Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias
Church: St Alphonsus
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 September 2021, 11:00am
The parish's first building was completed in 1889 and was quickly outgrown. The current building, a Gothic Revival cruciform design, was consecrated in 1909. There have been various renovations: the altar has been brought out into the transept, with the ambo to the right and presider's chair to the left (as seen from the congregation). Piano and cantor are behind the ambo. The reserved Sacrament is against the east wall (yes, the church is oriented). Seating is now on three sides of the altar. Painted Stations of the Cross are on the two walls of the nave. There is a balcony that houses the church's organ. The most impressive artistic aspect of the church is its quite beautiful 40 stained glass windows, designed by the studios of F.X. Zettler of Munich, and installed in 1920.
Social justice activities are prominent in the life of the parish. They have run a food and clothing store four days a week since 1973. Catherine's Health Center, now housed in St Alphonsus' former school, was founded in 1996 in cooperation with St Mary's Hospital and the Creston Neighborhood Association (and originally run out of St Alphonsus' basement). It offers behavioral health, dental care, and basic medical services, such as sick visits, preventative services, and women's health services. They cooperate often with North East Community Ministry in sponsoring Supper House, serving some 125 meals each Tuesday evening. Different parishes and organizations on the northeast side offer financial assistance and several volunteers to prepare and serve the meals in St Alphonsus' kitchen and cafeteria. There was formerly a convent on St Alphonsus campus; it has been converted into low-cost housing. And, after their school was closed, they entered into a partnership with three other Catholic parishes to offer Pre-K through Grade 8 education. There are five weekend masses, and two masses Monday through Friday and one on Saturday morning. They are administered by the Redemptorist Fathers.
Grand Rapids is in southwest Michigan on the Grand River. It is sometimes known as Furniture City, as it hosts the headquarters of several major furniture manufacturers. It is also referred to as Beer City, with several breweries in the area. Health care is also a major part of the local economy. It is roughly equidistant from Chicago (to its west) and Detroit (to its east). Former President Gerald Ford grew up in Grand Rapids. St Alphonsus is on the northeast side of the city, not far from the downtown area, largely surrounded by single-family homes and small businesses.
A priest presided and preached. Musicians were a cantor and organist/pianist. There was a lector, crucifer, and three eucharistic ministers. None were vested, save the priest.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
Perhaps half. The congregation were racially and generationally diverse.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No; bulletins were left out to be picked up.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverent, with a couple of quiet conversations being carried on at the back of the church, where tables had been set up where parishioners could get information on the Knights of Columbus and Ladies' Auxiliary chapters.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning, and welcome to St Alphonsus,’ from the cantor. She then informed us where we could find the readings for the mass in the hymnal/missal in the pews. The celebrant began with ‘Good morning!’ before getting down to the usual ‘In the name of the Father...’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Gather, Third Edition, a combination hymnal and missal, with readings for Sundays and solemnities, published by GIA Publications.
What musical instruments were played?
A smallish (two manuals, six ranks) pipe organ, Opus 3770 of the Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Illinois, installed in 1957, and a baby grand piano.
Did anything distract you?
I had to figure out what to do with the mask I had chosen to bring with me (it seems masks are not required at St Alphonsus, but many of the congregants wore them). It fogged up my glasses, and I had quite a time reading the words of the first hymn. I finally decided to take the mask off for the hymns.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Informal but reverent. The presider took the rubric ‘in these or similar words’ seriously. A pretty typical Novus Ordo mass in North America: no chant, bells, or smells. Music was mostly contemporary, with two traditional hymns.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — Low key speaker. He began the sermon with a prayer, that he might worthily proclaim the gospel. After a couple of minutes standing at the ambo, he came out into the front of the nave. He seemed to have his sermon notes on an iPad.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Most of his sermon was on the gospel reading, Mark 8:27-35 (Jesus asks his disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and tells them that he will have to suffer much). He began the sermon by noting that Jesus asks the disciples, ‘What's the latest gossip?’ After hearing what people are saying about his ministry, he asks them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and Peter replies ‘You are the Messiah.’ Then Jesus outlines just what this entails: He will suffer, be rejected, and be put to death, to which Peter protests. But we should realize that love is the motive behind the whole story. And how do we respond to this outpouring of God's love? Jesus told us: we should love the Lord our God, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Our love for God and neighbor must change from a noun to a verb. He concluded with a reference to the second reading from James – faith that does nothing in practice is lifeless.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The pianist/organist was quite superb. He was a very sensitive accompanist (to which, sadly, the congregation did not respond with as robust singing as I would have liked). This weekend was the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, and at the beginning of communion he improvised beautifully on ‘America, the Beautiful,’ which then led as naturally as could be into the communion hymn (‘I am the Bread of life’).
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The announcements were very, very, very long. I didn't time them, but I suspect they were as long as the homily.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none – coffee hours haven't been very prevalent during the pandemic. There were small groups that gathered outside on the front steps for conversation.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — Good preaching, good music, and a comfortable pew. I suspect there might be more friendly conversation if we were further along in defeating this pandemic – for example, people seemed intuitively to choose socially-distanced seating.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
An ‘America the Beautiful’ improvisation dissolving naturally into the communion hymn.