St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church
The sky was about as blue as blue could be, and rising above the thin gray inversion layer in the Truckee Meadows felt like a veil was lifted off my eyes.
I’d wanted to check out the renovation of the Catholic church in Virginia City for a while now, and I’d actually made the effort once or twice (see “The mountain of the sun,” RN&R, Sept. 3, 2009). But random factors aligned, Joy and Hunter were up for the trip, and there we were, walking down V.C.’s vertical streets in the oddly comfortable winter morning. Despite all the websites to the contrary, St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church’s Sunday mass is at 11:30 a.m., and so was perfectly timed for people who stayed up late watching movies on Saturday night.
I’d been in the church before, as a tourist, but long before I became a connoisseur, and I realized as I glanced around and listened to the hidden choir, I could literally write a column speculating about the nuances of design in this church. I think the sensitivities of church designers were different in the 1860s. (The original cornerstone was laid in August 1868.) That unseen choir is a great example. The choir was situated on the balcony above and behind the sanctuary. The choir and organ, which in modern churches are an integral part of the chancel, made the music seem as though it was coming from nowhere and everywhere—heaven, if you will. Modern people are accustomed to hearing disembodied music; for instance, a radio in a car regularly offers symphonic sound. But back in those mining days, when there wasn’t even stereo radio, that choir must have been awe-inspiring. This modern technology we have sure can make regular old human skill seem naïve.
The sanctuary architecture was the same way. Those ceiling trusses or rafters showed incredible woodworking artistry, but in modern churches, the magic is hidden behind smooth ceilings or shaved down to its least expensive, utilitarian design. Also gone are the days when pews had individual doors to enter and non-hinged kneelers. Hard to believe I find myself thinking the old school churches might have had something right by investing in the structure, which often surpasses the lives of the constructing congregation. At any rate, I’ve gone on too long about the design. Suffice it to say that just about anyone, even non-religious types, could find things to think about during one of the quaint Sunday services. The chancel, Stations of the Cross, the bronze baptistery, the peculiar but beautiful stained glass panels—the design gets a five out of five in my book.
This particular Sunday celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany—when the three magi visited the baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, according to the Bible. Father Tom Cronin’s sermon, which followed the reading from Matthew 2:1-12, spoke of the modern Epiphany compared to how the church celebrated it in the past—a sermon that seemed to perfectly mirror my headspace that morning.
It seems back in the day and in other places in modern times, Epiphany was and is a bigger holiday than Christmas, and it was always celebrated on Jan. 6. But the story has changed in the last 20 centuries. For example, the Catholic church celebrated 12 magi in the second century. Father Cronin said it was uncertain whether there were really even three astrologers, and the story may have been a metaphor to establish certain things about the coming of Jesus: “The magi were not Jewish, not from the area. The point is that Jesus came for everyone. … Jesus came to save everyone, not just a few, not just people like us. He came to save everyone. Jesus came not looking for power or money. He came in a stable.”MUSIC