How you would have observed Lent in 1873

For those of you who may think that Lent is a pretty tough time to be a Catholic, giving up chocolate and all year in and year out, this came to me email today.  This is what our forebears did for Lent in these USA (my emphases and comments):



Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, will fall on the twenty-sixth day of February.

1. Every day during Lent except Sunday, is a day of fast on one meal, which should no be taken before mid-day, with the allowance of a moderate collation in the evening.

2. The precept of fasting implies also that of abstinence from the use of flesh meat, but by dispensation, the use of flesh meat is allowed in this Diocese at every meal on Sunday, and at the principal meal on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, of Lent except Holy Thursday. [But not Wednesday and Friday and Saturday]

3. There is no prohibition to use eggs, butter or cheese, provided the rules of quantity prescribed by the fast be complied with. Fish is not to be used at the same meals at which flesh meat is allowed. [No surf and turf, friends.]

Butter, or if necessary lard, may be used in dressing of fish or vegetables.

4. All persons over seven years of age are bound to abstain from the use of flesh meat, and all over twenty-one to fast according to the above regulations unless there be a legitimate cause of exemption. The Church excuses from the obligations of fasting, but not from that of abstinence from flesh meat, except in special cases of sickness or the like, the following classes of persons: 1st, the infirm; 2nd, those whose duties are of an exhausting or laborious character; 3rd, women in pregnancy, or nursing infants; 4th, those who are enfeebled by old age. In case of doubt in regard to any of the above exemptions, recourse must be had to one’s spiritual director, or physician.

All alike, should enter into the spirit of this holy season, which is, in a special manner, a time of prayer, and sorrow for sin, of almsgiving, and mortification.

The faithful are reminded that by a special privilege granted d by the Holy see to the faithful of this Diocese, a Plenary Indulgence may be gained on the usual conditions, on St. Patrick’s Day or any day, within the Octave. [This does NOT dispense Catholics from the Lenten discipline on St. Paatrick’s Day, a dopey practice now which I abhor, promethean neopelagian that I am.]

By order of the Very Reverend Administrator,

GEORGRE H. DOANE. Secretary.

Bishop’s House, Newark, Feb. 6., A.D. 1873.

NB: Catholics are not obliged to follow the regulations of 1873.  You are obliged to follow them as they are hic et nunc, here and now. Be sure you know the regulations in your country. If you decide to do more than what the regulations require here and now, fine. But don’t trumpet the fact and don’t look down on those who choose not to add things on beyond the regulations.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Michael says:

    It always amazes me how easy we have it nowadays…

  2. JacobWall says:

    I’m a fan of the idea of fewer regulations, but more people following stricter traditional practices by their own choice. The problem (in my opinion) is that when the stricter regulations were thrown out, the idea was also very strongly delivered that it was bad/unacceptable/backwards/harmful to follow the older practices.

    We did away with rules, but we did not replace them with anything else (i.e. love, contrition, etc.) I think that we are now seeing a revival of the older kind of practice little by little; people are doing so out of love and contrition, which is a good thing. (Some people do so out of pride, but I think these are few; as you pointed out, Fr. Z, it’s always important not to throw this in the face of people who follow only the regulations as they are.)

    Restoring some regulations (like meatless Fridays all year) would not be a bad idea, to get more people thinking about this stuff again, among other reasons. But along side of that, I’m glad to see a growing culture of people doing this because they feel desire to do so.

  3. The Masked Chicken says:

    The laws of fasting are somewhat dependent on our understanding of medicine. Hypoglycemia, for instance, was unknown in 1873, so there would have been some people fasting who should have eaten, etc. Given that diets were so loaded with fats, sugars, and salt back then, fasting would have been not only spiritually healthy, but physically healthy, as well. Of course, eating patterns were different, as well. No fast foods. Many people, especially in the South U. S., only ate one large meal per day, anyways, so this would not have been that arduous.

    A much more interesting question to ask, especially for young people, is what people did at night after a hard days work. There was no tv, no Internet, no electric lights. Kids and some adults would go nuts if they had to live like that. We are an over-entertained society, spoiled rotten by distractions. Without tv, Internet, or lights, reading or discussions (maybe even story-telling) might just happen.

    Speaking of not having tv, Internet, and lights, I just wanted to mention that you can get an exemption from the Obamacare tax if you received a disconnect notice for any utility in the last year. Being without food or tv has some modern advantages, as well.

    The Chicken

  4. acricketchirps says:

    Um, I think Lent was several weeks shorter in those days, wasn’t it?

    Wasn’t it?!

