Category Archives: Interesting People

Christmas Eve, 1945: The Midnight Mass Express

The Midnight Mass Express

Monsignor Meehan Kerry c 1975

 Monsignor Francis X. Meehan (1910-1994) and Kerry McManus, Circa 1975

Back in the early Seventies, Immaculate Conception Parish in Marlborough was assigned a new pastor: Monsignor Francis Xavier Meehan.

Monsignor Meehan was an intellectual, theologian, and an educator At St. John’s Seminary in Boston  for many years. Now, toward the end of his career, he was returning to parish work as a local pastor. It was a role he had requested, and truly relished. He was my pastor, mentor, and friend.

Monsignor Meehan was known for his willingness to help everyone, his good nature, and long, intellectual sermons (that most of us didn’t entirely understand, but which always contained at least one useful thought);  and his dry sense of humor. I appreciated all of his gifts and talents, but naturally, his warmth and humor drew me closer.

We young, family parishioners would get together in little home groups from time to time, discussing church teachings, policies, ethics, and church experiences (good and bad). Nothing was off limits. Sometimes we discussed personal matters. Once he admitted he was named “Francis X. Meehan” for the famous Hollywood silent movie idol, “Francis X. Bushman,” after whom so many admiring mothers named their firstborn sons  early in the 20th Century. His mother, like many mothers of her time, always insisted that she had named her son after the great St. Francis Xavier; but that one mother’s tale was suspect, and the great silent movie star, Francis X. Bushman, was believed to be the source of most of those young boys’ name.

That opened the door, and I asked Msgr. Meehan to tell us a light-hearted story from his own personal experience. One Christmas Season, after a glass or two of Jamison’s around my fire place, he told us of his first Christmas parish experience:

“At Christmas time in the 1940’s, just after World War II, the churches were packed with people during the Christmas holidays. The pastors would contact the seminary to recruit young priests, teachers, and even senior seminarians to come and help out at the churches. My first Christmas assignment was helping out at an old world Italian Parish in the North End of Boston.

“The parish was old world in every way. The senior congregation was first generation Italian-Americans. They had built the church, and their children and grandchildren filled it. They also had several traditions they followed without fail. One of these was irreverently called ‘The Jesus Express.’ You never dared call it that in front of the old pastor, but occasionally he did tolerate use of the alternate term, ‘The Midnight Mass Express.’

“The premise was simple: Before Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, there would be a choir festival. They would surround the stable scene and empty crèche at the foot of the altar, then step aside for the final hymn (“Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night,” were local favorites) . While they sang, the Baby Jesus was majestically lowered, sliding slowly along an almost invisible wire, that led from the choir loft to the empty crèche on the altar. It was rehearsed and perfectly timed. The little statue landed in the straw almost at the exact final note of the hymn. Then the pastor, his curates, deacons, and altar boys, all splendidly attired, would say a few prayers, bless the entire diorama, and proceed with Midnight Mass.

“The year I was on duty, naturally, there was an issue. The committee had allowed two of the altar boys to string the wire from the choir loft to the crèche and, as young boys will, they were more interested in getting the job done quickly than properly. They didn’t understand, for example, that the higher the choir loft end of the wire was raised, the faster the Infant Jesus would proceed down it when they released him from the loft. They hung the wire very high indeed. And, alas, no one checked their work.

“Came Christmas Eve, and the choir concert, a full church, and the clerical presence.  The pastor gave the signal to the boys in the choir loft: “Release the Infant Jesus.” They did just that.. As clerics and congregants alike looked on in horror, the little statue of Jesus hurtled down the wire at a high and ever increasing rate of speed. One of the curates, who had been an Army chaplain during the war, reverted to his military training. He yelled, “Incoming!” and dove into the first pew for cover. The pastor stood his ground. The little statue hit the crèche at top speed, knocked it over, which in turn knocked over Joseph and Mary along with the shepherds and the animals, which in turn knocked down the entire stable.

“In less time than it takes to describe it, the Christmas manger scene was a shambles, flattened, and apparently destroyed.

