St Mark's, Jackson Heights, NY

St Mark's, Jackson Heights, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mark's
Location: Jackson Heights, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 30 March 2018, 12:00pm

The building

The congregation first met in a storefront that is now a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Ground was broken for the present church building in 1926. It is a plain but charming Country Gothic church with both a sanctuary and a great deal of space for community functions in the adjoining parish hall. Constructed almost entirely of cast-off stone and timber from other sites, the church held its first service on Christmas Eve 1927. Legend has it that one full pound of incense was burned at that service – a tradition that apparently lives on (see below)! Construction had not been fully completed, however, and the stock market crash of 1929 brought an abrupt halt to it for good. Only the chancel, transepts, and a small portion of the nave were ever finished; a temporary wall closed off the nave after only a few rows of pews had been put in, and that wall remains to this day. A planned tower was never built. Interestingly, though, the abbreviated size of the church enables the grounds to encompass a large amount of green space, especially in the front, with benches, trees and grass. One does not encounter many churches like this in the area – it really sets St Mark's apart! The interior is fairly plain, with painted walls and wooden floors and pews. Even the altar is a simple, wooden piece, in front of the original stone eastward-facing altar that is now unused. There are a few stained glass windows located near the vaulted ceiling. In terms of accessibility, there is one step at the front door, although there may be other ways to enter the building. For those with hearing loss, hope that the PA system is working! Otherwise you will have trouble following the service.

The church

St Mark's doesn't talk diversity – they live it! Located in one of New York's most heterogeneous neighborhoods, it has members from all parts of the world. Besides church services, you can also find 12-step meetings, an early childhood learning center, the Lion's Share food pantry, an art school, and concerts at St Mark's. There are two Sunday masses, in English and Spanish, and evening prayer on Wednesdays and Fridays. The Rosary is also said on Fridays.

The neighborhood

New York City's borough of Queens, along with Brooklyn, occupies the westernmost edge of Long Island, across the East River from Manhattan. The Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens is located about a half-hour from Manhattan via express service on the #7 train (when they're not doing "maintenance work" on the line). Jackson Heights was developed during the 1920s as a private development for middle and upper-income families. For a time it even had its own golf course! With the Great Depression and "white flight," the community later became home to thousands of Latin Americans and Asians. You can get fantastic Indian food here, the most famous eatery bearing the exotic Hindi name "Jackson Diner." Lately, Jackson Heights has seen an influx of artists and educated persons of all races. It is known as "gay friendly." The area surrounding the church is part of the Jackson Heights Historic District.

The cast

No names were given.

What was the name of the service?

Good Friday Liturgy.

How full was the building?

Only a few people were present when we started, although the building was about 25 per cent full by the time the service finished.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. A woman said "Good afternoon" and handed me a booklet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Your standard wooden pew. No cushions. Not bad. Not comfy.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly quiet.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be our God forever and ever. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially-printed booklet with the service and readings. There was also the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1982. In the pews were also some Spanish language hymnals that were not used.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, opus 3018 of Casavant Frères of Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, installed in 1969 to replace an earlier instrument. It was well played.

Did anything distract you?

A cell phone rang during the Old Testament reading. There were also some small children in the rear of the church. They didn't bother me, but the failure of the church to use microphones during most of the service meant that they made many of the speakers hard to understand. Ironically, I saw two separate PA systems in the sanctuary, and there was a microphone at a lectern. However, only one was turned on, and this for only a small portion of the service. Why?

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

Dignified, but not stuffy. "Mid-church?" They did use a lot of incense – so much so that I could smell it as I approached the building while the door was still closed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was not really a "sermon" per se. Instead, there were two sets of reflections on the seven last words of Christ. The first part was done by seven lay members of the church. All of these took about 20 minutes. Part 2 was done by a clergyman whose name was not given. He spoke for 10 minutes.

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

8 – The clergyman was down-to-earth and relaxed. He stood in the aisle at the front of the church, and obviously loved his congregation. If only he had used a microphone! I cannot really judge the lay people, because they were not trained ministers. All spoke from the heart.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The lay reflections ranged from personal experiences to discussions of the original meanings of certain words in the gospel that we had heard. These people had obviously done some homework. The clergy reflection was on the importance of faith. He spoke of a patient with a terminal illness with whom he worked while a hospital chaplain. This woman had no faith, and her journey was painful. His point was understandable, although I'd prefer an example of the benefit of something than the pain of its absence.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Seeing all the people from so many backgrounds together. However, I don't think there was much to be considered heavenly about Good Friday.

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

Just hearing the Passion According to St John. John's cast of characters behaved hellishly, didn't they?!

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

Nothing. This being Good Friday, there was no coffee hour. Everyone left quietly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None. I headed to a diner on nearby Northern Boulevard to get some.

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

7 – I'd have to attend some some more services and meet some people.

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 lovely outside garden.

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