St Michael’s by-the-Sea, Carlsbad, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Michael’s by-the-Sea, Carlsbad
Location: California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 13 August 2023, 9:30am

The building

Their new building, of brown painted cinderblock, is not as interesting as the old church, of white clapboard, which is now used as a chapel. On the campus between the two churches is a large bell, at the foot of which is a time capsule, sealed in 2019 and slated to be opened in 2094. The interior of the new church is more interesting, with a large marble eastward-facing altar backed by a large wooden crucifix. Credenza and lectern are to the right; sedilia and pulpit to the left. There is choir seating on either side, plus an organ loft. Stained glass graces the east and north walls. Stations of the Cross depict only Christ’s head.

The church

Their numerous ministries are well described on their website. They appear to extend a special welcome to visitors, with a Welcome Wagon set up on the grounds under a gazebo – but do they? Read on! I’ll also mention their domestic and foreign missions, especially Refugee Net, where persons who (quoting from their website) ‘have relocated here to escape religious, racial, and economic persecution… forced from their homelands… [are assisted in] becoming productive citizens of this country.’ There is one mass each Sunday and a daily mass each weekday except Monday. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered on Saturdays during Lent. Baptisms are celebrated during those times (according to their website) that the Church has traditionally reserved for this sacrament. Matrimony and Holy Unction are also offered as requested.

The neighborhood

The area about 35 miles north of San Diego, on California’s Pacific coast, was settled by Spanish explorers and other Europeans during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1880s, a local named John Frazier dug a well whose waters proved to be chemically similar to those of the famous Karlsbad spa in Bohemia. Frazier offered his water to thirsty travelers passing through, and the place came to be known as Frazier’s Station. An intense marketing campaign to attract visitors was undertaken, with the area officially adopting the name Carlsbad. The city was incorporated in 1952, and today Carlsbad is a very upscale place indeed. In addition to its fabulous beaches and expensive housing, it is best known as the site of the Legoland California theme park, opened in 1999. The church is located one block from the train station and bus depot.

The cast

A priest celebrant, assisted by another priest, a lay reader and a psalmist. The celebrant wore full Gothic eucharistic vestiture, including a maniple! The assisting priest was vested only in cassock and surplice but wore a stole. The lay reader wore street clothes; the psalmist a cassock and surplice. There were also six others – five men and a lady – vested in cassock and surplice. They sat antiphonally on either side of the altar, but I couldn’t make out if they were choir or servers. One of them did assist the priest, and another of them preached! They didn’t sing an anthem, so my guess is that they were not choir.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist, Rite 1, Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.

How full was the building?

I counted room for about 200 and I’d say there were about 75 present – a middle aged to elderly crowd, mostly couples. There were also about 30 chairs set up outside under a canopy (the back wall of the church was wide open), and about 25 people occupied those.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Well, I spotted the aforementioned gazebo, but no Welcome Wagon was apparent. I was thirsty, and I wandered into the parish hall looking for a drink of water. There, a lady engaged in some pleasant chat with me. Inside the church, however, no one said anything to me except for a gentleman who was placing notice cards in a holder in each pew. I don’t think even he would have said anything to me had I not helped him guide the cards into the holder in my pew – he seemed to be having trouble doing so – but he managed to get out, ‘And how are you doing today?’

Was your pew comfortable?

Fine as pews go. The kneelers were spaced a little more distantly from the seat than I’m used to, and my Episcopal squat turned into an Episcopal crouch.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet. No talking or visiting. People genuflected as they entered and then sat or knelt quietly in prayer. Organist and violinist played a prelude, which I’ll have more to say about in a moment.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our service.’ This was followed by a few announcements, and then the customary, ‘Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the 1940 Hymnal (no 1982 Hymnal for us, thank you, we’re high church) were in the pews, but everything we needed was included in a service booklet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, an electronic instrument, I believe, but nicely voiced; and violin. Both were masterfully played to good effect.

Did anything distract you?

There was some soot on the cinderblock walls behind wherever candles were located. The area behind the sedilia had obviously been scrubbed; I wondered if there had once been a side altar there. The psalmist, bless her soul, was a little thing, and only the top of her head was visible above the lectern. Train whistles from the block-away train tracks blended with the organ on occasion.

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

High as a kite on its way to heaven. Eastward-facing. Bells at all the proper times. No incense or chanting, though. The assisting priest read the Gospel and made the chalice at the offertory, but did not otherwise serve a deacon’s role. The mass setting was one of Schubert’s – lovely! The hymns were all old traditional stand-bys. We sang the Lord’s Prayer to the Gregorian setting. At communion we could receive the wine by sipping from the chalice or by intinction – if by intinction, the eucharistic minister intincted the host for us and then, instead of placing it on the tongue, handed it back to us to place in the mouth ourselves.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

6 — I was surprised when one of the people assisting in choir mounted the pulpit to preach. He spoke clearly if a bit fast, but he read his sermon from a prepared text. That to me is not the same as preaching – hence the relatively low score. It was well constructed for the most part, though.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He recently visited family and friends back east and was confused by the plethora of freeways and highways. His GPS was helpful only to a point. But the Old Testament prophets looked to God for directions. How do we hear God today? Even Jesus needed time for prayer – and don’t we? The world is full of distractions – let’s avoid them and let’s give Jesus a listen!

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

What a joy it was to experience a full liturgy, not the abbreviated stripped-down liturgy I had been getting elsewhere. And how beautifully done it was, maniple and all! But the most heavenly part of all was the violinist and organist’s prelude. They did ‘Rejoice Greatly O My Soul’ by Sigfrid Karg-Elert, followed by ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’ The latter was just so beautifully played, I was wishing it had gone on all day!

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

If one of the gentleman in choir thought that he was wearing black shoes, as all the others were, I’m afraid he was grossly disillusioned.

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

I left during the closing hymn, as I had to catch my bus. I had noticed, however, that cookies and other goodies has been set out in the parish hall, and I’m sure they were delicious and would have been accompanied by some pleasant fellowship.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I didn’t stay.

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

9 — Oh golly, wouldn’t I just! If I ever won the lottery and could afford to relocate to Carlsbad (and it would take nothing short of the lottery to do so), this would be my regular church in a flash! I refrain from giving it a 10 only because of the missing Welcome Wagon.

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

Most definitely yes!

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

The exquisitely lovely rendering of ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’

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