St John the Baptist, New York City

St John the Baptist, Midtown Manhattan, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Rosamundi
Church: St John the Baptist
Location: Midtown Manhattan, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 7:45am

The building

The church dates from 1871. Although the facade is Gothic, the building is squeezed in between two other structures in such a way that the side walls were not developed. The rear entrance, through the modern but nondescript Capuchin friary, provides the principal access to the church, although the front looks much more inviting. The interior is Gothic but plain. A cream, beige and brown color scheme, plus ample light entering through clerestory windows, add warmth to what might otherwise be a cold worship space. Stained glass windows depict various Franciscan saints and beati.

The church

The Capuchins were founded in 1520 by a friar who observed that the lifestyle of most of his brothers in Christ wasn't exactly the one envisioned by St Francis. Today the order has a worldwide presence, with eight provinces in North America alone. St John the Baptist's parish ministries include caring for the poor, youth outreaches, and teaching.

The neighborhood

The church is located at West 31st Street and Seventh Avenue, very near to Madison Square Garden, in an area dominated by warehouses, wholesale merchandise distributors, and tourist hotels.

The cast

They weren't identified.

What was the name of the service?

Daily Mass, Thursday of the 15th week in Ordinary Time

How full was the building?

Practically empty – about 20 people in a building that can easily seat over 500.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I held the door open for a lady who was struggling with a walking frame, and she said "Thank you."

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard wooden pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I'm not sure. According to their website, mass was at 8.00. I arrived at 7.50 only to discover that it had begun at 7.45, and so instead of being ten minutes early I was five minutes late.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The first words I heard were: "A reading from the prophet Isaiah."

What books did the congregation use during the service?


What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

I kept wondering about the contrast between the 1970s industrial chic rear entrance and the really quite lovely late Victorian Gothic interior.

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

Straight down the line mid-week morning mass.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

3 minutes.

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

6 – I struggled a bit to understand his accent.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus said to come to him when we are burdened, and he will give us rest. Our yoke fits us well, but if it seems heavy, remember that Christ is yoked with us and he bears the greater part of the burden.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The stained glass was beautiful.

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

This church (as well as other Roman Catholic churches I have visited) has electric votive lights, where you put a coin in a slot, push a button, and an electric light bulb flickers for a pre-set length of time, in imitation of a votive candle. They are vile.

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

I didn't have a chance to. The lady with the walker was struggling to open the door so I leapt up to help her, and then helped her with the other two doors out onto the street. She gave me a lovely smile and thanked me most profusely. I do hope it was because she was being polite, and not because of the novelty of having someone help her with doors.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I don't think churches generally offer coffee after weekday masses – most people are on their way to work. Pity – the Capuchin order is said to have invented cappuccino.

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

7 – I think I would have to go back on a Sunday, to the main mass, before making that decision.

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

Yes, definitely.

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

Those wretched, dreadful electric votives.

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