One of the most beautiful old churches we’ve found is St. Peter’s in Piper City. As it’s a 25 mile drive, and not our usual parish, we don’t go there every week. But we make sure we get there for Palm Sunday, as they have a wonderful tradition we’ve never seen elsewhere: a horse-led procession to the church!
Piper City is a small town, and like so many down here, St. Peter’s is one of three rural parishes served by a single priest. The parishioners gather in the social hall before Mass, where the pastor does the introductory gospel reading and blesses and distributes the palms. Outside, a parishioner on horseback — dressed up in a purple cloak for the occasion — leads everyone solemnly down the street to the church. (After everyone goes in for Mass, he hurriedly puts his horse in the trailer and takes off the cloak before joining us. There’s no hitching post outside the church.)
This is the front of the procession, as it turned the corner to come to the church building. There were several dozen more people, all holding palm branches, behind these folks and out of view of the camera.
Earlier this year, the church reopened after extensive repairs from a fire caused by a lightning strike. The damage was mostly contained in the rear of the building; this church has among the most beautiful stained glass windows we’ve ever seen, and fortunately they all survived. A couple of them are visible in the photo to the right; someday I’ll post pictures of the other windows. Note that there is only one altar: the old high altar, with the tabernacle still in place. When they reopened the church, they decided not to put the freestanding altar back in; the priest now says Mass “facing east,” with the congregation. He’d been using that posture out of necessity for the many months when Mass was celebrated in the social hall (while repairs were being undertaken). Everyone grew to like and appreciate it, so they’ve kept it that way back in the church building.
Speaking for myself, I think it adds a real richness to the liturgy; it emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the Mass in a way that isn’t always clear when the priest is facing the people. It’s still the same novus ordo Mass, in English, that’s celebrated everywhere — just with a different posture. As you might expect, liturgies here are extremely reverent — and the organ music only adds to that reverence. Among other hymns, we had “O Sacred Head Surrounded” during the offertory, and “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King” as the recessional.
This place is a real gem.