The Mystery in the Cathedral

mystery in the Cathedral

Do you know what's going on in this picture? John sent it to me to ask if I could help him date the dress the woman is wearing (looks pretty early-1930s to me, or else set WAY in the Art Deco Future), but I'm so intrigued by everything going on in this photo (the box! the altar! the little-girl pages with swords! the priest!) that I asked him if I could post it and set y'all loose on the problem.

This is what John knows:

The photo was taken in the Cathedral in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The man is Msgr. Thomas M. Conroy, which dates the photo anywhere from 1921 to when the altar was changed about 1933 or so. No idea who the lady is, or what on earth they are doing, let alone in that gorgeous apparel. [ETA: the lady's name may or may not be Rosemary NEDILASEN or NEUBAUER.]

The photo above is pretty small; if you want to download a REALLY BIG one, that you can enlarge to see the detail on the box (a reliquary? an offering of some sort? a time machine?) you can grab it here. [UPDATED: here's a closeup of just the box.

My first thought was perhaps the woman was taking vows of some kind (to become a nun, or to join the Space Vestals — I'm sorry, I can't pull myself away from that Art Deco Future) but John thinks that novices usually didn't wear so much makeup. Or so much velvet.

What do you think is going on? If you KNOW, that's wonderful, but in the meantime, idle speculation is encouraged.

0 thoughts on “The Mystery in the Cathedral

  1. …another local with nothing more to add than1) I was surprised to see mention of my stomping grounds (Ft Wayne)2) the Cathedral is a magnificent place – pass by it every morning on my way to work just a block away. It’s so peaceful.3) Must. Have. Gown!!!THat is all…I will definitely be keeping an eye on this post, though!

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  2. This won’t help solve the mystery or anything, but I think the ruching is at the top of the gloves, rather than the bottom of the sleeves.

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  3. One more random bit of info. . . Rosemary Neubauer, born about 1898 was listed in the 1920 U.S. Census living in Marion, IN (near Ft. Wayne). She was living with her mother, sister and Step-father (last name: Trenham).Those have to be little boys. Little girls were never allowed to do anything in the Church.

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  4. John again:I must tell you, that the pages are definitely girls– in fact, I have their names also, from the back of the photo. This apparently has been the source of much speculation, which I did not forsee, as the closeup in the larger image shows their faces clearly.Here, from the diocesan-archivist, who wrote:The pages are listed from left to right; Mary Lee Koester, Betty Eifert, Mary Emmanuel, Pat Kilkelly, Dolores Sorg, Clare Kelker. The young lady in the middle is identified as Rosemary Nedilasen. (the spelling of last names is my best guess at reading the handwriting)I understand that it was UNUSUAL for these girls to be on the altar, and behind the communion rail, but then again, it was almost as odd to see that young lady there too!More later…John

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  5. I think they are boys. How likely would it be to find that many little girls with that short of hair at that time (unless they are orphans) and wearing short pants. I also have seen pictures of my grandfather in a lace gown (as an infant) and then later with a pageboy and I think mary janes in another pic. It comes from our peasant societal roots/superstitions. Boys were dressed as girls so that spirits would think they were girls and not kill them (as boys would be able to help the family financially). It’s somewhat linked to the reason we have wedding attendants…to confuse the spirits so they won’t know whose special day it is and ruin it.

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  6. I think they are boys. How likely would it be to find that many little girls with that short of hair at that time (unless they are orphans) and wearing short pants. I also have seen pictures of my grandfather in a lace gown (as an infant) and then later with a pageboy and I think mary janes in another pic. It comes from our peasant societal roots/superstitions. Boys were dressed as girls so that spirits would think they were girls and not kill them (as boys would be able to help the family financially). It’s somewhat linked to the reason we have wedding attendants…to confuse the spirits so they won’t know whose special day it is and ruin it.

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  7. I don’t think they are at the main altar. I’ve been looking at pics of the Cathedral, and though renovations have taken place, nothing “fits” right. I think this may be a sanctuary on the side of the main altar. Considering that this is a Cathedral, the main altar would be MUCH bigger, and the bishops seat on the side(at the top of the stairs).

