Mystery Worshipper: Sir Thomas Browne
Church: Cathedral of St Peter the Apostle
Location: Jackson, Mississippi, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 December 2008, 10:30am
Two earlier buildings preceded the present one. The first of those, dating from 1846, was burned during the Civil War by General William Tecumseh Sherman; the second was likewise burned. The present structure dates from 1897 and was expanded recently without impinging on the original design. It is a lovely red brick structure in the Gothic Revival style. The inside is not large, hardly bigger than a typical parish church, but manages to include some statues and side altars without looking cluttered. A handsome pipe organ graces the rear gallery. There is some very ornate and attractive stained glass. The high altar is backed by an elaborate reredos, but the effect is masked by the westward-facing communion table in front of it. Immediately below the high altar is the episcopal throne, which was unoccupied.
As the seat of the Bishop of Jackson, St Peter's is the mother church of the diocese and draws its congregation from all over. In addition to a Saturday evening vigil mass, three masses are celebrated each Sunday, including one in Spanish. One mass is celebrated each weekday.
Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, was named in honor of President Andrew Jackson. During the Civil War, Jackson was a strategic manufacturing and railroad center for the Confederacy, and as such suffered much damage at the hands of Union troops. Today few antebellum structures remain, a notable exception being the Governor's Mansion. During the 1960s Jackson was the site of numerous civil rights actions, witnessing the murder of black activist Medgar Evers in 1963 and the bombing of the Beth Israel synagogue by the Ku Klux Klan in 1967. Famous sons and daughters include Richard Wright, whose memoir Black Boy describes the horrors of segregation in the early 20th century, and Eudora Welty, whose writings (especially her short stories) present a portrait of Southern living in days gone by. St Peter's sits right in the center of Jackson, just down the street from the Capitol and the Governor's Mansion.
The preacher and celebrant was the Revd Brian Kaskie, rector of the cathedral.
What was the name of the service?Mass
How full was the building?
I'd say there were 200-250 people. The nave was pretty full, and every pew, from the very front to the very back, had at least a few people in it. There was a great mix of people, both in terms of age and ethnicity. There were people in suits and people in jeans. Even though no one particularly spoke to me (aside from the peace), they all seemed friendly and I didn't feel at all unwelcome.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The kneelers were surprisingly comfortable as well.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent, with a little bit of chatter audible from the narthex.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to this 10.30 liturgy at St Peter's Cathedral. Please turn off your cell phones if you haven't already."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Worship, a typical American Catholic hymnal/service book.
What musical instruments were played?
A very pleasant pipe organ in the back.
Did anything distract you?
The cantor (who had a nice voice even if I could never understand what words he was singing) kept darting in and out from behind the high altar (which was not functional as an altar but more of a stage piece) between songs.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was informal, low-church American Catholicism. No incense, very little ceremonial, only a small group of acolytes with the celebrant. I was a little surprised that the bishop did not attend, even if only in choir, but then again it was a holiday weekend. The music was all well played, but the congregation didn't seem to be that interested in singing it. And why bother when there's a cantor up there to do it all for you? I'll confess, I'm a traditional Anglo-Catholic, so it's always weird to find myself in the One True Church and be the only one actually bowing and making the sign of the cross and whatnot.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Father Kaskie was easy to listen to, but if you're going to preach for 15 minutes, I think some organization might be a good idea. The first 10 minutes sounded more like a talk from the pop psychologist TV personality Dr Phil than a Christian sermon. Then, when he finally got to talking about the scriptures and the feast, there were too many disparate points for there to be any one coherent theme.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Family is a good thing, even when it's hard (and, by the way, marriage is between a man and a woman).
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The building itself was a joy to see, and the stone high altar is quite beautiful. Being there surrounded by the faithful was a blessing. The few minutes before mass began were the best.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
(1) The almost complete lack of solemnity once the service started. (2) The cantor's popping in and out, so distracting and so completely unnecessary – he even popped out in the middle of the eucharistic prayer to sing the responses! (3) The rambling sermon. (4) The sad, tiny little table that was put out front as an altar. That all sounds rather bad; none of these things were in themselves unbearable, but they do add up to a badly done liturgy, one very much out-of-step with the liturgical directives of the current pope.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No one spoke to me. I wandered up to the front and stood looking around, then kind of stood in the back for a while too.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't think there was any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It was full of people of diverse ages and ethnicities, and I think being part of the community would do a lot to make up for the deficiencies (at least as I saw it) in liturgical life.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not especially. Other than an aside on Christian marriage, I'm not sure if the sermon had anything distinctively Christian (much less Catholic) to say. Then again, I'm always happy to be at mass, so it didn't make me feel bad about being a Christian!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The cantor darting out from behind the high altar to sing his parts.