St Joseph's, Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Joseph's
Location: Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 May 2021, 11:00am

The building

The parish was formed as a mission of St Augustine Church in 1904, and the present church was dedicated in 1915. Very traditional, with imposing stained glass windows (of St Patrick, St Joseph, and the Joyful and Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary) designed by the Munich Studio in Chicago, and stations of the cross. The original altar and reredos, and two side altars, are still in place. There are no columns; pre-Vatican II worshippers would have had a clear view of the main altar. In the late 1970s, the church was renovated to bring the space in line with the liturgical norms of the Second Vatican Council. There is a square altar covered by a floor-length white cloth, with candles on either side.

The church

There are the standard faith formation and sacramental preparation activities. The parish runs a food pantry, and a K-8 school. There is a Rite of Christian Initiation for adults program, and, at least pre-pandemic, several choirs. The parish has chapters of St Vincent de Paul and the Knights of Columbus.

The neighborhood

Kalamazoo is in southwest Michigan, almost exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit. The metropolitan area has a population of about 335,000. Probably no other city of comparable size has been so celebrated in popular song: most famously ‘I've Got A Gal in Kalamazoo,’ recorded by the Glenn Miller Orchestra (1942), and by Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Kate Smith and The Andrews Sisters, among others. But also Creedence Clearwater Revival's ‘Down on the Corner,’ Charlie Daniels' ‘Cowboy Hat in Dallas,’ and Ronnie Hawkins' ‘Mary Lou’ (also covered by Bob Seger and Frank Zappa). And this just scratches the surface. It probably has to do with the location of Gibson Guitars in Kalamazoo from 1917 to 1985 (when they left for Nashville). They had different lines – of guitars, mandolins, banjos and amplifiers – known as ‘Gibson Kalamazoo.’ Lots of those singers and songwriters probably owned a Gibson Kalamazoo at some point in their lives. But – Gibson is gone (their old factory is now a museum), and now the most famous corporate citizen of Kalamazoo is Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, who developed one of the coronavirus vaccines widely used in the United States and around the world. There are also four breweries, including Bell’s, famous for their craft beers and ales. St Joseph’s is an inner city parish, near the center of downtown Kalamazoo. The immediate neighborhood is older, single-family homes.

The cast

There was a priest and deacon (the deacon chanted the Kyrie, read the gospel, preached, and led the intercessions), a lector, and musician who both sang and accompanied himself and the congregation.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Only about 20 per cent, but there are capacity restrictions in place in the Kalamazoo diocese. Every other pew had a sign reading ‘Please DO NOT SIT here.’

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

Moderately so.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Someone (a disembodied voice over a microphone) said ‘Good morning’ and then led the congregation in a prayer to St Joseph.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books in the pews, no service leaflet. The congregation sang the mass parts, which seemed familiar to them, and alleluia refrains in the opening and closing hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

A two-manual organ and electric keyboard.

Did anything distract you?

The organ needs tuning.

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

Beautiful and reverent. The priest was an ideal presider, never calling attention to himself, simply leading a community in prayer. There was a bit of chant (both priest and deacon chant beautifully), but otherwise nothing too up the candle. All of the mass parts, plus psalm and alleluia, were sung; I sensed careful planning about how to sing in the midst of a pandemic. We remained in our pews during communion, and the priest and deacon came to us with the Sacrament. Before the final blessing, the cantor/keyboardist informed the congregation that the suspension of the Sunday mass obligation would be lifted beginning the following week, although as yet there was no indication that the guidelines for celebrating mass in a pandemic (no offering, no servers, no physical sharing of the peace, communion in one kind only, masks and social distancing required) have not changed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

7 — The deacon is a gifted public speaker (a 10 for delivery).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

There are so many things to celebrate in May: the Ascension, today's solemnity, but also St Joseph, whose saint's day was May 1, and the Blessed Virgin Mary – we will celebrate the feat of the Visitation on May 31. After speaking to the importance of those feasts, he spoke briefly of the Ascension. Jesus returned to the very place he had been since the beginning of time until his incarnation. He constantly reminds us of his presence with us. We need Mary, Joseph, and Jesus walking with us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The reverence with which this community celebrates the eucharist in the middle of a pandemic.

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

Recognizing the havoc the coronavirus has wreaked on music programs. We're going to have to teach Catholics to sing all over again.

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

As I walked out, I spoke with the priest briefly and shared an elbow-bump with the deacon.

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 — The very traditional artwork is of another age, and bespeaks a piety I cannot claim. But I like their carefully planned liturgy, and if I find myself in Kalamazoo on a Sunday morning again, I would be delighted to worship with this community.

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


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

TThe way we received communion in the pews.

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