St Stephen Martyr, Washington DC


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Stephen Martyr
Location: Washington DC
Date of visit: Sunday, 5 March 2017, 11:00am

The building

The current modernist structure was consecrated on June 11, 1961 and was the work of architects Johnson and Boutin, designers of numerous Catholic churches in the Washington, DC area, as well as private homes and government facilities. The front features a 70-foot high bell tower topped by a large cross. Probably the best description of the interior would be "parabolically intense" – parabola shapes are found everywhere. The organ and choir are in a front north gallery, and along the south wall are a number of striking stained glass windows.

The church

The parish was founded in 1867. There are five weekend masses and two each weekday (one on Saturday). In addition, there is a service of Prayer With Sant'Egidio on Thursday evenings (Sant'Egidio is an international organization committed to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue), and on Sunday afternoons El Shaddai Prayer (El Shaddai is an international organization for charismatic Catholics). There are active social ministries and sponsorship of mission work abroad. The music program is quite good. The parish is actively involved with campus ministry at George Washington University. President John F. Kennedy and the First Lady often attended mass here, and on the day President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, the regularly-scheduled 6.30pm mass was offered for the repose of his soul. That was the first mass at St Stephen Martyr celebrated versus populum.

The neighborhood

They are located at 2436 Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the White House (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue), the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the campus of George Washington University.

The cast

No names were given in the service leaflet, but (going by photos on their website) the celebrant and preacher was the Revd Klaus J. Sirianni, associate pastor and chaplain at George Washington University Hospital; and the deacon was the Revd Mr John Liu. Neil Weston was organist and directed the choir; Grace Srinivasan was cantor.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

About two-thirds full. The sanctuary seats 700. The congregation were quite diverse, racially and generationally.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher welcomed me and handed me a service leaflet. I was a bit surprised to see the ushers on duty when I arrived, as I got to the church early to take photographs.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, prayerful.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The cantor began with, "Good morning, and welcome to St Stephen Martyr Catholic Church." She went on to enjoin the congregation to "join in full voice" in singing the mass.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service leaflet plus the Gather hymnal, third edition (2011).

What musical instruments were played?

A digital electronic organ, Opus 7 of Marshall & Ogletree Organbuilders of Needham, Massachusetts.

Did anything distract you?

All of those parabolas!

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

High, but for the most part, not stuffy. Incense was used at the first censing, gospel, offertory, and retiring procession, but not during the eucharistic prayer. We did have bells, though, both at the epiclesis and during the words of institution. In lieu of hymnody, psalmody (in English) was chanted at the entrance and at the beginning of the offertory and communion. There was only one hymn, at the end of mass.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

9 – A timely Lenten sermon well delivered.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

We are just beginning our Lenten journey. And it is a journey, with a long way to go before we arrive at Easter. Jesus went to the desert to take a deep look inside himself – to discern the gifts the Father had given him. He did not get lost inside his own ego, and didn't lose sight of his mission. We should find our "desert" for at least an hour each day during Lent, to ask God to grant us wisdom and grace to move forward. The Spirit is calling us to see where our gifts are calling us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music, sung by a smallish choir, was quite beautifully done. And Cantor Srinivasan chanted the psalmody superbly.

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

The ordinary of the mass was sung in a somewhat unusual fashion. After the congregation and choir had sung each movement of the plainsong Mass XVIII (in English), there was an extension sung by the choir – some, perhaps all of those, were bits of various 16th century mass settings. This held for the memorial acclamation and Great Amen as well. It was rather attractive during the Kyrie, but by the time we finished the Agnus Dei, it was a trick that had grown tiresome.

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

Nothing; the church emptied out fairly quickly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

9 – If Materfamilias and I moved to DC, this would certainly be a good place to start to start looking for a parish home. The parish's social justice ministries are impressive, and the music very professionally done.

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


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

All of the history at this parish in our nation's capital.

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