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  8. Okay,Grow up Catholic in the 1960’s and truly women were rare participants in church ceremonies EXCEPT for one. The May celebration honoring Mary. At our church, one young women was chosen to wear a gown/cape very similar to this one and she was attended by ‘female alter girls’ (no swords though). The gown worn in our case was red velvet with either a emerald green or violet silky lining. And with regard to the long johns mentioned in an earlier post: The May procession started outside and finished at the altar and finished with a Mass. The ceremony – Lots of flowers and music, songs dedicated to Mary – all very beautiful.Maybe this is a similar ceremony at this church, particularly since it is a Catholic Church dedicated to Mary.

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  9. The costumes on the girls remind me of Easter pageants I’ve seen in European churches. Keep in mind that the young lady’s dress is not necessarily black. It seems more likely to me a someone that age would wear a deep green or blue to a church event, with the lighter tone underneath. I haven’t been to church in years, but I’m pretty sure my great aunts who grew up in the thirties (and in pictures from before their teenage years always had bowl haircuts and mary jane shoes) would never wear that much black to church unless it was a funeral.

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  10. Reducing the speculations. 1) The priests name is known: Msgr. Thomas M. Conroy.2) The young woman’s name is known (within the limits of reading handwriting) 3) the pages are girls and their names are known. 4) The church is known. 5) The alter is known to be the main alter at the Cathedral in Fort Wayne Indiana prior to its replacement in 1933. Since Msgr Conroy began in Ft Wayne in 1921, the date of the photo HAS to be in that 12 year span. That said, it’s impossible to enhance the photo enough to identify the reliquary. My best effort is at http://i252.photobucket.com/albums/hh20/rboatright/reliquary.jpg I have managed to convince myself that the shield on the top of the reliquary is a shepard, facing slightly to our left and holding a crook, and that the “pages” are, in fact, shepards holding crooks not canes. This explains the “odd” handles on the “canes.” The FRONT of the reliquary has two shields on it. The one on our right has three “lumps” on it which to me seem to be faces, but really they’re lumps. The shield on our left is hopeless. Both shields are surrounded by 8 pointed stars, I’ve tried to find haraldry which cooresponds, but have failed utterly. The lid of the box is cracked open, and the chain is coming OUT of the lid, and the pendant is hanging from the chain. There is what appears to be an opening on the left of the pendant, but it could just as easily be a dark decoration. So, I’m afraid unless the cathedral archivist can help with identifying the reliquary, I’m stumped. Those ruffled gloves are amazing tho.

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  11. I doubt that this photo was taken during any ceremony (whatever ceremony that might have been) and most certainly this photo was not taken during Mass (the Msgr is not wearing vestments for Mass, and probably would not have allowed photography during Mass). Im sure this is a posed commemorative photo for some type of celebration or procession. My best guess is some type of saint day celebration or feast day celebration, probably involving or related to the Virgin Mary or another female saint (thus the young woman and girl pages) – a celebration for which the reliquary or religious object in the young womans hands has a specific significance. I am convinced that being chosen to carry the box or to be one of the pages was quite an honor. A ceremony or procession sponsored by a particular devotional organization is also a good possibility.For a Queen of the May celebration, I would expect vast quantities of flowers, but not necessarily a relic. Dont see any flowers.If this is a relic, I expect that the pendant contains a bit of cloth or wood or some very small object associated (most likely) with a female saint.Further net searching indicates, much to my surprise, that Indiana seems to have quite a number of Catholic reliquary collections. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart (University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN about 120 miles away from Fort Wayne) includes a Reliquary Chapel. Found here are the relics of each of the 12 Apostles; a piece of the manger at Bethlehem; pieces of the veil and belt of the Blessed Virgin; and relics of all of the saints in the Church calendar. The large wood cross contains a relic of the True Cross. Now THAT is quite an impressive collection of relics. More about the relics at Notre Dame:http://www.nd.edu/~ndmag/sp2004/relics.htmlPerhaps a relic traveled from Notre Dame for this specific ceremony in Fort Wayne?CMC

