St Mary the Virgin, New York City

St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Fishngrl
Church: St Mary the Virgin
Location: Times Square, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 6:00pm

The building

St Mary's dates from 1895 and was the first church anywhere in the world to be constructed on a steel frame. Its elegant French Gothic design is masked on the exterior by neighboring buildings but is strikingly apparent on the inside. The interior was extensively cleaned and restored in 1997. The ceiling is painted blue with golden stars, and the sanctuary features an east-facing marble altar. The nave is a delight to behold, with its many glorious frescoes and icons, an elegant baptistery, and numerous side chapels. And the acoustics are perfect! This is a must-see church!

The church

Fondly but irreverently known as Smoky Mary's, this church strives to be a witness to the Catholic Christian tradition within the Anglican Church. Its music program includes the very best of liturgical works throughout the centuries. The divine office is recited each weekday in the morning, noon and evening, and mass is offered daily at 12.10pm. Weekend services include a Saturday evening vigil mass, three Sunday masses, and solemn evensong and benediction on Sunday evening.

The neighborhood

Snuggled in the middle of West 46th Street just off Times Square, and within a thurible's swing of the theater district, St Mary's is located in arguably one of the most bustling commercial and tourist areas anywhere in the world.

The cast

The Rev. John Beddingfield, curate, was the celebrant, assisted by the Rev. Matthew Mead, curate, and the Rev. James Ross Smith, assisting priest. About 14 acolytes, including a crucifer and thurifer, rounded out the altar party. Imagine the procession!

What was the name of the service?

Ash Wednesday Solemn High Mass

How full was the building?

Not quite one-half full. The church later posted on their website that 617 people attended the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. An usher said, "If you're here for ashes, just go on up. Are you staying for the mass? Good! The music will be wonderful." Whereupon he handed me a service leaflet. After I had settled in, I noticed that this same usher was checking on people who were already seated to ensure that they had bulletins. A very friendly greeting, and the exchange of peace later on was friendly also.

Was your pew comfortable?

The unpadded pew was fairly comfortable and the angle of the pew back was not overly severe. Kneelers were the old-style, barely-padded faux leather type. Being short, I have difficulty kneeling in this kind of pew as the backs of the pews are too tall.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived about 15 minutes before the service began, and dozens of people were drifting in to pray at various side altars, light candles, or receive ashes. The atmosphere was prayerful and reverent. Service participants, including priests and acolytes, were busy making last-minute preparations, but they took their roles seriously, reverencing the altar properly each time they passed it. A young girl acolyte was being coached on where to stand at the altar before the gospel procession; it turned out that she was the crucifer as well as the bearer of the book.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit," and into the Angelus we went.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Everything, including service music and liturgical chant, was printed on a well-prepared service leaflet. The liturgy came from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and hymns from the 1982 Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

A grand Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, that company's opus 891.

Did anything distract you?

It was easy to be distracted, in the best way, by the reverence of both the service participants and the congregation, the beauty of the worship space, and the sound of the marvelous liturgy as sung by the choir. A baby cried at times, which was hardly troublesome compared to the cell phone that began to chirp as the celebrant said, "He stretched out his arms upon the cross..."

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

Spikily Anglo-Catholic and as high up the candle as one can go (or at least as this Episcopalian has experienced). The church is called Smoky Mary's for good reason. Plumes of smoke wafted toward the ceiling and throughout the nave. The priests faced the altar rather than the congregation, and almost everyone kneeled for the eucharistic prayer. Wonderfully Anglo-Catholic but not stuffy at all.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

6 minutes.

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

9 – Father Beddingfield preached a warm, concise, on-target sermon completely without notes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He spoke on the theme of ashes cleansing us of our sins, and used a story from Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead to illustrate his point about how there could be nothing cleaner than ashes to prepare us for God's forgiveness.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Just about every bit of the service was heavenly. While some might think of Anglo-Catholicism as being formal and stuffy, rather than approachable liturgy, that's not how it is here. One moment especially stood out for me: During the gospel procession, the young girl who bore the book opened it up and placed the spine on her forehead, holding it steady at just the right height and angle for Father Mead to chant the Word. It was a beautiful gesture, and the warm look of approbation Father gave her for doing so well was just priceless.

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

This is a large, high-ceilinged gothic church, probably very expensive to heat and impossible to keep adequately warm. I had visited before and had been cold during the service, so this time I came prepared, wearing longjohns and a sweater... And that cell phone going off during the eucharistic prayer was inexcusable, although it was silenced pretty fast.

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

Father Beddingfield asked me my name and engaged me in small talk for a moment or two. Several people nodded hello.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee hour would not have been appropriate after an Ash Wednesday service, and there was none.

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

9 – I've visited here a couple of times in the past few months and have been very warmly welcomed each time. The priests and congregation are genuinely friendly, the congregation is diverse in terms of race, age, etc. – this could easily be my church home.

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

Very much so. I'm looking forward to visiting throughout Lent.

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

The girl holding the gospel book on her forehead and the priest's approving smile. Every acolyte should be trained so well!

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