Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, Kentucky, USA

Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, Covington, Kentucky, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption
Location: Covington, Kentucky, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 28 June 2009, 10:00am

The building

The cathedral is of Gothic design. It was begun in 1894, with the exterior modeled on Notre Dame and the interior on the Abbey Church of St Denis in Paris. Though incomplete, work ceased in 1915. An extensive renovation project was undertaken in 2002. The exterior features 26 gargoyles carved in Italy. The vaulted interior houses a magnificent collection of large stained glass windows, mosaics, sculptures and murals. The north transept window is said to be the largest stained glass church window in the world and depicts the Council of Ephesus, at which Mary was proclaimed the Mother of God. The stations of the cross are made of Italian mosaic, each station containing at least 70,000 pieces.

The church

The parish sponsors a Justice and Peace Committee and supports the St Vincent de Paul Society. The Cathedral Concert Series is now in its 33rd season.

The neighborhood

Covington, population 44,000, is in northern Kentucky, directly across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati. A suspension bridge designed by John A. Roebling, who also designed New York's Brooklyn Bridge, was opened in 1867 linking the two cities. Although no longer open to buses, the bridge remains the busiest of Cincinnati's four non-expressway bridges. Once an important financial and commercial center, Covington fell into decline in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time it was best known for its strip clubs. A revival began in the late 1970s; there are now several national historic districts in Covington. The area around the cathedral is mixed use, and the cathedral stands in stark contrast to the immediate neighborhood.

The cast

The Revd Raymond Enzweiler, vice-rector of the parish, was celebrant, and the Revd Mr Jerry Franzen was deacon and homilist. Robert Schaffer, Litt.D. (Hon.), director of music, presided at the organ, and Gregory Schaffer, associate organist and choral assistant, conducted the Bishop's Choir.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Mass.

How full was the building?

About 65 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I entered, an usher handed me a parish bulletin and a single-page (printed on both sides) service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard wooden pews with pull-down kneelers. Quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverential. Dr Schaffer played a nice organ piece, not listed in the service leaflet, but obviously from the French Baroque.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

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

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Breaking Bread, a combination missal/hymnal in paperback, published by Oregon Catholic Press.

What musical instruments were played?

A four-manual, 65 rank Aultz-Kersting pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?

Just before the service began, I heard sirens loud enough that I gathered they were quite close. Then, as the procession of choir and clergy began up the center aisle, a parallel procession – of firemen – could be seen going up the south aisle and off into another room. As we never saw smoke, I'm assuming any fire that might have existed was quickly and efficiently contained.

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

This was a formal liturgy, without happy talk, that is fairly typical of a Sunday novus ordo mass in North American Catholicism. There were a few high touches: the deacon was vested in dalmatic, bells were rung during the eucharistic prayer (before the epiklesis and at the elevation of the bread and chalice), and the altar was set in the so-called Benedictine arrangement (crucifix in the center, three tall candles on either side).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

8 – Deacon Franzen's delivery was fairly low-key, but if I were grading only on content and careful preparation, I would have given him a 9.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The deacon preached on today's gospel reading, Mark 5:21-43 (Jesus cures a woman of bleeding and raises the synagogue leader's daughter from the dead). He began by noting the AT&T commercial of a few years back, "Reach out and touch someone." Jesus often healed by touch. Not only did he touch many in his ministry, but he also let others touch him. Touch can be a more powerful means of communication than words alone. Words can be manipulated, but touch can rarely be programmed to deceive. And touching is reciprocal; it is an exchange. Touch is an essential element of many sacraments – the laying on of hands, anointing of the sick, etc.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The extraordinary beauty of the interior of this cathedral. And I was so pleased to see that the deacon's role in the liturgy was taken seriously, and that he was given all of the parts of the liturgy that are proper to his order.

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

Not hellish, but there were some musical idiosyncrasies. First, I should say that Dr Schaffer is a splendid organist, and equally skilled at accompanying the choir as well as the congregation. And the cathedral's choir is quite fine. But, intentionally or not, the music staff have decided to give only limited support to congregational singing. For example, at communion the choir gave a beautiful rendition of the Ave Maria by Franz Abt, followed by two hymns ("Bread of the world in mercy broken" and "Whatsoever you do". The choir sang the first hymn a cappella, and the organ registrations chosen for the second hymn made it clear that the congregation should sing only the short refrain, even though the verses were quite easy to sing. A choir as fine as this should certainly be given a significant role to play, but I cannot see any reason why the congregation should not be encouraged to sing simple hymnody. Then, too, the acclamations in the eucharistic prayer were listed in the service leaflet as by Vermulst, but music was not available.

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

I asked the couple sitting in the pew in front of us if they could tell me the name of the celebrant (the service leaflet did not give any information about participants in the service). We chatted briefly, but the congregation filtered out of the church 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)?

3 – Don't misunderstand – I admire the seriousness with which this parish worships, and the obvious care which they lavish on their liturgy, not to mention the beautiful space in which they worship. The rating simply reflects my and MaterFamilias' personal tastes – the music would be too conservative for us on a week-to-week basis. (I haven't heard service music by Vermulst in decades.)

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

Yes, indeed.

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

The woman sitting immediately behind me, quietly singing along with the verses on the second communion hymn. She obviously (as did I) wanted to be singing, but also did not want to be obtrusive.

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