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  12. The top of the box seems clear enough to me as a fleur de lis… not sure how it could appear to be a shepherd. This peculiar version of a fleur de lis is identical to that used on the arms of Florence,Italy.The shield on the left, looking at the box, has a thing on top, which indicates a first son (forget the name of the symbol.) The shield on the right, which looks like three of something, actually has three PAIRS of what appear to be crescents facing each other. There is heraldic symbolism to FOUR crescents, but not six.There IS a closeup photo of the reliquary available! It is from the diocesan archivist. Problem is, the close-up is NOT from the large photo, it is its own photo. And while the gloves look the same, the BOX looks different– no as much engraving! I’ll see if I can get it added to the site!On the gloves– they appear to be kid gloves to me, and I am not an expert; so the ruffled ‘sleeves’ may not be attached.What’s up with the scarf-effect?I don’t think there is anyting worn under the ‘stockings’, rather they look (to me) rumpled, perhaps from kneeling during the ceremony.Rosemary from the 1920 Census was 22 at the time the census was taken; if we agree her dress was from about 1930 or a bit later, she would have been 32 or so. I don’t think the lady is quite that age.It is said to be definitely the main altar, before it was re-done in 1934. It is too large and has too many steps for a side altar, and there IS a communion rail, which is not visible– so imagine the size of the (santuary?)I had thought it might be a rich lady, symbolically presenting the Monsignor with a gift, in fact the money which was used at that time to redo the main (and the two side) altar(s).Does it appear she is about to turn to the priest?The altars were redone with money donated by Odelia Phillips Breen, in memory of her brother Frank Phillips. I had hoped she was the lady, but Odelia would have been in her 60’s or 70’s at the time of the photo! And the identity as Rosemary had been established.There is an exception, is there not, to the (proper) wearing of rings OVER gloves? And that being a wedding ring.There are some excellent suggestions above (Thank you!)for further research, and I’ll make notes of them and follow up.Oh, I may have tracked down one of the pages, and have written to her (or her son) and enclosed a copy of the photo. Hoping for a reply!

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  13. If anyone is interested, there are words inscribed on the marble walls on each side of the altar. The Latin “hic est panis” and a few other words are possible to read. This is the verse from John 6, which reads: Hic est panis de caelo descendens…, Here is Bread, Which came down from Heaven– an appropriate verse for the altar.Oh, and Mary Lee Koester, one of the pages, while NOT the one I wrote to, is the only one whose married name I know: Mary Lee Sosenheimer. She was in the Class of 1942, Central Catholic High School, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Still trying to find her.

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  14. this is so incredibly interesting! what funi know some of the speculations are getting rather ‘nit-picky’ so i might as well add my own:to me, it is quite clear that the 3rd page on the left and the middle page on the right are in some sort of thermals under their tights. the marking in the tights is very obvious. yes, there is also rumpling… but this is layering. the other thing i agree with that has been said is that the young woman is wearing a satin shirt and long dark skirt with a magnificent cape and gloves. you can see her rounded collar of the white shirt (even her camisole strap is visible). i also believe that the rouched sleeve is the top of the gloves folded over the tighter portion. can’t wait to find out more 😀

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  15. Quote: Oh, and Mary Lee Koester, one of the pages, while NOT the one I wrote to, is the only one whose married name I know: Mary Lee Sosenheimer. She was in the Class of 1942, Central Catholic High School, Fort Wayne, Indiana. Still trying to find her.—–So if Mary Lee graduated at age 18 then she was born in ’24. The pages look like they’re between the ages of 6 and 8 (I think – those of you with more familiarity with kids might think differently) which would put this (roughly) between 1929 and 1934. Which pretty much confirms Erin’s original guestidate. I can’t wait to hear the story behind this picture and hope John’s search for the pagegirls is successful.

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  16. A second quick thought – if the girls did indeed dress like this for May Day then it’s very possible that the costumes were reused for this occasion. It would explain the May Day garb sans the flowers. And I want that cape!

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  17. As a vintage hair nut, the 3rd page from the right is totally rocking those rounded Bettie Page/Anna May Wong bangs. I wish I could.

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  18. John,Thomas M. Conroy is refered to as a monsignor? He came to serve as a Father in 1921. I found numerous newspaper articles for FATHER Conroy but no Monsignor. He seem to be quite active in involving the youth in the church and in “pagents” of sorts.Any way to pin down when he was “promoted?”Also could the school connected with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception be St. Augustine’s Academy?Interesting.-Janet

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  19. Could it be linked to a secret Catholic society? I have heard of such things here (persent day – people commissioned to make elaborate robes for women).

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  20. My dad, who was an altar boy in the 1940s in NYC, said that there were many “solidarities” or societies in his church. He said they were called “St. (name your saint)Solidarity blah blah.” If it were the feast day of a female saint, this may well be a photograph commemmorating a procession into the church, carrying a reliquary associated with the saint. So, since there can’t be that many relics in the cathedral–if they still have that reliquary, especially–see what societies were involved with the cathedral at that time. Aren’t there any cathedral records?

