The Masses at Walt Disney World
With the cessation of regular Sunday masses at Walt Disney World we have cause to reflect on a part of our Ministry that was very special, and that over the years provided Eucharistic service to thousands of visitors. Perhaps too it served to illustrate the dedicated commitment to the Eucharist of our Shrine volunteers ( or of our Tourist Ministry volunteers in the early years before the Shrine.)
Let it be said we have never had anything but a cordial and cooperative relationship with the Disney people. That relationship still exists.
Time marches on. Situations change. Back in 1975 when this Ministry began we lacked a meeting place. We made arrangements with hotels in an effort to serve our people. I have wonderful memories of our relationship with hotel staffs, irrespective of which hotel it might have been. And in 1976, after negotionas with then Vice-President Robert Allen, we began our first masses at the Polynesian Cove within the Disney complex.
Looking back on what was achieved, God worked wonders through the volunteers and priests involved in the ministry. On Sunday mornings we had masses at a Lake Buena Vista Hotel (it may have been the Royal Plaza, or th Howard Johnson, or the Travel Lodge, or the Hilton, or perhaps even the Palace We brought our mass kits into all!) Then we raced to the Sheraton Twin Towers some ten miles away for the final masses of the Sunday. How could we have added two more masses at Disney World? The fact is, we did!
We had, as we still have, a group of very dedicated volunteers, for whom nothing was too much! They were always there ahead of the priest, to meet him, park his car if necessary, unload the materials for mass, set up the altar, distribute the materials - and take up the offerings! Without them, the ministry could simply not have survived. At the end of mass the same machinations took place, in reverse! And the Salesian Fathers from Tampa played a major role through the help they provided, sending us a priest every Sunday for years.
What all of this activity says is that the service of our visitors was the prime mover in all our aspirations. When we built Holy Family parish and added three more weekend masses, there was simply no thought of ending the Tourist masses. We just had to find yet another priest to help us out! Fr. Leo Brown, O.F.M. was the first to arrive on the scene at Holy Family. And with only one leg, he still wanted to be involved in the Tourist masses too. Sadly, he was on his way to preside at the masses at the Polynesian Hotel on the Sunday of Labor Day 1982 when he was tragically killed in a car accident.
We pay tribute to the Salesian Fathers, many of whom we rembember with affection and pride. Two of the principals are dead, Fr. Innocent Clementi and Fr. Al Manni. May God grant them eternal rest. With their sense of humor and their dedication they left a permanent imprint on this Ministry of ours. Come rain, come storm, the masses continued.
But we also had a dream that was realized with the first mass at the Shrine on January 31, 1993. We now had a central place of worship for our visitors. Dedication day in August 1993 was a day to remember for its pageantry, its liturgy and the joy of all who had been a part of the success. We were home.
Still, the masses at Disney continued. But time was running out. The priest shortage would create problems. We wanted to continue the Disney masses, but it was not to be. Their time had passed. In late July of 2002 we experimented with offering one mass within the Disney complex. But the double numbers that showed up at the single mass caused discomfort to guests, and with no other suitable place available the Disney Company and the Shrine came to a mutual agreement. The masses would be discontinued, and Disney would direct Catholic guests to the Shrine.
At the outset of our ministry our aim was to make it possible for crowds to attend mass. For this purpose we chose many venues and exerted ourselves in accordance with the energy of our years. From 1976 - 2002 is one year more than a quarter of a century. We are grateful for the spiritual help we were able to bring to our visitors. But at no time did we ever intend to convey the notion that Catholic visitors to Orlando would have the mass brought to them for their personal convenience!
Indeed, when those masses began, the Disney complex stood almost on its own on State Road 192. There were a few hotels there. We recall visiting them on a frequent basis to make sure their guests services knew about our mass schedules, not only at Disney World but elsewhere. Today the same State Road is lined with hotels and places of entertainment right to the end of the line, about four miles beyond Disney World. And today too, the Shrine is a Worship Center that serves the spiritual needs of Catholic visitors from the world over.
Something else needs to be remembered too. When we began in 1975 the average age of priests in this ministry was under fifty. Today that average age has escalated to around 65. The Director of the Shrine will be 73 in February 2003. Most lay persons are long retired at this age! For the small minority who took umbrage at the closing of the masses, we have this to say: the time is coming when Catholics will have to make much larger sacrifices to get to mass, because short of an outright miracle the priest shortage in this country will continue to worsen. Prayers for priestly vocations far exceed in value than any complaints! Be kind to your aging priests! They may soon be all you have!
Personally, I am grateful for my years, and the way in which God has used me for His purposes. Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine stands as a lasting tribute to the faith of our people from far and near. It is their home away from home. Our faithful people will always be welcomed here with open arms.
Monsignor F. Joseph Harte
Director of Tourism
Diocese of Orlando
Letter dated January 2003
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