NEW ORLEANS — Inside a nondescript building along the U.S. 190 service road that once housed a Mr. Fish pet store, there stands an opulent altar, surrounded by candles, majestic statues and floral bouquets.
The Covington area building might lack a steeple or stained glass, but it hosts a growing group that gathers to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, a solemn and ancient form of Catholic worship spoken almost entirely in the Latin language by a priest who faces away from the congregation.
Since its establishment last August, Our Lady of Mount Carmel has grown from 250 founding members to more than 600, making it one of the largest in the Southeast, said Father Damian Zablocki. It’s one of seven places in the archdiocese of New Orleans, including St. Patrick’s Church in downtown New Orleans and Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Kenner, that regularly offers the Latin Mass.
Latin Masses, also known as the Tridentine Mass, have made up only a small percentage of Roman Catholic Masses since the sweeping modernization reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s largely limited them. The liturgy was thrust into the spotlight recently when Pope Francis reimposed restrictions on the Mass that had been lifted for more than a decade, saying some communities had “exploited” the form to divide the church.
The pope left it to bishops to decide whether the Latin Mass would continue to be practiced in their dioceses.
Hours after the pope’s restrictions were announced July 16, nearly 500 people packed into the pews of Our Lady of Mount Carmel to celebrate a solemn high Mass, the most formal version of Latin Mass with more celebrants, incense and Gregorian chants. One of the celebrants was Archbishop Gregory Aymond, who told the congregation that the Pope’s letter was an opportunity “to show the world that Mass can be celebrated in many different ways.”
“Be not afraid,” he told the worshippers. “What you know as the Latin Mass here — and not only here but in the other six locations — will continue.”
After Vatican II, the Latin Mass became a point of contention for some who saw practice as defiant of church leadership. Aymond acknowledged that the Latin Mass has caused division in some communities, but in an interview last week he said that has not been the case in New Orleans.
“We don’t have any of that here,” he said. “The people here who go to that Mass and participate in it are good Catholics and believe in the teachings of the church.”
Some differences between the Latin Masses and the newer Mass are obvious: In the older form, Latin intonations are spoken by a priest who mostly faces away from the congregation. Worshippers speak less but move more frequently in a choreographed rotation of sitting, standing and kneeling. They receive communion on the tongue while kneeling at the altar rail. Only boys are allowed to be altar servers and women are encouraged, but not required, to wear veils. The Mass is also longer.
In recent years, Aymond said that he has noticed growing interest in the Latin Mass, particularly among young Catholics who are drawn to the “beauty and the quiet,” as well as its “mystical dimension.”
“It’s something they didn’t know before so they’re spiritually intrigued.”
Zablocki estimated that at least 90 percent of the Mount Carmel community are adults too young to have grown up with the Latin Mass.
“Especially young people, I think, have felt starved for true devotion and true traditions of the church which have been practiced for 2,021 years in various places,” said Zablocki, who was a waiter at Irene’s, the French Quarter restaurant, before he became a priest. “To see the secularism in the world is very difficult and in the Latin Mass they find tradition, they find something to emotionally, physically and spiritually cling to, to make heaven visible.”
Sal Marcello, 20, said he found the Latin form more meaningful than other services. He said he was drawn to the challenge of the Latin language and practices that he feels promote his spiritual growth, including learning the origin and significance of the intricate gestures the priest does during the Mass, as opposed to remaining on a surface level and skating through on “the Cheetos of spiritual life.”
Hannah Hauswald, 30, heard her parents describe Latin Mass as she was growing up. She began attending in 2013, drawn, she said, to its reverence and beauty.
“We just want to have a reverent type of worship, to continue the ancient traditions,” said Hauswald, who covered her head with a blue lace and sequined veil at the July 16 Mass.
The Latin Mass community on the north shore began more than 10 years ago, when a small group would pray in Rachel Simpson’s Mandeville living room. Later, the archbishop allowed them to celebrate it at an Abita Springs parish, but soon they outgrew that space and moved to the former Mr. Fish store, Simpson said.
“It’s the same Mass, just a different language,” she said. “If people saw what really goes on they would get it. You don’t really understand what you don’t know.”
The Latin form tends to attract people who practice a stricter, more conservative form of Catholicism, Zablocki said. Many participants take longer fasting periods, women wear veils and people sometimes become “more conservative in their spirituality,” he said.
But Our Lady of Mount Carmel attracts people from “all walks of life,” Zablocki said, including single people, married couples with lots of children, people who have been divorced and all sides of the political spectrum. He has made a conscious effort to ensure the community does not exist in a bubble, encouraging people from other parishes to visit and worship.
“People long very much for the reverence, they long very much for the beauty, they long very much for the tradition,” Zablocki said. “Not because it’s some dead ritual, but because it’s something that’s actually living and they see it.”
But some remember practicing Latin Mass exclusively during their childhoods and are happy to reconnect.
Curt Burns, 77, and his wife Mary, 72, said they were reintroduced to the Latin Mass during a pilgrimage to Ecuador. Since then they have attended Latin Masses around the world and appreciated the consistency.
“It’s beautiful to recognize the Latin Mass in other parts of the world,” Mary Burns said.
Joe Morse, a Covington father of four, said going to church on Sundays felt like an obligation until he started going to Latin Mass.
“It was so beautiful and reverent, the music and everything was perfect,” he said. He and his wife bring their children to the Mass.
Young families like his own, many of whom homeschool their children, have formed a close-knit network. Morse said the archbishop’s message at Mass made him hopeful for the growth of the community.
“There’s a growing community who want to worship in the traditional Catholic liturgy and to make it more difficult for them to do that would be divisive,” he said. “We’re just interested in a reverent, traditional Mass and not necessarily trying to be more pharisaical or holier than thou.”