Thursday, May 23, 2024

Hollywood Actors Attend Mass at St. Francis Xavier in Gettysburg

Many attending the 4 p.m. Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church in Gettysburg on April 6 did a double-take as Father Stephen Kelley, pastor, celebrated the liturgy. Two gentlemen sitting on the right side of the parish’s historic church looked familiar, but their presence was unassuming. As the congregation gathered on Gettysburg’s High Street after Mass, their suspicions were confirmed – Hollywood actors Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston had joined them for worship.

The pair was in town for the Gettysburg Film Festival hosted by the Adams County Historical Society. Sheen played Gen. Robert E. Lee in the 1993 movie “Gettysburg,” and Waterston voiced Abraham Lincoln in Ken Burns’ PBS series, “The Civil War.”

Throughout the weekend, Sheen and Waterston discussed the Civil War and related films in front of large crowds at the Majestic Theater and Gettysburg Area High School. They kept a busy schedule, but Sheen had one demand of organizers – that his schedule be adjusted to fulfill his Sunday obligation to attend Mass.

Adams County Historical Society volunteer Ken Cole, a former Pennsylvania state representative, asked St. Francis Xavier parishioners Charles and Elizabeth Strauss and Alex J. Hayes to help fulfill Sheen’s request. Sheen wanted the Mass’ focus to remain on God, not a celebrity, so the Strausses and Hayes were not allowed to tell anyone in order to avoid attracting a crowd that would only be there to see Sheen.

Sheen attended St. Francis Xavier regularly when filming “Gettysburg” in the early 1990s. He said he enjoyed the opportunity to return to the historic church. During the 1863 Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, Sisters of Charity used the church to care for Union and Confederate soldiers.

Waterston, an Episcopalian, shared with Father Kelley that he appreciated the warm welcome from his Catholic brothers and sisters.

Sheen did not seek out attention, but it’s hard for a man of his fame to avoid a crowd. He was very generous with his time and posed for many photographs. He made a special point to find the St. Francis Xavier Teen Choir and thank them for leading the congregation in song.

Many of the characters Sheen has portrayed in television shows and movies were Catholic. In “The Way,” Sheen’s character walks the Camino de Santiago, a traditional pilgrimage route in France and Spain. Sheen also played a Catholic president in the NBC series “The West Wing,” which aired from 1999 to 2006.

“It was very important for me to play a Catholic president who attended Notre Dame,” Sheen said when discussing “The West Wing” outside of Saint Francis Xavier Church.

As Sheen’s driver attempted to get him into a car so they could go to their next appointment, Sheen broke out into song with 15-year-old choir member Anna Strauss in a rendition of “How Can I Keep from Singing.”

“What a special privilege for our parish community,” Father Kelley said. “Being pastor at St. Francis Xavier Gettysburg is such a wild ride!”

(Alex J. Hayes is a professional writer and editor who lives in Camp Hill.)

By Alex J. Hayes, Special to The Witness

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