  5. Lepidus says:

    Very interesting, Father. Thanks for posting. The one thing I was really surprised at (and you bolded it) was the age limit of 21 for fasting. Any idea where that came from? 140 years ago, people would be lucky if they had an 8th grade education, so they would have been well into the working world by that time and quite possibly married with children. At least the abstinence rule makes more sense than our current one (14?!)

  6. Fr AJ says:

    Wow, how we’ve gone from every day but Sunday as a day of fast to today’s fast of just two days during Lent is quite telling! I’m actually surprised some liberals during or after Vatican II didn’t push hard for the complete elimination of Lent as an old fashioned idea that modern man doesn’t need.

  7. Phil_NL says:

    I can only say that I’m exceedingly glad these types of rules have been modified. Frankly, there are few things that cause the near occasion of sin as much as an empty belly for me. If there’s one thing I fail at understanding, it’s fasting. It never ceases to have a negative impact on my brain. Perhaps it will come some day, till then it’s a cross to bear – and I’m glad it’s not as heavy as it must have been yesteryear.

  8. Bressani56 says:

    I’m fairly certain Pius XII gave some kind of EXEMPTION to “working fathers” and also their families. Correct me if I’m wrong?

  9. acardnal says:

    As I read this post, I thought about the standard of living in the USA in the early 1870’s.

    Obviously there was no mass media, no electronics or internet. There was also NO electricity. No refrigerators. Instead they used ice boxes. No TV. Edison began commercial production of carbon filament bulbs in 1880. Electric power generation and its infrastructure would not begin until the 1880’s. The internal combustion automobile did not really start mass production until the late 1880’s. Life was hard in 1873 and very physically demanding.

    I think if most people today were living in that time, they would have felt that daily life itself was a penance! “Why do we need any more acts of sacrifice?”, I imagine some exclaiming. And yet Holy mother Church in her wisdom felt that her children should do some penance during Lent.

    In light of the aforesaid, can we really complain about the lax fast and abstinence discipline we are asked to do in this day and age with our high standard of living?

  10. pelerin says:

    There are many interesting facts about Lent on the Internet and I found today that alligators and capybaras (capybarae?) are not regarded as meat so could be eaten on a day of abstinence! I don’t think my local supermarket stocks either alligators or capybaras and I had to look up what a capybara was as I don’t think we have them in England. It appears to be a furry animal like a large dog- sized hamster.

    Off topic but the Sancte Pater blog has the news that Pope Francis has had to cancel his trip to Israel. Details on that site.

  11. Papabile says:

    I was born in 1970, so I remember when the abstinence regs changed in 1983 raising it from 7 to 14. Being the bratty 13 year old kids we were, we all brought in ham and cheese grinders into school and taunted the 14 year olds with them. We all felt like we were getting over because we had been abstaining since 7….

    Interestingly, we still kept the every Friday Abstinence even outside of lent at that time.

  12. wolfeken says:

    I would note that these regulations were not just required for our great-grandparents in 1873, but for many of our parents in the early 1960s.

    The FSSP is to be commended for constantly reminding (not, of course, requiring, which they cannot do, but rather nudging and encouraging) those who attend traditional Latin Masses what the discipline of 1962 was. It just makes sense to snyc those things up.

    Today’s Collect at the TLM, for instance, begins (translated): “Further with Thy gracious favor, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the fasts which we have begun: that the bodily observance which we keep, we may be able also to practice with sincere intention.”

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  14. acardnal says:

    Same Collect in the OF Mass today, too, (translated, of course). (This is not the Collect used for the Memorial of Sts. Perpetua and Companions.)

    “Support us, O Lord, with your gracious favor through the fast we have begun; that as we observe it by bodily self-denial, so we may fulfill it with inner sincerity of heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

  15. Legisperitus says:

    Agree on St. Patrick’s Day. My Irish-American background is a few generations distant, but I have enough respect for my ancestors to think they would have treasured the Church’s tradition and law of Friday abstinence far more than the supposed tradition of corned beef and cabbage (which has always struck me as a bit “Disneyland Irish”).

  16. acardnal says:

    Sorry. The above Collect prayer I posted was inadvertently copied/pasted. Below is the correct OF Collect prayer for today and is pretty much the same as quoted for the EF by Wolfeken:

    “Show gracious favor,
    O Lord, we pray,
    to the works of penance we have begun,
    that we may have strength to accomplish
    with sincerity the bodily observances we undertake.
    Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
    who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
    one God, for ever and ever.
    – Amen.”

  17. Reading the old Catholic stuff helps me to understand really REALLY how much our Catholic habits have changed and the depth of information that was once common knowledge, even for non-Catholics. More penance is good for the tepid soul.

