St Augustine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Augustine
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 May 2022, 11:00am

The building

This is the second home for this parish; the first was burned down in anti-Catholic rioting in 1844. It was designed by the 19th century architect Napoleon LeBrun, who planned several churches in Philadelphia and New York as well as the Philadelphia Academy of Music. The building is in the Palladian style, so called after its originator, the Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who imitated the symmetry of classical Greek and Roman buildings. It was consecrated in 1848, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. There is a horseshoe balcony extending around both sides and the rear. An impressive ceiling fresco depicts St Augustine in glory. Around the church are a series of eight paintings depicting scenes from the life of St Augustine; these were added in 1897 and 1898.

The church

The parish was founded in 1796, and for all of its history has been administered by Augustinian friars. The parish has been actively involved in Philadelphia's cultural and educational life. The director of music at St Augustine in the late 19th century founded the Choral Society of Philadelphia, a predecessor to the now internationally renowned Philadelphia Orchestra. St Augustine Academy, founded in 1811, eventually became Villanova College (now Villanova University). Membership declined in the later 20th century but began to revive in 1992, when the Shrine of Santo Niño de Cebú was installed. The Santo Niño, an image of the Christ Child produced by Flemish artists in the early 16th century and brought to the Philippines by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, is the sacred object most revered by Filipino Catholics and is widely reproduced; countless miracles have been attributed to it. Since the shrine was installed at St Augustine, the parish has become a center for Filipino activities in the tri-state area (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware). The parish celebrates a Feast of Sinulog, so named after the ritual prayer-dance that honors the Santo Niño – consisting of a nine day novena in August, followed by mass on the third Sunday of August and a procession. Over a thousand people typically attend; it is the largest Sinulog celebration outside of the Philippines. The church's music program is excellent, with two choirs that sing both in English and Tagalog. There are three masses each Sunday.

The neighborhood

The church is in Old City Philadelphia, the site of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the Betsy Ross House, and carefully restored 18th century residences and commercial buildings – all surrounded by narrow streets, restaurants and small businesses.

The cast

A priest celebrated and preached; there were an acolyte, two lectors, and two lay eucharistic ministers. Choir and organist were in the rear balcony.

What was the name of the service?

Mass (celebrated in English).

How full was the building?

Perhaps 40 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No, but we arrived late (see below).

Was your pew comfortable?

Very much so.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

'Welcome to St Augustine. Please rise and greet everyone around you.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Breaking Bread 2022, a paperback missal/hymnal published by Oregon Catholic Press. And a laminated page with the Lord's Prayer in Tagalog.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ and baby grand piano; mostly the latter.

Did anything distract you?

Walking into St Augustine for the first time, one is overwhelmed by the interior artwork. It took a few minutes to begin to pay attention to the service.

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

Pretty standard novus ordo mass. Bells were rung at the consecration. Music was all contemporary, but very well done. Such cantoring as was done (intoning the Gloria, singing the verses of the responsorial song) was done by choir members in the balcony; we were not subjected to the mega-gestures of a cantor in the sanctuary area.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 — Well-prepared and well-delivered.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The celebrant preached on the gospel for the day (John 21:1-19 – Jesus appears to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias and asks Simon Peter three times, 'Do you love me?'). He noted that what jumps out from the gospel reading, apart from the disciples not recognizing the risen Jesus, is what he did not say to them. After the disciples had fled from the Garden of Gethsemane, and Peter had denied Jesus three times, we might expect Jesus to say something like, 'What happened, fair-weather friends?' But there is no scolding, no reminder of that evening. Jesus wants to restore a loving relationship, wants the disciples and Peter to know the love of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The pastor's homily. And a beautiful setting of the Lord's Prayer, sung in Tagalog.

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

Trying to get to St Augustine's. We had asked at our hotel (well in advance) for a cab to pick us up at 10:20. The first cab agreed to pick us up, but then called and said that if it was not an airport run, he wouldn't take it. A second cab agreed to pick us up, and then simply didn't show (we waited 30 minutes). Third time was charmed, but we arrived at St Augustine 20 minutes after mass started (they stream their masses, and I was able to watch what we had missed when we got back to Michigan). Part of the problem seems to have been extensive street closings, due to a marathon being run in downtown Philly.

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

The celebrant had announced that he would be available to hear confessions after mass. And a good part of the congregation stayed behind for devotions to Santo Niño, led by a lay reader after the final hymn.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

9 — I wish I could have heard more of the parish's organ. But music and homily were superb.

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


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

The beautiful setting of the Lord's Prayer in Tagalog.

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