This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Memorial Day Field Mass at All Saints Cemetery. The first Mass was held May 30, 1960 at the newly dedicated cemetery located at 6001 Kirkwood Highway in the foothills of the Pike Creek valley. The director of cemeteries was Father Paul Taggart who was the celebrant at this first Mass. The Mass was held in an open field in the cemetery with no seating or protection from the weather provided. A small canvas tent was set up over the altar and until Memorial Day 1965, the Masses were said in Latin. In 1971, federal law directed that Memorial Day be observed on the last Monday of May instead of always on May 30.
With the completed construction of the chapel and administration building in 1981, the Memorial Day Field Mass was moved to the asphalt parking lot in front of the chapel. A few chairs were provided, but the attendees had no protection from the weather. On many Memorial Days the heat was extreme with very little shade in the area. In the event of rain, the Mass was moved to the auditorium of St. Mark’s High School, many times at the very last minute.
The first military tribute was “Taps” being played by Nick Corvino, a senior from Cardinal O’Hara High School, at the Mass held in the auditorium in St. Mark’s high School in 1996. The following year and every year since, VFW Post 475 has provided a military tribute that includes the raising of the flag, lowering flag to half-staff, a three round volley and playing of taps.
For the 40th anniversary of the Mass in 1999, the cemetery purchased a large tent and rented 500 chairs so that those attending would have adequate seating and protection from the weather. In addition to the military tribute before Mass, prayers for deceased Bishops, clergy, religious and laity of the Diocese of Wilmington were added to the program this same year, with the practice continuing today.
Over the past 60 years, local parishes have generously provided musicians and other liturgical ministers to make these Masses meaningful. In 2018, students from St. Mark’s High School provided the music and readers for the Mass. This year St. Elizabeth High School will provide the musicians, choir, readers and altar servers. Over the past 32 years the Knights of Columbus have faithfully provided the Color Guard.
Prior to Bishop Malooly’s arrival in 2008, most Masses were celebrated by the two directors of cemeteries. Father Paul Taggart from 1960 through 1974 and Msgr. Joseph Rebman from 1975 through 2008. On a few occasions over the years, Bishops Mardaga, Mulvee and Saltarelli were the principal celebrants. Throughout the years various priests of the diocese have concelebrated and many permanent deacons have assisted at the Mass.
From 2009 through this year, Bishop Malooly has been principal celebrant at the Masses. The only year he has missed during his time as bishop was in 2017 when he attended the funeral for Bishop William Newman in Baltimore which was held on the same day. He has been actively involved at all three diocesan cemeteries throughout his tenure as bishop by presiding at the annual Mass of Remembrance at Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Dagsboro that is held in the fall every year and leading the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday at Cathedral Cemetery in Wilmington. His ongoing support and encouragement, as shown by his consistent presence at all the major liturgical events held at our cemeteries, has meant a great deal to the cemetery staff and all those who have attended.
When looking back at the past 60 years, the loyal employees of our cemeteries, past and present, deserve special thanks and recognition. In the weeks prior to Memorial Day, general maintenance employees work extra hours throughout the week and on Saturdays to adequately prepare the grounds at all three diocesan cemeteries. In addition, the cemetery staff works on Memorial Day and all special events to set up for the event, direct traffic, assist with parking and many other jobs too numerous to mention. Our cemetery organization has been blessed with many loyal hard-working men and women these past many years.
The most important recognition is reserved for all the attendees who have taken time, over the past 59 years, to celebrate Memorial Day as a day to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in defense of our freedom. Their attendance and support at this event are what make this day so special.
(Mark Christian is director of Catholic Cemeteries for the Diocese of Wilmington).