French Church of Saint-Esprit, New York (Exterior)

The French Church of Saint-Esprit, Manhattan, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: The French Church of Saint-Esprit
Location: Manhattan, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 9 June 2016, 6:30pm

The building

Having worshipped in a variety of buildings in a variety of neighborhoods since its founding, the congregation acquired the present building, a former schoolhouse, in 1941. Extensive renovations were made, and the building now includes a small chapel, school, and living quarters. It once included a museum, but that has been relocated. The chapel was furnished with artifacts salvaged from earlier buildings. On the window behind the altar is a stained glass Huguenot cross (in the center), with medallions of the seal of the Huguenot Society of America, and of the church, on either side. On the side walls are the coats of arms of prominent Huguenot families. For this service, several icons, candles, and incense were placed in front of the altar. The icons were gifts to the parish by the Taizé community in France.

The church

They trace their history back to 1628, when the church was founded as a place of worship for French Calvinist refugees, known as Huguenots. In France, by 1562, there were some two million Huguenots, and as they began to display their faith openly in Catholic France, religious conflicts, often violent, began to flare up. Various waves of persecution led substantial numbers of Huguenots to emigrate, often to England and the Netherlands, but also to Englands North American colonies, especially New York and South Carolina. In 1802 the parish voted to become part of the Episcopal Church – unusual today for a Calvinist parish, but at the time the Anglo-Catholic revival was still in the future, and the French Church became comfortable with its new denomination. The parish now is a mix of French Protestants, parishioners of Huguenot descent, Americans who have a love for the French language, and an increasing number of members from African Francophone countries and Haiti. They maintain strong ties with the Taizé community in France; whenever brothers from Taizé travel to New York, they stay with the rector of Saint-Esprit. They sponsor charitable work in Haiti and provide assistance to immigrants and asylum seekers. They offer Bible study, catechism classes and counseling. And of course, lessons in French. Services are in French, using the French translation of the Book of Common Prayer, and include both holy communion and morning prayer, with frequent Taizé services as well. Their church year is flavored by a number of annual events unique to the parish: for example,La Toussaint (All Saints Day), which incorporates traditional French customs, and Huguenot Sunday, held on the Sunday closest to April 15, commemorating the 1598 Edict of Nantes and celebrating religious tolerance. They also sponsor an annual Bastille Day celebration. Les Joueurs, a group of actors, meet weekly to read, practice, and perform French plays (sometimes in English translation).

The neighborhood

They are located in the center of Manhattan, on East 60th Street between Lexington Avenue and Park Avenue, just down the street from a large United Methodist church. The area is full of specialty shops and small restaurants. The 59th Street stop on the Lexington Avenue subway provides easy access.

The cast

There was no service leaflet, but I surmise that Cynthia Wuco, the parish's music minister, led the singing. This was not a service requiring clerical leadership.

What was the name of the service?

Taizé Contemplative Prayers

How full was the building?

There were eight adults present, and two young children (one three, the other I would guess to be five or six).

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I picked up a copy of Chants de Taizé as I entered, and took a seat. Then a woman who had been setting up the icons and candles stopped by my pew and asked if I would do the reading. When I agreed, she gave me a typed copy of the lesson, told me where it would come in the service, and that I could read from where I was seated.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent, with the lady who asked me to read and Ms Wuco going about their preparations for the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The words of the reading (1 John 3:1-2 – "See what great love the Father has lavished on us ..."). Except for the lesson and the intercessions, everything in the service was sung.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Chants de Taizé.

What musical instruments were played?

None; all of the singing was a cappella. (I gather Ms Wuco has perfect pitch.)

Did anything distract you?

Only all of the traffic noise from outside.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Meditative. At the core of the service was a sung Alleluia with several verses; the reading, spoken intercessions with a sung Kyrie following each petition; and fully ten minutes of silence. At the beginning and end of the service, we sang several of the repetitive refrains of Taizé chant. A typed copy of the intercessions was passed around the congregation, with each of us taking a petition. The reading and intercessions were in English; the singing was in French, English, Latin and German.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The three-year old mentioned above was my grandson; there was nary a peep from him during the ten minutes of silence (he seemed enchanted by the incense, icons and candles).

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The most hellish part of my Mystery Worshiping experience was trying to get an external photo of Saint-Esprit. With so much traffic on East 60th Street – almost impossible.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

I had a nice conversation with the lady who had asked me to read, and Ms Wuco. They were most welcoming, asked me about Taizé services in my home parish, and warmly invited me to return.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – The "10" is for this beautiful prayer service. Free French classes, though, would certainly encourage me to try Sunday mornings at Saint-Esprit.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Being reminded again, that where two or three are gathered together ...

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