    Did fast laws change as a mercy? Our food today is nothing like what was available earlier. Whole raw milk wasn’t a crime in the U.S.. Flour wasn’t a bromated endocrine-disruptor or full of pesticides. One could actually get through a day on real bread and water. Are we on regimens of supplements and superfoods because our foods are so diluted?

    Just wondering – although I do believe we have it way too easy with two fast days and a hardly any days of obligation.

  18. pannw says:

    Wow… Part of me is really glad that isn’t still in force, but another part of me is saddened by it. I was talking to a couple of friends at church last weekend about how different things are now from the past. The Friday abstinence came up and I mentioned that I never had once been told that we once had to do it year round and that we were still supposed to offer some other sort of penance in place of abstaining. I learned this on the internet not all that long ago. Then, I mentioned that I had been shocked to read the Didache and learn that Catholics once not only abstained, but full blown fasted on Fridays, but not just Fridays, but Wednesdays too! I think the Copts still do??? I think maybe it has helped them be more prepared for persecution and martyrdom than I fear I would/will be. With all the weakening of our obligations, it sometimes feels that we are being led to lukewarmness. Whether that is intentional or not, I can’t decide, and will give the benefit of the doubt, but regardless of the intentions, it sure seems to be the result for many.

  19. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Ireland’s fasting laws were stiffer, and so were some other European countries.

    21 was the age of adulthood and voting in the US, as well as other majorities. People who married younger did so with parental permission. No permission was needed to work a job.

  20. RichardT says:

    It says “The precept of fasting implies also that of abstinence from the use of flesh meat”.

    I am surprised at that; although obviously the two are both penitential, I thought they were separate, with traditionally some days being days of fasting, some days being days of abstinence (from meat), and some days both.

  21. HobokenZephyr says:

    St. Patrick’s Day is our paternal feast day, a Monday this year. However, we are dispensed from Lenten discipline when it’s a Friday.

  22. NBW says:

    Ah the good old days! It sad to see how easy we have it now. Thanks for the post Father Z.

  23. JamesM says:

    Father, what are your views on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland where it is a Solemnity?

  24. iudicame says:

    Abstaining from meat on Fridays only during Lent is fairly meaningless – eat a cheese pizza – nobody cares. Were it to be the custom year-round then there might be potential for some meaning.

    Seems to me FAST means not eating. So if you fast then you don’t eat. Period. Kinda like Marriage means MARRIAGE and not the others things ascribed to it lately in fashion.

    I’m fasting on Fridays during Lent. Its a real taste of mortification – but just a taste. I go without food from when I wake until when I fall asleep – what , 14 hours? One is hardly starving oneself or causing bodily harm. But it certainly effects my body in an interesting way with what I think is the potential that the saints found in fasting. Am I allowed to admit to this? Because we have internet and widescreen and KFC does that preclude True fasting a dozen times a year?


  25. APX says:


    Fasting is pointless if by doing so it makes us proud and look down on others whom we perceive to be doing less than us.

  26. Mr. Green says:

    Fr. Z: But don’t trumpet the fact and don’t look down on those who choose not to add things on beyond the regulations.

    But Father! That doesn’t sound very prometheanistically neopelagian after all! Somebody might get the idea that your point is not about bashing Pope Francis but something more subtle…. (Subtlety! And on the Internet!!!)

    Pelerin: I found today that alligators and capybaras (capybarae?) are not regarded as meat so could be eaten on a day of abstinence!

    I didn’t know that, though I had heard that in some places muskrats were classified as honorary fish, basically because the people were too poor to have anything else to eat. (And hey, muskrats spend so much time in the water, that’s close enough, right? Apparently capybaras can even sleep in the water.)

  27. Uxixu says:

    I’ve been reading the Rule of the Templars who had the same restriction WRT meat all year. Only on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday, and major Feasts. The other days were restricted to bread and vegetables. Fasting was fairly rigorous and frequent, as well though they were to have generous exercise of collation at the discretion of the Master (of the House/Order).

    It is too weak now and that’s the way it was for hundreds of years, if not well over 1500 and should be more of a standard at some point than even 1962.. I’ve been telling all my family for the last couple years that they need to do SOME form of penance on Fridays year round.

    But hey, the subdiaconate was a major order in the Latin Rite for well over seven centuries and poof, gone like that.

  28. iudicame says:


    “Fasting is pointless if by doing so it makes us proud and look down on others whom we perceive to be doing less than us.”

    I agree. I don’t speak out of pride but only directly.

    In these times I don’t think we need what amounts to victorian rubricallity and the silliness that comes with debating about beef broth and half-meals not equaling a quarter of a whole meal. I am all for the true Fast and just doing it and not debating half measures.

    I make an argument FOR something. There’s nothing for me to judge.


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