“The pastor never blinked. He proceeded to say the prayers over the wreckage, blessed it with holy water, and walked triumphantly away to begin the Midnight Mass.

“After Mass, the pastor got all the participants together for a review of the disaster. The responsible altar boys received a talking-to and lecture that they probably carry with them to this very day. The pastor asked for a damage report. The custodian replied: “The shepherds and the angels are broken but fixable; The Holy Family landed in the straw and they are okay. I can set up the crèche easily enough, clean up the mess, and with a little help, we can hammer the stable back together in time for tomorrow morning’s first Mass.’

“For the first time, the pastor smiled: ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are all well? That will be our little Christmas miracle. As for the rest of it, fix the crèche and have the stable set up around the Holy Family before anyone goes home tonight.’ He walked happily away.

“And it was done just that way. By the 7am Christmas Mass, the Infant Jesus was safely back in his crèche, in the stable, and surrounded by his loving parents and attendant shepherds and angels.

“God was in his place and all was right with the world.

“And – after all – isn’t that a great message for Christmas?”


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Interesting People: Monsieur Rose

One of the perks of working for a successful high-tech start-up, like Data General Corporation, was hanging around with smart people. They are “bright off the scale” as my friend Dr. Mike Schneider used to say. Oh sure, once in a while a bogey slips through the net, but they are quickly identified, neutralized, and ejected before they cause too much harm. I found myself in such a high performance environment in 1971 when I went to work for Data General, “the darling of Wall Street,” and the fastest growing company of the Seventies.

One of my jobs was entertaining over dinner the senior clients who came in to meet the company founders. The founders weren’t into “entertaining” while I enjoyed the occasional social night out with business heavyweights from around the world. I met some very interesting people. People who liked to tell stories:

I remember Monsieur Rose (pronounced like the wine), a principal of Company Olivier, an important French trading company. They had been doing business in the eastern world, mainly China, since the 17th century. He told me the great secret of doing business with China: “The Chinese value long term relationships, and courtly and conservative business people. The American companies who go over there with high pressure sales pitches, accompanied by  ‘Flash and Cash,’ will fail every time.”

Thus should we approach the Mysterious East.

M. Rose knew his company history, loved French wine, and enjoyed telling a good story. I was interested in all three, so we got on splendidly.

He told this story to illustrate the Chinese business mentality: In the 1960’s and 70’s, during Mao’s reign of terror in China, M. Rose would meet in Paris with the Chinese negotiators on important business matters. “The Chinese team never knew from one day to the next who was in charge in Peking (now Beijing), or what the party line would be for today. People were in and out of favor, ideas were adopted and abandoned, and laws were made and changed. It was a turbulent, confusing, and dangerous time.”

“How could the Chinese negotiators in Paris deal with all that chaos back home?” I asked. “It must have made their jobs impossible.”

“Not at all,” smiled M. Rose. “The Chinese are the ultimate business professionals. They are flexible. They are pragmatic. The Chinese team would get a daily cable from Beijing saying this policy is in or out, that leader is good or bad, and this is the correct thinking for today. They whole-heartedly adopted the new political position before their next business meeting. They’d come in wearing business suits one day and quilted jackets the next. They’d wave Mao’s little Red Book of principles – or not. The homeland politics may have changed, but not their mission: They were there to get the best deal possible for China; and that’s exactly what they did”

My favorite Mr. Rose story was about China and their trading mastery. Back in the 18th century, the Chinese realized that there was great Western interest in their delicate tea, their exquisite pottery, and their handsome furnishings. “The big markets in Europe, and the United States were difficult to penetrate for all the usual reasons. The Chinese realized they needed an angle. They found it in an inspired marketing approach: They offered their pottery to Western distributors in a package deal: You buy their pottery. The pottery comes packaged in tea leaves. Both pottery and tea leaves come packed in a crate that is itself a handsome teak box. The merchant would sell the pottery, sell the tea, and sell the chest.

“It was the first time in business history that a merchant could make money on the product, the packing material, and the shipping container. There was no recycling. Nothing was wasted.”

Yes, I like smart people.

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