Cathedral of All Saints, Albany, New York

Cathedral of All Saints, Albany, New York, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Cassandra.
Church: Cathedral of All Saints
Location: Albany, New York, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 22 March 2008, 7:30pm

The building

Called by some the "American Canterbury," the cathedral is an unfinished example of the primitive Gothic style. It was the fondest wish of the first bishop of Albany, William Croswell Doane, to see a grand and noble monument to God rise in the capital city of the Empire State. The cornerstone was laid in 1884, but politics and lack of funds plagued the work almost from the start. After Bishop Doane's death in 1913, all work on the cathedral ceased. Aside from periodic maintenance, it remained little altered during the 20th century. The building is nevertheless an impressive sight, featuring strikingly beautiful stained glass windows, numerous stone carvings, and 17th century Belgian choir stalls. It sits on the north ledge of an overlook and facing the monumental neo-classical colonnade of the New York State Education Building to its south.

The church

They stage an annual golf tournament to support the cathedral's various ministries, including a food pantry. The cathedral choir of men and boys is the oldest Episcopal cathedral choir in America.

The neighborhood

Albany, about 140 miles north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River, is the capital of New York State. Visitors from downstate are often surprised to see how narrow the Hudson is this far north. Many of Albany's streets are named after birds, e.g. Lark, Dove, Hawk, Partridge, etc. The cathedral is located downtown on one such street, Swan, between a conglomeration of government buildings to the south and a poor residential area to its north.

The cast

The Rt Revd David S. Ball, retired Bishop of Albany and in residence at the cathedral, was the preacher. The Very Revd Marshall J. Vang, dean, was the celebrant, assisted by the Revd Deacons Justine Guernsey and Richard Erickson. Woodrow Bynum, organist and director of music, was in charge of the choir.

What was the name of the service?

The Great Vigil of Easter, Rite II

How full was the building?

Disappointingly small, maybe 100 in the congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher greeted me warmly as he handed me a beautifully prepared service booklet.

Was your pew comfortable?

The seating consisted of comfortable cathedral chairs bolted together.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Dear friends in Christ, on this most holy night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life, the Church invites believers throughout the world to come together in vigil and prayer." Dean Vang had a wonderful speaking and singing voice, and excellent pitch when chanting.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None. The service sheet had it all, including full harmony for the hymns, which I personally appreciate because I can only sing bass successfully.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and choir.

Did anything distract you?

I was depressed by the relatively small attendance. It was also saddening to contemplate the unfinished state of the cathedral, which would have included a beautiful dome at the crossing if finished.

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

It was fine Anglo-Catholicism. The procession to the baptistery, the litany of the saints – all was lovely. Responses and singing were hearty. Clerical vestments were smashing, and of course there was plenty of smoke and bells (not true bells, but a gong – not quite as good but OK).

Exactly how long was the sermon?

4 minutes. Bishop Ball obviously realized that this was a long liturgical service.

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

10 – The bishop spoke very unaffectedly, intellectually, almost casually, off-the-cuff – and then he was finished!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The centrality of the resurrection and the inclusion of all people in that event.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music was wonderful and the ceremonies perfect, in beautiful surroundings. (Although never completed, the interior of the cathedral is still awe-inspiring.)

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

It was all carefully planned (I understand the dean is a perfectionist), but there were still some slip-ups. For example, the acolytes had trouble lighting the six office candles on the high altar.

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

Since I do not practice frequent communion, as I remained alone in the back. A very nice woman walked some distance to me and asked if I wished to receive communion. After the mass someone waved me toward the champagne reception held in the undercroft.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Marvelous – everything from soup to nuts, and champagne, and jovial companionship.

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

10 – In a diocese which has been traditionally not inclusive, the cathedral appears to be a haven of refuge for all Episcopalians. If everybody feels at home there, so do I.

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


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

How the Easter Vigil seems to bring past, present and future together.

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