St Paul's Cathedral, Burlington, VT (Exterior)

St Paul's Cathedral, Burlington, Vermont, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul's Cathedral
Location: Burlington, Vermont, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 1 January 2017, 9:30am

The building

St Paul's Church was begun in 1830 and was named the diocesan cathedral in 1965. Damaged by fire and rebuilt and enlarged several times over the years, the cathedral was irreparably claimed by fire in 1971. The present building was dedicated in 1973 and is the work of Burlington architects Truex, Cullins & Partners, designers of private homes, schools, commercial buildings and ski resorts throughout New England. The cathedral is essentially a series of interlocked stressed concrete panels in true brutalist fashion. That being said, it's really rather lovely and striking – moreover, for some odd reason it actually looks at home in this downtown location that faces Lake Champlain. The tower houses a ring of eight bells rescued from the old cathedral – a ninth bell, cracked by the fire, sits at the base of the tower. The interior is filled with light from massive windows and affords a breathtaking view over the lake to the Adirondack Mountains.

The church

The church (and it does feel like a church) is the cathedral home for the Diocese of Vermont. Being that Vermont is the most liberal state in the Union and home to liberal Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, it is not too surprising that St Paul's undertakes a lot of outreach work concerned with global justice, sustainability, and interfaith activities in the city and beyond. They sponsor a communion bread baking school in the home of one of the church members, which is open to all (recipe provided).

The neighborhood

There are no fewer than twenty-eight municipalities in the United States named Burlington. Burlington, Vermont, sits in the northwestern part of the state on Lake Champlain and is Vermont's largest city. It is a place that can best be described as how we might imagine California in the late 60s, but with lots of snow and ice. Coffee shops, art galleries and live music abound. The standard dress code here is a Patagonia branded fleece, woolen cap, jeans, and sturdy LL Bean boots regardless of age or social status. One imagines locals spending evenings wrapped in the grassy smoke of marijuana, enjoying expensive local craft beers, eating organic whole meal waffles with maple syrup and topped with Ben & Jerry's ice cream (founded and headquartered here), and warmed by a sustainably forested log fire – all whilst serenading one another with guitars and Appalachian folk music.

The cast

The Very Revd Jeanne Finan, dean and rector, led the service and preached. She was ably assisted by the Revd Deacon J. Stannard Baker and Mark A. DeW. Howe, canon precentor and director of music.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The seating was fairly full and I would estimate around 70 in attendance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

We were welcomed personally at the door with a smile and again as we stepped into the sanctuary with a handshake and a "Happy New Year!"

Was your pew comfortable?

No pews – rather, there were light oak chairs, which I found uncomfortable. That being said, I am a bit of a slouch, and looking around at the straight "yoga backs" that everyone else seemed to have, I guess the chairs must have been comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, but lots of whispered conversations. Friendly and welcoming.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

They should have been "Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit" but I believe we went right from the processional hymn to the singing of the Gloria. Bottom line, there was no greeting of any sort such as "Good morning and welcome" or "Happy New Year." A first for me.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A nicely printed handout along with the Hymnal 1982.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ only. It is a tracker organ, an opus of Karl Wilhelm of Mont St-Hilaire, Quebec, Canada. There was a grand piano that was not played.

Did anything distract you?

The congregation hummed a tuneful single note throughout the prayers (sung by the deacon in plainsong) though it took me a while to work out what was happening. First I thought it was from the organ, then that maybe there were a couple of choristers hidden at the back (there was no choir). It took me a while to realize finally that it was the folks around me humming. To be perfectly honest, I found it all a bit weird at first but eventually found it quite lovely.

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

Worship was about as middle church as you could get. The clergy wore vestments, but there were no candles, bells or incense. Plenty of hymns, though, and a gospel procession in the middle of the nave. The peace was pretty much everyone shaking hands and saying, "Peace be with you." The woman in the row in front offered me a sort of Namaste bow with her hands held in prayer fashion. I wasn't sure if that was a religious thing or if she didn't want to touch people (germs, etc.) – probably the latter.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

7 – The dean read from notes. Her talk was conversational in style and light in nature – fine for the occasion. She spent quite a bit of time on an anecdote about how her grandson felt his mother had destroyed Christmas because she took the decorations down too early; and explaining that the name Jesus means "God saves" and so the expression "Jesus saves" is needlessly redundant.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We all matter – even a snowflake has weight and value.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was heavenly seeing the children come up to the altar to take communion.

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

A lady behind me at the start of the service had a particularly rasping cough that went right through me – fortunately she got things under control. Had it continued I would have been looking for an escape route.

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

Nothing much – folks left fairly promptly. But a warm handshake, a few kind words, and more Happy New Years were exchanged as we departed.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee was on offer for this New Year's Day service.

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

8 – Were I to live in Burlington I could certainly imagine myself becoming a regular. Its a lovely place and the architecture is truly outstanding.

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

It did make me feel glad. It also reminded me that as an Anglican myself, its been a while since I have been to an Anglican or Episcopalian service. My regular is a large non-denominational church in Boston that has been my home for many years. As a result of this visit, I shall be making a few more visits to our local Episcopal church in future, as I miss the liturgy.

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

This outstanding building – stark from the outside but beautiful inside.

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