Suit Sunday at Iowa church encourages men to wear Sunday best for Mass

MALLARD, Iowa — If you decided to attend Mass at St. Mary Church in Mallard recently, your eye may have been drawn to six adult men in dress suits.

That’s because they are the Suit Sunday group.

However, it took a non-Catholic to spur this approach to Sunday-best attire, when informal — even quite casual — clothes are almost the norm for church attendees.

Vern Smith of Curlew, who had been attending the Methodist church, started going to Mass about 20 years ago when his son began serving Mass.

“It was just something I didn’t want to miss,” he told The Catholic Globe, newspaper of the Diocese of Sioux City.

Smith began noticing the men tended to wear suits on Easter and Christmas Eve, but not at the other Masses. It really struck Smith about three to five years ago when he saw a gentleman returning to his pew after receiving Communion.

Afterward, he was chatting with Joe Schuller and Tom Eberle, whom he usually sits next to during Mass, and “I mentioned how much better that guy in the suit looked than the rest of us,” he said. “They agreed.”

But getting a bunch of men with farming backgrounds convinced to wear a suit every Sunday was daunting. The hardest to convince was Eberle, who lives in Rolfe.

“Vern was always badgering us about wearing a suit,” he recalled. “He would wear a suit most of the time, then Joe and Larry (Ruppert) started with the suits, so I started wearing a jacket, then Joe bugged me to start wearing a tie, and finally we just all gave in and the first Suit Sunday took place.”

Smith suggested once a month, specifically, the first Sunday of every month, “because it would be easy to remember.”

And it was for Schuller, Eberle, Ruppert, John Kenyon and Don Miller.

But “a guy might miss and ask if he could get a mulligan,” Smith said, referencing the golf term for a replay without a penalty. “I said, ‘No, there are no mulligans for Mass.'”

Smith’s next Suit Sunday undertaking has been singing at the 8 a.m., first Sunday of the month Mass. The first time the men were invited to sing, “I figured we had done a terrible job and wouldn’t be asked back,” said Eberle, “but we were.”

This offer was made, despite the reality the six guys were mostly hummers, Smith confessed.

“Certainly you couldn’t say we were the Three Tenors times two,” he said, with a laugh. “Some of the guys don’t read music at all.”

Eberle is one who does, having performed in a quartet in high school as a tenor, but he acknowledged his auctioneering job has taken a toll on the vocal cords.

“My voice comes and goes now,” he said. “Some days I sing tenor, like Wayne Newton, some days bass like Tennessee Ernie Ford.”

Smith — who sings in the tenor range — was in band and chorus in high school.

Typically, the Suit Sunday men practice right after Mass, the Sunday before the first Sunday of singing. Eberle quipped the biggest challenge facing the group was “being able to sing at all.”

“Do not expect ‘Ave Maria,'” Smith insisted. “We don’t hit that one out of the ballpark. In fact, I’m not sure we hit anything out of the ballpark.”

Clearly, the joy of all of this comes from the camaraderie, both agreed.

“We’re not doing this to look good or perform,” Smith said. “It’s the fellowship involved and it’s just turned out to be an enjoyable adventure.”

“It seems everybody in church appreciates our efforts,” Eberle added.

“Sometimes it’s a great day,” Smith mused, then laughed. “Sometimes it’s a train wreck.”