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  21. And since this is about the robes, a funny story: my dad was kicked out of the altar boys because he and his friends “borrowed” their robes or vestments to play Three Musketeers. The thought makes me smile–my dad was from a rough neighborhood on the West Side (think West Side Story, which was filmed in his neighborhood, at one point the Jets dance down the alley next to his building.) They were also suspected of stealing the Communion wine, but that was never proved. 😉

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  22. Pencils: The word you want is “Sodality” and almost every Catholic church has a Sodality of Mary. The length of the cape would seem to make it much more ceremonial than functional (plus the page “boys” to hold the train. My bet would be that it is some kind of Sodality presentation and, considering the velvet, probably for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) in the winter. Immaculate Conception would also be an important feastday for the Sodality of Mary. I’ll bet a nickel that there’s some relic of the Virgin Mary in that pendant.I’d guess that the cape is a permanent part of the ceremonial wardrobe and that the girl chosen each year for the presentation wore the same cloak.May ceremonies usually take place in the spring which might rule out velvet, especially dark velvet. Also they usually involve a crown, either temporary (fresh flowers) or permanent (bejeweled) rather than a casket/reliquary and pendant.

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  23. The word you want is “Sodality” and almost every Catholic church has a Sodality of Mary. Thank you, Lady Miss Alicia! My dad probably did actually say “sodality,” –he told my mom, who emailed it to me.

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  24. May Queen (or, Queen of the May) involves a long white gown, a crown, and definitely a great many flowers. I can find many photos of such online, but none with velvet or dark colors. [One possible exception appeared to be velvet cape edged with ermine.]Have written to the museum asking about the reliquary.Father Conroy was elevated to the rank of Monsignor in October 1932. He is often referred to as Monsignor, even when the discussion is about earlier history. {as in, the monsignor was transferred to the Cathedral in 1921– he was a priest at the time, not yet a msgr.)One interesting note from his obituary in 1946:Msgr. Conroy [ordered]”ecclesiastical vestments of great beauty, among the most elaborate in the country.”

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  25. Eastern Orthodox churches have both priests and altars. I believe Episcopalians ALSO have priests and altars (though I’m not certain). That is why I asked.As an Orthodox Christian, I can tell you, even if the name of the cathedral was NOT known, this isn’t an Orthodox church. There is no iconostasis (icon screen) in front of the altar. All these wonderful guesses though! How fun!

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  26. Back to heraldry for a moment:The shield on the left of the box, as we look at it, has a “LABEL” at the top, indicating first-born.The slanted bar across that shield is a BEND, or BENDY, meaning defense or protection.The right shield: crescent-shapes can refer to Mary, or honoured by the Sovereign, or hope of greater glory. A lunel would be 4 crescent moons, with all points facing in, towards each other.The fleur de lis can also be a symbol of purity-chastity and refer to Mary, but is often a symbol of St. Joseph. And as I said above, that particular rendering of the fleur de lis is usually the coat of arms of Florence, Italy. And for completeness, the flower can also indicate a sixth son.I’m not sure the crescents are indeed crescents, as they are not well-defined.Msgr. Thomas M. Conroy died 9 OCtober 1946. We cannot date the photo by that, as the altar was known to have changed in 1934. The earliest possible date for the photo would be 1921, as that is when Msgr. Conroy (still Fr. Conroy) came to the Cathedral as Rector.

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  27. cottrell_ron:If that was in response to me, I *know* the church has been positively identified. I simply mentioned that, even were the church name *NOT* known, it could not be an Orthodox church. I was responding to “univega amy,” who mentioned Orthodox churches, as well as Episcopalian. Orthodox and Catholic get confused and conflated often enough that I dislike seeing misinformation left out for the world to read.

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  28. Lady Miss Alicia said:I’ll bet a nickel that there’s some relic of the Virgin Mary in that pendant.*******There’s NO WAY that could be a relic of the Virgin Mary… Catholics believe that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. Her remains are nowhere to be found on this Planet.

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  29. Relics come in degrees; while the Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven, there could be second degree relics, such as a piece of her veil, as mentioned above. Or even third degree relics, something (generally a small piece of cloth) which touched something, that touched the Saint.

