BROOKLYN CENTER, Minnesota — Eighty years ago, Paul Ditter boarded a school bus with his fellow classmates at Holy Name of Jesus School in Medina, Minnesota, heading to a special destination: The Pontifical Mass for Children at the Ninth National Eucharistic Congress.
Held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds grandstand in St. Paul, the event drew 14,000 upper grade school students from Catholic schools throughout the Twin Cities and suburbs.
“It was June 25, 1941; I was 13 years old at the time and had just graduated from Holy Name with my eighth-grade classmates,” said Ditter, 93, now a member of St. Alphonsus Parish in Brooklyn Center.
“The school bus dropped us off at Como Park, and from there we had to walk in procession to the grandstand,” he said. “There were loudspeakers overhead and we were singing and praying as we went along, the boys in white shirts and dark pants and the girls in white dresses with veils on their heads. It rained lightly when we walked and we got a little wet, but we made it.”
The Pontifical Mass for Children was one of a number of events comprising the eucharistic congress, a four-day meeting of clergy, religious and laity from across the U.S., celebrating the sacrament of the holy Eucharist.
Public eucharistic adoration and Masses, processions and meetings took place June 23-26, 1941, drawing 475,000 people to various locations throughout the Twin Cities, including the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
The altar of exposition at the fairgrounds grandstand, with the Blessed Sacrament enshrined in a magnificent silver monstrance, made a big impact on Ditter.
“I recall seeing the eucharistic altar and how beautiful it was, the very large stage and a pipe organ; they had erected a building which housed the organ inside, and you could see the vertical louvers open and shut,” Ditter said.
“We had been preparing to sing at the eucharistic congress children’s Mass since the beginning of my eighth-grade year,” he said. “We each received the Gregorian hymn book — 153 pages of songs — all in Latin, of course. I still have my well-worn book, even though the cover is gone.”
The official history and record of the National Eucharistic Congress refers to a two-week “school” held in August 1940 for teachers of music in Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to acquaint them with the music “which they were expected to drill their pupils in the approaching school year.”
The culmination was the combined chorus of 14,000 children at the Pontifical Mass for Children led by Father Francis Missia.
Ditter, the youngest of nine children, grew up on a small farm close to Holy Name Church and School. He started playing Holy Name’s old pump organ while in grade school.
“Being an organist, I was always engaged with something at church,” he told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “There was also a big parish hall with lots of activities, including a harvest festival and annual chicken dinner. I’m proud to say I’ve been a devoted Catholic all of my life.”
“Since we lived so close to the church, my brothers and I served at daily Mass since most of the time we’d be going anyway,” Ditter said. “My brothers John, Joe and I also had the task of ringing the Holy Name angelus church bell at noon and 6 p.m. We had to go way up in the bell tower, open a trap door and climb a ladder.
“We’d get the bell going, and then we’d run to see if we could get home before it stopped.”
He noted the pastor at the time, Father Hyacinth Cismowski, gave each of the boys a pocket watch “to make sure we showed up on time to ring the bell.”
Ditter, who had a long career as a structural engineer, worked for a steel fabricating company and served as project manager for some large buildings, including the 57-story Wells Fargo Center in downtown Minneapolis. He and his wife raised three daughters and two sons; he volunteered as a parish organist at St. Alphonsus from 1969 to 2004 and also sang for funerals in the parish’s Resurrection Choir.
The fall after he attended the National Eucharistic Congress in June 1941, Ditter headed off to high school. A few months later, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered World War II.
“My four years of high school were the same four years of WWII,” he said. “Four of my brothers were in the service, and I lost my brother Anthony in the war. My whole family was much into the Catholic faith, and it had an impact on me even if I wasn’t totally aware of it at the time.”
“That eucharistic congress was something really special, with so many people and churches participating,” Ditter said. “It would be good to see something like that happen again today.”
The first International Eucharistic Congress took place on June 21, 1881, in Lille, France; the congress was held annually until the outbreak of World War II, and now are held about every four years.
Activities include a public procession with the Eucharist, time for eucharistic adoration, and conferences involving clergy and laity. The next International Eucharistic Congress is scheduled for September in Budapest, Hungary.
The first National Eucharistic Congress in the U.S. took place in 1926 in Chicago.
According to the official history and record of the 1941 National Eucharistic Congress in the Twin Cities, more than half the members of the American hierarchy were present, as well as many bishops from Canada and Mexico, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen.
Archbishop John Gregory Murray led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the time.
In addition to the children’s Mass, there was a Pontifical Mass for All Pilgrims on the final day of the congress, where the voice of Pope Pius XII, speaking from Vatican City, was heard on the loudspeaker system. That Mass was followed by a two-mile procession with the Blessed Sacrament in 91-degree heat, which was relieved by a heavy rain ushering in cooler air.
The sale of an official souvenir — an oxidized silver medal with a lapel pin — helped fund the congress. Each of the 300,000 Catholics in the archdiocese was asked to purchase one at 50 cents.
Musser writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.