Maytime parades for Mary used to clog city's streets


The other evening, three dozen children carrying carnations walked in the May procession along O'Donnell Street in Southeast Baltimore to St. Casimir's Roman Catholic Church.

By the standards of the 1940s and 1950s, when people may have been more religious, the procession was small. In those past decades, hundreds of people routinely filled neighborhood streets for the May procession. May is the month that Catholics ** honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. The highlight of the event is the BTC placing of a crown of flowers on the head of a statue of Mary.

Decades ago, the day of the procession was a day for your best clothes, a fresh roll of photographic film and sprays of lilies of the valley, baby's-breath and rose buds.

It was also a day of deep sentiment for a ritual that has fallen out of favor with church modernists who scorn such public acts of piety.

The custom endures, however, in a number of Catholic parishes and schools where there is a strong sense of tradition and neighborhood spirit. The girls at Mount DeSales Academy in Catonsville, for example, have been crowning an outdoor statue of the Virgin Mary in the school's garden every May since 1852.

Some 40 years ago, all across Baltimore, Catholic students practiced singing the traditional hymns sung at the May event. Many music teachers sat at Knabe pianos and accompanied classes singing, "Bring flowers of the rarest, bring flowers of the fairest, from garden and woodland and hillside and dale. . . . O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today, Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May. . . ."

The other standards were " 'Tis the Month of Our Mother," "Immaculate Mary," and "O Mother Dear, Pray for Me." The music was sweet and Victorian. Many Catholics recall singing these hymns on cloudless May afternoons as bees swarmed around the bouquets.

Leading up to the day of the procession, there was always quite a bit of competition among girl students. It was not an easy task for the nuns to select the student who would actually place the crown of flowers atop the statue's head. The honor usually went to a girl, selected from the eighth-grade students, who also had top marks in the subject of religion. Just to be fair, the nuns often put five names on slips of paper and drew one.

The huge May processions, such as those at St. Martin's on Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore, drew full newspaper coverage. Joe Brodie, the enterprising manager of a Light Street movie house in South Baltimore, once had the St. Mary's Star of the Sea procession filmed by a local cameraman. The film was then shown at his movie theater. St. Dominic's procession on Harford Road in Hamilton occasionally got in the way of the No. 19 streetcar.

As the processions grew more elaborate, they took on the trappings of both the Vatican and Broadway. The girl selected to crown the statue was accompanied by a court of girls in pastel gowns. There was also a satin pillow or silver tray on which the crown of flowers rested. Sometimes there were pages -- usually boys from the second grade who dressed in their white First Communion suits. The children who had recently made their first communions also wore their white clothes from that day.

Often, the statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on a stone pedestal, requiring the girl who placed the crown to climb a stepladder. The parish set designer would wrap the janitor's ladder in white satin.

On the day of the procession, mothers and fathers and grandparents assembled. The monsignor stood out in his red raiment. Unless one of the traditional May hymns was sung, or the rosary recited aloud, strict silence was observed during the procession. The rule was not always kept. Bad deportment during a May procession meant swift and sure punishment from the nuns.

Boys and girls often saved a reminder of the day -- a religious card or program. Many people never dared discard these mementos of days in May many years ago.

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