesper office was sung in the Gregorian style by the boys and men of the choir" in the new church of St. Lawrence in Manhattan. While "over 2000 people [attended] ... The solemn vespers were sung in the chapel of the female department" of the Catholic Protectory. …

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