ST. FRANCIS – The sound of an organ, deliverance of a Scriptural message, participation in the Eucharist indicate a Mass is being celebrated. But the cable wires, sound boards and bright lights indicate that this Mass is being celebrated for more than just the few people on hand in the tiny chapel. This Mass is also a television production to be made available to a much wider group of worshippers.
For more than a year, the chapel at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary has been the site of tapings of Catholic Masses. The productions air on stations in cities across the country, thanks to a recent distribution arrangement.
Milwaukee-based Santa Fe Communications has been producing the televised Masses under the title “My Sunday Mass” through a nonprofit organization, Heart of the Nation. Another local company, Brookfield-based Video Wisconsin, provides technical support and gives the productions a polished, professional feel.
While the production values and serene, historic backdrop are touted as assets to the weekly liturgies, Catholic leaders behind the effort say there is a far more important reason to bring a Mass into TV viewers’ homes each week.
“This is an opportunity to bring something to people who can’t get out to Mass each week; it gives them a chance to still participate,” said Fr. Tom DeVries, who celebrated the Mass for a taping earlier this year.
While the broadcasting of Masses has long been associated with a ministry to shut-ins, Fr. DeVries said there is another goal behind the effort.
“This can be used as a source of evangelization,” he said. “There might be a particular word spoken that could reach someone’s heart. The Word of God definitely speaks to people.”
The Mass is seen in 49 states. The number of states swelled when Santa Fe Communications purchased airtime on the ION TV network.
Bruno John, president of Santa Fe Communications, said “My Sunday Mass,” is delivered weekly into 58 million households.
While a Catholic Mass has been broadcast over Milwaukee airwaves since the advent of television, production has not always taken place within the community.
For most of its 30 years in existence, Santa Fe Communications had been based in Burbank, Calif. From its earliest days, the organization had been bringing televised Masses into the homes of Los Angeles viewers. As time went on, Santa Fe purchased airtime in other markets, including Milwaukee.
In 2010, John said a decision was made to move the organization to Milwaukee, in part because of support for the effort from then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan.
“Once we received his blessing, we started looking for a place to tape the Masses in Milwaukee,” John said. “We eventually decided on the Saint Francis de Sales Seminary because of its architecture and incredible history.”
A number of parishes throughout the Milwaukee Archdiocese participate in the Mass recordings, particularly when it comes to providing music. Choirs from throughout the area showcase their Catholic faith each week through song.
“It’s turned out to be a really tremendous partnership with the parishes in this area,” John said.
About 45 choir members from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish participated in a Mass taping during a reporter’s visit.
“The setting here (at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary) is just glorious,” said Peg Kasun, director of music ministries for the parish on Milwaukee’s south side. “The acoustics in here are simply amazing.”
Santa Fe Communications typically records four to five Masses back-to-back. For this reason, improvisation is sometimes necessary. For example, members of Our Lady of Lourdes’ choir were dressed in bright pastel colors – a nod to a Mass that was being broadcast on Easter Sunday, even though the actual taping occurred in the middle of Lent.
Steve Senski serves as liturgical director of the Mass tapings. A specific outline is created before each Mass, and planning and coordination takes place before the cameras start rolling.
Despite the enhancements of 21st Century technology – including the opportunity to record the Masses in high definition – Senski said years of tradition provide the foundation for the shows.
Santa Fe Communications generally records on Saturday mornings and afternoons once a month.
Production crews set up the production equipment the night before – devoting anywhere from three to four hours to the effort. Eight crew members contribute to the tapings, which are open to the public.
Once a Mass has been recorded, staff at Santa Fe Communications take footage back to the studio to make edits, as necessary, to form fit the program to a 30-minute broadcast.
Private donations fund the entire Mass production ministry. In addition to equipment and technical support, costs go toward purchasing airtime on TV stations.