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Printers' Mass returns for a day

Epiphany Church revives tradition for anniversary

Saturday, June 01, 2002

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For 86 years, the 2:30 a.m. Sunday Newspaper Printers' Mass at Epiphany Church in Uptown was a favorite stop for the city's late-night crowd.

Partygoers in evening gowns, cops in uniform, Duquesne University students, street people and ladies of the night all showed up at the middle-of-the-night Mass. It was inaugurated in 1905 at the request of newspaper printers who worked until the early hours putting out Sunday editions of five city newspapers.

"Everyone was holy at 2:30 a.m.," said Bob McCann of Plum, 76, retired secretary-treasurer of Local 7, Pittsburgh Typographical Union. A printer at the Post-Gazette for 42 years, McCann didn't work the Saturday overnight schedule, but if he and his wife were having a night out Downtown, they would walk up to Epiphany Church to go to Mass.

As part of its centennial celebration, Epiphany Church will bring back the once-popular Newspaper Printers' Mass -- for one night only -- at 2:30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Rev. James W. Garvey, pastor of Epiphany Church since last summer, said members of the church wanted to have a special Printers' Mass because it was such an integral part of the history of the church, at Centre Avenue and Washington Place near Mellon Arena. The church is celebrating its 100th birthday throughout this year.

Garvey, formerly pastor of St. Bartholomew Church in Penn Hills, said he never attended the Printers' Mass, "but I will celebrate this one." To hold Mass at 2:30 a.m., he received permission from Bishop Donald Wuerl.

Back in 1905, the late Rev. Lawrence A. O'Connell, pastor of Epiphany Church for the next 54 years, got special permission from the Vatican to celebrate Mass at such an unusual hour.

At that time, Garvey said, the Catholic Church required that all Sunday Masses be celebrated between dawn and noon on Sunday morning.

In the early 1900s, the city had seven general circulation, English-language newspapers, five of which published Sunday editions.

"In the neighborhood surrounding Epiphany were a lot of printers. ... They would start work on Saturday morning and work through to get the Sunday edition out," Garvey said.

He said the printers finished setting type at about 2 a.m. and had to wait until the ink dried before they could fold and collate the Sunday editions.

"The printers approached [O'Connell] and asked if they could have Mass in that interim period," Garvey said. O'Connell got permission from Rome and the printers agreed to open the church doors and light the candles before each Mass. The first Printers' Mass was at 2:30 a.m. April 30, 1905.

Even as the number of newspapers declined, the Printers' Mass remained an institution in Downtown, said Tony Mowod, WDUQ-FM jazz host, who grew up in the lower Hill District near the church and served as an altar boy for the Printers' Mass in the late 1940s.

"As I got older, I ended up being one of the people who passed the collection basket," said Mowod.

By 1960, the city had just two daily newspapers. In 1959, retired auxiliary bishop John B. McDowell became pastor of Epiphany Church. He said the 2:30 a.m. Mass still was crowded "but you couldn't find a printer."

"People came in evening gowns. I imagine they had been at a dance or party and knew there was this Mass. ... We had an awful lot of students from Duquesne," said McDowell, now 80 and retired for five years.

"I never saw anyone drunk, but I imagine that many people had been to a dance or party and rushed to get to that Mass," McDowell said.

"We never had any trouble. We used to have an usher named Fritz, a big cop who used to work in town. He was a big Catholic and he decided to usher every week, so there was no trouble."

McDowell was referring to the late Fritz George, a patrolman from the Hill District who was a regular at the Printers' Mass.

Clearly not a night owl, McDowell didn't enjoy staying up to celebrate Mass at 2:30 a.m.

"You had to go down and serve Mass when you ordinarily would be sound asleep," he said. "It was a burden."

Michael Young, 45, of McCandless, who attended Duquesne University in the late 1970s, said the Printers' Mass was part of what students talked about doing on any given Saturday night.

"You would go to Primanti's and then stop at the Printers' Mass before you went home," said Young, now a senior lecturer at La Roche College.

Going to the 2:30 a.m. Mass was usually a spontaneous thing, said Steve Karlinchak, an information specialist at the Post-Gazette who also attended Duquesne University in the late 1970s.

"You rarely made plans to go. You would be up. Maybe you were working on a term paper. Or you may have come back from a date or you were in the TV lounge. You would order a pizza out. Someone had beer. The next thing you know, someone would say, 'It's 2 a.m. We're up. Wanna go to Mass at Epiphany?'"

McDowell discontinued the Printers' Mass in 1991 because it was drawing only 40 to 45 worshipers.

By then, the church had loosened its rules so that the faithful could attend Masses either on Saturday evenings or Sundays to fulfill their religious obligation.

The Printers' Mass is only one part of Epiphany Church's yearlong centennial celebration, Garvey said. Bishop Wuerl will celebrate a special Mass at the church at noon Aug. 18, and former priests, nuns and parishioners are invited.

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