Based Partly on THE CATHOLIC HEARTH, December 1992 Issue
The Plaque page honoring Fr. Mohr and Franz Gruber at carmelnet.org



IT WAS CHRISTMAS EVE, 1816, and the young priest felt a little lonely. In his hands was the Bible. He had been reading the Christmas story from its pages.

Now he was thinking of the beautiful city of Salzburg that had been his home. It seemed far away from this tiny village high in the Austrian Alps.

Already the people were on their way to his little church. They were coming from miles around. To help them find their way they carries flaming torches. From his window the priest could see the lights moving across the valley.

There would be no organ music for the Midnight Mass. The organ was old and would not play. [Probably the nearby Salzach River which flooded the area then, even as it does today, and the accompanying dampness from periodic flooding could have caused rust and mildew in various workings of the organ, rendering it inoperable.] How different it all seemed from the music and gaiety of Salzburg!

The priest went back to his reading from St. Luke:

"And suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and sating 'Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will.' "
A knock on the door interrupted him. He opened the door and an old peasant woman came in. She stood shaking the snow from her shawl.

"Father Mohr, I've come from high up on the mountain," she said. "This morning a child was born to one of our poor neighbors. The father and mother asked to bring the priest to them to bless the child. Will you come, please, Father?"

Father Mohr had not much time before Midnight Mass. But he smiled at the old woman and said that he would come. He followed her out into the night. Through the snowy forest they walked. Then they climbed up a high rocky slope.

Father was thinking of the Three Wise Men. They had come to Bethlehem in much the same way.

   At last they came to a little mountain hut. The shingles were loose and the steps creaked. But there was warmth and happiness within. The mother lay on a crude bed, smiling at the baby in her arms. Standing close by was the proud father.

   Father Mohr gave them his blessing and talked with them for a while. Then he set off down the mountain alone. The old shack on the mountain was not like the manger and yet, in a way, it was. Father had a strange feeling. It was just as if he had seen the Christmas miracle.

   He looked at the white snow and the bright stars. There was not a sound. Even the rabbits and squirrels were standing still. Then Father Mohr forgot the gaiety of other cities and other Christmases. Here, in this little far-off village, he felt the real meaning of Christmas. It was a silent night, a holy night, just as it had been 1800 years ago.

   As he walked into the village the church bells began to ring. He hurried to the church and celebrated Midnight Mass. After Mass he went home to rest. But he could not sleep. He got up and began to write a poem. He wanted to tell what he had felt that night. The words came easily. The poem was soon finished.

   Later that same morning Father Mohr went to see his dear friend Franz Gruber. Franz was a schoolteacher. He was also a musician. He helped direct the little choir at Father Mohr's church. Often just the two of them would sing hymns together. Franz had played the organ before it had broken down.

   Father Mohr gave the poem as a kind of gift to Franz. Franz liked it very much. He thought he would like to set it to music. And that very day the song was finished.

   In the evening it was sung for the first time in the church. The voices of the priest and the teacher blended in perfect harmony.

   Since that time the song has been taken all over the world. You will hear it in French, German, Italian, English, Spanish-----in almost every language. It is one the best-loved Christmas carols in the world.

   This is the song that was written that Christmas Day almost 150 years

 Silent night, holy night!
All is calm, all is bright,
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child! 
Holy Infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, how the light
Radiates love from Thy heavenly face,
At the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.

Fr. Joseph Mohr's final resting place is a tiny Alpine ski resort, Wagrain. He was born into poverty in Salzburg in 1792 and died penniless in Wagrain in 1848, where he had been assigned as pastor of the church. He had donated all his earnings to be used for elder care and the education of the children in the area. His memorial from the townspeople is the Joseph Mohr School located a dozen yards from his grave. The overseer of St. Johann's, in a report to the bishop, described Mohr as "a reliable friend of mankind, toward the poor, a gentle, helping father."

Many generations of the Mohr family lived in the Lungau region, in the southern part of the Province of Salzburg. The pilgrimage church of St. Nicholas in Mariapfarr, the little church where Father Mohr was the curate, is within walking distance of the former home of Joseph's grandfather. The climate is so invigorating and the Alpine air so clean, the town has become a major vacation destination for Europeans who want to get away from city life. The pilgrimage church where Mohr celebrated Mass is undergoing the restoration of its centuries-old frescos.

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