St Mary's, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

St Mary's, New Haven, Connecticut, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary's
Location: New Haven, Connecticut, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 November 2005, 12:00am

The building

St Mary's is an elegant Gothic building sitting on a quiet, leafy street on the campus of Yale University. The church was begun in 1870 and dedicated in 1874. The interior is cream and blue, with dark wooden pews. Misericords grace either side of the sanctuary. A large bronze crucifix hangs suspended over the altar. An ornate organ case fills the gallery. At the rear of the church is the grey marble tomb of Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus.

The church

St Mary's parish was established in 1832. It is the oldest Catholic parish in New Haven and the second oldest in Connecticut. In this very church, in 1882, Father McGivney organized the Knights of Columbus as a fraternal society for the protection of widows and children of working men. Today the Knights number 1.7 million members throughout North America, the Caribbean and the Far East. The parish sponsors a young adults group and conducts numerous devotions and novenas.

The neighborhood

New Haven was founded in 1638 by Puritans hoping to create a Christian utopia. Contrast these auspicious beginnings with the early 19th century, when New Haven became one of America's foremost firearms manufacturing centers after the Winchester Arms Company bought out a gun factory established by Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. The late 19th century saw the city grow into a major industrial center, but as the 20th century unfolded, the increasing availability of the automobile brought on a mass exodus of middle-class families to the suburbs, and cities such as New Haven succumbed to blight and decay. The latter part of the century witnessed a major rebuilding and revitalization effort begun by Mayor Richard Lee, who served eight terms. Today, New Haven is a clean, green, pleasant city with a decidedly small town air. The seat of Yale University, it is also the birthplace of George W. Bush.

The cast

The Rev. Albert A. Caprio, OP, was the celebrant, and Mr Nicholas Renouf played the organ and directed a choir of about a dozen singers. A sole acolyte and a lector were not named.

What was the name of the service?

Mass, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King.

How full was the building?

The church holds about 500 and was half full. People were scattered evenly about the nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A gentleman said, "Here ya go" as he handed me a bulletin.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was OK – not great.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Total silence. People entered quietly, with no visiting. Some stopped to pray at the tomb of Father McGivney. The church bells were rung immediately before the start of mass.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good afternoon and welcome to St Mary's." There was no entrance procession; celebrant and server entered from the sacristy. Father Caprio was vested in a gold chasuble, and the server wore a cotta over a white Dominican habit.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Worship, a hard-bound hymnal that I had seen in one other Catholic church and was pleased to see again. There were also a bulletin and an order of service containing the Latin Gregorian chant for the ordinary of the mass as well as the text (in Latin with English translation) of the propers and two motets.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The organ accompanied the two congregational hymns but the mass itself was sung a cappella.

Did anything distract you?

I always find candle-lighting time entertaining. There's always one candle that resists the most valiant effort to light it, and today was no exception. Not very much else distracted me, but I'm sure the people around me were distracted by my note-taking during mass. I felt several pairs of eyes on me, at several different times.

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

From what I read on their website I was expecting more solemnity. I found the mass to be an odd mixture of pomp and just plain old low mass. The choir chanted all of its parts in Latin, using the Gregorian chant settings from the Liber Usualis, although Father Caprio chanted the collects in English and recited all of the spoken parts in English. He did not chant the gospel, the sursum corda or the Lord's Prayer. Father censed the altar at the beginning of mass and at the offertory, but he didn't actually swing the thurible – he simply raised and lowered it like a railroad conductor giving the engineer the highball. The peace ceremony was less than tame; I'd call it insipid.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

4 – Father spoke with a clear, strong voice but he read his sermon from notes. I was hoping for more from a member of the Order of Preachers.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The Hebrew kings of old were strong men who changed the course of history. Jesus compared his kingship to a shepherd tending his flock. We modern city folk don't understand the symbol of the shepherd, but we do realize that we need help as we struggle against the hardships of today's world. Civil authorities often take better care of themselves than they do of their charges. In the fullness of time everything will be made subject to Christ the King. We serve our loving King by our good works. Whatever reward we may receive for our good works in this life pales by comparison to the eternal reward that awaits us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir sang the Latin Gregorian chant settings note-perfect with the calm, soaring beauty one associates with a monastery. The Alleluia verse began with the words Potestas eius potestas aeterna ("His dominion is an everlasting dominion"), and the word eius floated like a bird in flight for what seemed like a full minute. How well-suited Latin is for prayer! I wished there were a Liber Usualis available to follow along with. And the two Josquin des Prez motets were especially lovely.

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

The reed stops of the organ were badly out of tune. I was surprised that the organist didn't avoid them – surely he knew what condition they were in.

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

We sang all six verses of "At the Name of Jesus" to the tune of King's Weston, and people seemed increasingly impatient to leave. Some couldn't wait. As soon as the last word of the last verse died out, most people went their way. Some of us stayed to hear the organist's postlude, but as soon as that was over we all left. No talking, no visiting, just a hasty exit. I asked some people if the congregation were always this lifeless, and they merely smiled. Silly old thing!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none. I retired to a nearby restaurant for a delicious lunch and then headed on back to the train station.

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

5 – I was disappointed in the liturgy but I would return on another occasion to give it a second try. The excellent choir would be a strong draw, but I would want to hear some proper preaching, not simply a recitation from notes.

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

I felt no sense of Christian community in this congregation.

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

The note-perfect Gregorian chant, especially that soaring eius.

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