St Thomas the Apostle, Ann Arbor, Michigan

St Thomas the Apostle, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Cityofchurches
Church: St Thomas the Apostle
Location: Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 April 2008, 10:45am

The building

A beautiful edifice designed by the Detroit firm of Spier and Rohns in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, reminiscent of Italian hill churches, and constructed entirely of local fieldstone. The cornerstone was laid in 1897 and the church was dedicated in 1899. The cruciform building has three large rose windows, one in the traditional location and one in each of the transepts. Of special interest are the stained glass windows in the apse. The apse also bears an inscription in Latin from Genesis 28:17: "Non est hic aliud, nisi domus Dei et porta caeli" (This is none other than the house of God and the gate of heaven) – a sentiment I found most agreeable! The high altar is a lovely, simplistic table with canopy on which the tabernacle rests. It is a tasteful feature in the interior design, and puts the reserved sacrament in a place of dignity. A free-standing altar has been set in front of the high altar. In one of the transepts is a side altar dedicated to the Blessed Mother, and in the other the baptismal font. Some of the pews near the front of the church have been turned on angles.

The church

The parish makeup is quite diverse, consisting of University of Michigan students who opt to worship here rather than at the official student parish closer to campus, as well as many families large and small, young professionals, and older members.

The neighborhood

Ann Arbor, in southeastern Michigan to the west of Detroit, was named (so the legend goes) in honor of the wives of two of the city's founders as well as the lush vegetation and stands of oak trees that graced the area. The city is home to the University of Michigan, where John F. Kennedy, then a presidential candidate, unveiled his Peace Corps proposal in 1960, and where President Lyndon B. Johnson, as the university's commencement speaker in 1964, first called for a Great Society. The church is in an old neighborhood adjacent to downtown Ann Arbor and the university. It is surrounded by homes and apartment houses occupied mostly by students and other young people. Clues to the deep history of this small city exist in the cobblestone streets of the sloping neighborhood.

The cast

The Revd Jeffrey Njus, pastor, along with a host of altar servers and a seminarian intern named Matthias. A choir of medium size sang from the loft.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Mass

How full was the building?

Comfortably full, with some people who could have squeezed into the pews standing along the sides and back of the church instead. One must arrive early to find a seat in a congregation this size.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

Yes, and they were just wide enough to kneel comfortably.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some murmuring in the pews along with a soft organ prelude. Many people knelt and prayed, while others chatted within their parties. I prefer a completely reverent pre-service atmosphere with plenty of quiet for praying, but this wasnt too bad.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The celebrant chanted, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Ritual Song, a hybrid hymnal that includes no shortage of modern hymns, but also covers older hymns and some service music rather well.

What musical instruments were played?

A pipe organ which easily filled the medium-sized, vaulted-ceilinged space.

Did anything distract you?

Several crying babies, whose parents carried them out of the church. There were also quite a few latecomers whom the ushers tried to find seats for well into the service – a little too far into it, I thought.

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

Traditional and solemn, with incense and bells. The celebrant chanted the prayers as appropriate, and his intonation reflected the solemnity of the celebration. He did not yield to the temptation to improvise, as so many priests seem to do. Eucharistic Prayer I, also known as the Roman Canon, was used. Accompanied by a virtuoso organist, the choir (whose ranks included several operatic-caliber voices) sang a mixture of old and modern hymns, some of the older hymns using modernized lyrics. No Latin was sung at this mass, but I understand that the choir does include Latin sacred music and ordinaries at some masses. For a large parish with so many young people, the worship was quite traditional, and one would be hard put to find a more solemn novus ordo English mass anywhere.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

9 – The pastor delivered a long homily without any prepared notes. He was very clear and methodical, and his gentle mannerisms and way of speaking, including pauses inserted to good effect, allowed him to make strong points in a very understated way. He quoted scripture and other Church literature and also engaged in some storytelling, most notably about his meeting the Pope when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

A reflection on the day's Gospel reading, John 14:1-12, where Jesus makes it clear that no one can reach God except through him ("I am the way and the truth and the life"). The better part of the homily was spent connecting this message to Pope Benedict's visit and overall mission, by which the Holy Father hopes to bring people closer to Jesus.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Watching the solemn liturgy conducted with such dignity and grace. Listening to the choir singing so beautifully. Hearing the lead singer raise her voice in a descant was like hearing angels.

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

I find communion to be the right time for silence to enable prayer and contemplation. But the choir started up before the communion lines even formed. The volume turned out to be disruptive of prayer.

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

The organist played a postlude, during which most people filed out jovially. Some remained behind to kneel in prayer.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee and donuts were announced before mass, but no reminder was issued later and I forgot to go!

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

9 – Traditional worship suits me, and so I would have a strong desire to make this my regular church. I assume anyone with similar tastes would agree. However, I would like to see a mass in Latin every now and then.

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

Yes, absolutely. The mass was traditional and conservative, yet highly accessible. I believe it would appeal to most Catholics, and I would bring non-Catholic friends here with me because I think a service like this is a great representation of what the Catholic Church in America should look and sound like.

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

The vibrancy of the parish, and seeing a packed house of diverse people all enthusiastic about partaking in solemn worship.

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