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  30. A note for those interested in the Census: Thomas Conroy is found on the 1880 Census in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, at age 3. That age corresponds to his birthdate of 6 March 1877, given in his obituary. The names of his parents are consistant, James (a blacksmith) and Mary (Fitzgerald) Conroy. The obituary names three sisters and three brothers. The Census names one sister, “Ella”, later called “Nelly”, and one brother James. James is not named in the obituary, and probably pre-deceased Thomas.Siblings:Mrs. Nelly HolopeterMrs. Mary ZurbuchMrs. Loretta HiskWilliam J.Emmett J.Harold J.[J for James?]And several nieces and nephews, unnamed.

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  31. There seems to have been a Young Ladies Sodality and a Girl’s Sodality at each of the four Fort Wayne Catholic churches.Father Conroy was the spiritual leader for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception Sodalities.There seem to be special meetings held at the beginning of each school year. And annual elections happened in November or December. Perhaps the lovely lady in the velvet cape is a newly elected (title)?A few more guesses on my part-Janet

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  32. I think that is probably what’s happening here, Janet. Hopefully I’ll hear back from a few people I’ve contacted with more information.

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  33. This is such fun! I grew up in a Catholic community in Louisiana, and have older sisters who participated in church events similar to many written about here. Very interesting progression of information! Has the photograph been published in a local (to Ft.Wayne) newspaper recently, to see what information you might get from area readers? Occasionally, social-columnists will do that sort of thing for no charge, especially in smaller newspapers. Perhaps you should check that out? I love this sleuthing everyone is doing. Erin, perhaps you should do a blog just for this sort of thing. 🙂

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  34. Some of my guesses:The ruched velvet sleeves are attached to the cloak lining–and are the same fabric. As are the scarves wrapped around her neck, which likely extend from the cloak and are used to hide the closure at the neck. She’s wearing a peter pan collared satin blouse, probably her own (it fits well). At least two of the pages are wearing long underwear under their socks (you can see the seams and edges on their shins, separate from the wrinkles).

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  35. I’ve looked up photos of the Ladies Auxilary of the Knights of Columbus, and find only military-looking attire, nothing so theatrical.

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  36. Looking at the large image of “just” the reliquary – it doesn’t look like the same box to me. Too smooth between design elements on the front. Although the blouse of the person holding the box seems to have a peter pan collar, and the neck looks like there’s a scarf around it. Gloves obviously are different. This is a wonderful mystery and outstanding exercise in observation, research and deduction. Agreed: canes, not swords. Definitely long underwear on some of the girls, helping to put the photo during cold weather at least. Keep up the good work, fellow fans!

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  37. Don’t know what they’re doing, but the swords are really canes and the girls are all wearing tap shoes. I’m suspecting a recital.

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  38. I agree, it does not appear to be the same box. There is definitely more detail in the box the lady is holding, with the pages around her.As Ren says to Stimpy: “what does it MEAN?”

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  39. Maybe the 2 different reliquaries/gloves in the full picture vs. close up are from 2 different years. Someone suggested that this might be an inducton ceremony for a new officer for a sodality for young women (can’t find the specific post – sorry), which would explain the differences in the pictures.

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  40. A hedged guess: The reliquary may hold a relic of Saint Agnes.From an online Catholic encyclopedia, buried deep in the entry defining Sodality:The “Association of the Children of Mary”, under the protection of the Immaculate Virgin and St. Agnes, was established for girls alone. It was canonically erected in 1864, in the Church of S. Agnese fuori le mura, Rome; in 1866 it received its indulgences and privileges with the right of aggregation for all similar societies.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14120a.htmThe phrase …for girls alone. got my attention right away, not to mention the association with the Immaculate Virgin, which ties in with the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is the conception of Mary without original sin, not to be confused with the virginal conception of Jesus.Saint Agnes is usually depicted as a young woman holding a lamb (note our pages holding the shepard crooks/canes.) Wikipedia entry about Saint Agnes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_AgnesHer feast day is January 21, a time of year in Indiana when thermal underwear would be required under satin page outfits. CMCWho still remembers her Catholic dogma.

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  41. Just wandering by, and judging from the youth’s costumes, it was possibly some kind of Portuguese Festa– they look like Christopher Columbus in their attire, and the woman may have been some kind of Festa Queen. I would look to various cultural traditions to solve the mystery, but especially Portuguese. Festa coronations are not church events per se, but they are held in Catholic churches…

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  42. Interesting idea about St. Agnes.I think there were mostly Germans and Irish in the diocese at that time, not sure that there would be a Portugese Festa? Intriguing thought…Waiting for more word from the Diocesan Archivist, and the priest in charge of the Museum.

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