Sunday morning, April 15, 2012 was my first Sunday on Cape Cod since mid-September 2011. The newspaper headlines from the Cape Cod commemorated the Titanic 100 years later with an interview with Robert Ballard, the oceanographer from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who discovered the wreckage in 1985.
He was quoted by Sean Teehan that his “only concern was coming in contact with the ship.” It seems Ballard was mindful of the 25 remaining survivors in 1985 and the sanctity of the seawater grave that marked the final resting place of the 1500 souls lost in the fatal descent to the bottom of the sea. In fact, the article was titled Time capsule or Sacred Ground?
Lost in reverie about the history of the Titanic on this sunny, Sunday morning, I looked for distraction through the historical roots of important things I would encounter this very day. My usual Cape Cod Sunday starts with 8 a.m. Mass at Sacred Heart Church, an extension of St. Francis Xavier Parish. The main church on South St. in Hyannis was made famous because it was the church were President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy were parishioners along with Jack’s mother Rose.
The dedication of the Sacred Heart Church is in a granite slab framed into the wall to the left of the main altar. The inscription reads: “In Memory of Jane Byrne 1826-19111, In Whose Life the Love of God was Manifest,***** By her Devotion This Church Was Built. 1899.”
I had seen it many times before, but this morning seemed to be devoted to history and sacred places. I must confess I knew nothing about Jane Byrne or why this Church was built in her memory 113 years ago.
After a day of searching I found a neighbor who had some knowledge about this simple woman. The story states she was an Irish immigrant who came to Cape Cod and worked as a domestic for a Protestant family. She served her employer so well and was so devout that they donated the money to build the church and had it dedicated to her. There apparently was no archive of the Cape Cod Times then that chronicled her life.
My research left me with a thirst for some more knowledge about sacred things, including religious influence on Cape Cod history. Reveries again took me to the steps of Carleton Hall when I was 16, summering in Cape Cod. It was the tradition of various churches to reach out to the summer crowds and hold religious services in buildings near the tourists. Carleton Hall was one of those places where Catholic Mass was available in a non-traditional church.
On that warm, Sunday morning in August, crowds were large. And I stood with my family attending Mass on the steps just outside of Carleton Hall. My little sister in her terrible twos was making a fuss when a tall familiar Irish-looking man picked her up and held her on his shoulders so she could see over everyones’ heads. Katie immediately quieted down while she rode piggyback on Ted Kennedy’s shoulders.
Today, I thought that somehow the landmark meeting hall, owned by the town of Dennis, would not be able to serve a dual purpose because of separation of church and state principles and the ACLU. I looked deeper into the history of Carleton Hall, which was originally established sometime in the 1820’s by Reformed Methodists, who as a group purchased the land from Oliver Crowell and built the meeting house.
Digging further, I was surprised to discover that up until 1821 the Town of Dennis paid the salary of a minister who served both North and South Dennis. As religious diversity increased the town required those who were not Methodists to register their religious group with the town hall and their portion of the tax bill that paid for the public minister was forgiven. There were 39 total members of religious groups other than the established church. In 1821, Massachusetts passed the Religious Freedom Act, which allowed this portion of the tax allotment not to be charged.
I marvel at the simplicity of the solution to the separation of church and state offered by the State of Massachusetts. No involvement was required by the federal government. No attempt was made by any legal organization with anti-religious motives to suppress religious freedom. It was just a simple approach to the problem: If you are not of the same belief system then you don’t have to pay the tax.
Imagine today if you were Roman Catholic or Evangelical Christian. How friendly this approach would be to the issue of requiring people of faith to pay for services, such as abortion or contraception, they legitimately don’t believe in. Massachusetts is considered a traditionally liberal state by most people – yet they were fair and understanding of the sensitive issues of Religious Freedom.
Why is it that the current regime under Barrack Obama must be so totalitarian? The truth is in his actions.