St Leo the Great, Baltimore

St Leo the Great, Baltimore, Maryland, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Psalmist
Church: St Leo the Great
Location: Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 21 March 2008, 12:00am

The building

St Leo's is a red brick building in the style of so many late 19th century Catholic churches. The west facade features a colonnaded porch reached by twin staircases. A rather Italianate bell tower stands at the east end of the church. A serviceable enough exterior – but the interior is very pretty, with traditional stained glass windows, lots of memorial plaques, and a veritable crowd of statues. Noteworthy are the statutes of St Anthony and the Archangel Gabriel directly behind the altar. The nave is reachable via elevator, which makes sense given the mature age of the congregation.

The church

St Leo's has been the focal point of life in Baltimore's Little Italy for more than a century. Generations of Italians have been baptized, married, and buried from this venerable old church. The congregation's size has waxed and waned over the years, but recent times have seen many families return to the fold. St Leo's has a strong feel of family.

The neighborhood

Little Italy, just east of the area known as the Inner Harbor, was founded in 1849 to serve the growing Italian immigrant population. The neighborhood has shrunk in size from several decades ago but is still a place with a fierce identity, featuring dozens of fine Italian restaurants and a vibrant ethnic culture, including the St Anthony and St Gabriel street festivals in June and August, respectively.

The cast

The celebrant wasn't introduced, and when I inquired later of an usher who he was, the usher couldn't tell me. It should be noted that the office of pastor is currently vacant, the former pastor having been removed for reasons all too familiar to Catholics over the past decade or so.

What was the name of the service?

Good Friday service

How full was the building?

It was a standing room only crowd, more than 300 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Several ushers were at the door greeting people. As I arrived, they were busy helping an elderly lady up the stairs, so I didn't interrupt them.

Was your pew comfortable?

St Leo's pews are probably original, with short benches and rigidly upright backs, about as comfortable as they sound. On the other hand, the seats are padded, and the kneelers were very accommodating.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Most of the people in the congregation seemed to know one another. There was a low-level buzz of conversation as people found their seats, but when the service started, they were all business.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I'm afraid I missed them, as there was a commotion in my pew just then. I assume they were the words prescribed by the Good Friday liturgy.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

I was surprised to find there were no books in the pews. They're all stacked at the back of the church. I had failed to notice this when I entered, and realized too late that I probably should have picked one up.

What musical instruments were played?

No musical accompaniment. The cantor led the hymns a cappella. She was good.

Did anything distract you?

Lots of things. I am accustomed to blessing myself with holy water as I enter a Catholic church, and I was surprised to find no holy water in the fonts. Just then I remembered, oh yes, Good Friday, they would of course be dry. The order of service was distracting as well – after all, we experience it only once each year. For example, when everyone first filed out of their pews and went to the front of the church, it wasn't for communion, it was to kiss the foot of the crucifix. Communion came later. But most distracting of all was the denim jacket embellished with large rhinestone wings that a woman in front of me was wearing – the rhinestones caught the light every time she stood up.

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

The worship was exactly what I expected it would be, by the book and middle of the road. It felt like home.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

7 – No surprises, just a standard sermon.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The journey toward Easter and preparation for that.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

One of the hymns sung was "Were you there when they crucified my Lord." I saw several people with damp eyes during that. I was touched too.

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

The lectors who recited the St John Passion were, well, uninspired.

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

No one hung around, as the service was immediately followed by a stations of the cross procession through the streets of Little Italy.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No after-service coffee. The stations of the cross procession lasted about an hour, and included a cross-bearer, children dressed as angels, flag-bearers, priests, a horse-drawn carriage with a life-size wooden likeness of the dead Christ, and at least 100 people behind. They proceeded through the streets of Little Italy, stopping at designated businesses and homes to recite prayers. Photos of the stations inside the church were blown up to poster size to mark each of the 14 stops.

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

8 – As it has always been, St Leo's remains a strong part of community life. I think anyone who attended St Leo's would feel welcome.

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

It would be closer to the mark to say that the service and the stations of the cross procession afterward reaffirmed some of the things I like best about being a Catholic. I very much had a sense that the people who were there had taken time out of their regular day to drop in because that's just what you do. I like that assumption of duty as just being routine.

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

I'll definitely remember the procession. I've certainly attended many stations of the cross, but this was the first outdoor stations that I'd ever seen.

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