Mystery Worshipper: Torold
Church: St Francis of Assisi
Location: Chester, England
Date of visit: Thursday, 31 October 2013, 12:00pm
A fine sandstone building, dating from the 1860s, under a slate roof. Two steps lead up to double doors and a glassed porch at the west end. The interior is bright, with plain white walls and a blue ceiling and relief. The white marble high altar features green marble inserts and six brass candlesticks. There is an ornate marble reredos, eight saints on plinths, and a tabernacle with the pelican (symbol of the eucharist) above. There are several side chapels. The parquet flooring is well maintained and polished to a shine. In the south aisle are two confessionals, one set up for face to face confessions. Healthy potted plants grace the building. There is a choir gallery at the west end with a two-manual pipe organ.
The notice board indicates involvement in the local community. There are a young adults prayer group, childrens singing group, Journey in Faith group, Catholic Womens League, and other activities.
Chesters history as an ancient Roman centre is well documented in the local museum, and guided tours around the city are accompanied by schoolchildren marching behind a Roman centurion! The Roman walls almost completely encircle the town. In the city centre are the famous Chester Rows, walkways and shops set above street level, very useful in wet weather. St Francis Church lies directly opposite the Grosvenor Museum and close to Chester Castle.
The Rt Revd Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, presided and preached. Six unnamed priests concelebrated mass with the bishop. Brother Jarek, parish priest, introduced the service. The Revd Mario Conte, OFM, a charismatic priest from Padua, Italy, who is currently accompanying the relics of St Anthony of Padua on tour around the world, presided over the veneration part of the service.
What was the name of the service?Mass with Veneration of the Relics of St Anthony of Padua. When Anthony's grave was opened in 1263, 32 years after his death, his tongue and vocal apparatus were found to be incorrupted in an otherwise decayed body. Those relics never leave Padua; the relics that are made available for touring consist of a bit of flesh and piece of skin
How full was the building?
Full to bursting. I have never seen a fuller church there wasnt even standing room! We were all wedged in like sardines. Despite the squeeze, there was a party atmosphere at times.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed by a lady who handed me a hymn book and apologised that it was the last one they had.
Was your pew comfortable?
Long pine pews, hinged kneelers with red vinyl top. Very comfortable, and I had even forgotten my cushion!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The brothers were busying themselves setting up the altar for mass. The nave was already three-quarters full. Fortunately I managed to find a seat in the front stalls next to a family. In fact, I shared the hymn book with their little boy, who sang lustily, slightly off-key (I was in good company!).
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome to St Francis Church this morning."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Green Exulte and blue Laudate hymn books. The organist had to announce both sets of numbers from the choir loft. No mass books. Everyone knew the service anyway.
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ in the gallery.
Did anything distract you?
At one point I glanced across to the votive light stand. Several of the candles had started a little bonfire of their own, having been piled up too close together. I left my seat and blew hard on them, managing to extinguish the blaze. A sidesman hurried over to see what I had done, and I gave him one of my winning smiles.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Hard to put into words exactly. The service flowed easily, dignified but without any formality; it had a continental feel about it.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The bishop preached succinctly and without any notes that I could see.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The bishop spoke about the role that relics play in our religious faith today. Relics represent nothing less than the return of the saints into the lives of the faithful. The saints remind us that the ultimate goal of the Church is to bring us to heaven. The veneration of relics has often led to a renewed desire for holiness. The saints speak to us from a distant time and place, encouraging us always to become saints ourselves, as we are called to be, and to bear witness to what we believe. We pray for one another and are One Big Family.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The blaze of hundreds of votive candles throughout the building.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The PA system left much to be desired. At times it was difficult to hear what was being said.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the mass, Father Mario presented the bishop with a gift, a holy medal of St Anthony. No time to stand around, as we were all encouraged to come and venerate the relics of St Anthony of Padua. There were two relics housed in two vessels. The first was in a silver and glass lantern-like reliquary, set apart from the congregation because it was too frail to be handled. The second relic was housed in a gold and glass lantern-like box held by a gold bust of the saint. After the veneration, we were able to speak quietly with the Franciscan brothers. Father Mario explained that we could write prayer petitions to St Anthony and that he would take them back to Padua with him and place them on the altar there.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Tea and coffee were served in white styrene cups. Placed on tables were small plates of plain and cream biscuits. Everyone seemed very happy and conversation flowed easily.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – Everyone was welcoming and enthusiastic in a good way (i.e. not over the top) that would be hard to find a worshipping community like it.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Father Mario's happiness and enthusiasm.