Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House Theological Seminary, Nashotah, Wisconsin, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Chapel of St Mary the Virgin
Location: Nashotah House Theological Seminary, Nashotah, Wisconsin, USA
Date of visit: Monday, 11 March 2019, 7:45am

The building

The seminary was established in 1842 in a tiny wooden house and wooden chapel, both of which are still standing. The cornerstone for the present chapel was laid in 1859. Design of the white-stone Neo-Gothic structure with classic red Anglican doors is attributed to the 19th century British-American prolific champion of Neo-Gothic architecture, Richard Upjohn. The chapel is contiguous with the classroom block of the seminary. The entire space was clad for Lent – swathes of unbleached linen enveloping every crucifix in sight.

The church

Nashotah House Theological Seminary has been from its inception a bastion of the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism. Seminarians practice the Benedictine Rule of daily prayer, labor, and study. Quoting from their website: “Our curriculum is based upon the overall goal of developing in students ‘faithful character,’ ‘faithful intellect,’ and ‘faithful practice.’" Staunchly conservative, the seminary is independent but recognized by The Episcopal Church as well as the Anglican Church in North America. They offer Doctor of Ministry and Doctor of Divinity degrees as well as four Masters degrees. The chapel is open to visitors year-round for daily mass.

The neighborhood

Nashotah is a tiny village of about 1400 people in southeastern Wisconsin, an hour away from Milwaukee, in the rolling Wisconsin countryside, the so-called “lake country.” A local restaurant, the Red Circle Inn, is said to be the oldest restaurant in Wisconsin. Originally a stagecoach stopover, it was at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries a fashionable hangout for the wealthy. Today it is a much-sought-after venue for weddings and banquets as well as a favorite dining spot for folks looking for a good home-cooked style meal. The seminary is tucked away in the woods, (quoting from their website) “a peaceful atmosphere that feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of Milwaukee.” Self-guided walking tours of the campus are available.

The cast

A priest, assisted by a deacon, led the service, with seminarians filling the roles of lector and preacher.

What was the name of the service?

Said Morning Prayer followed by Daily Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The chapel, being in a seminary, is almost entirely quire – which was full, since attendance is mandatory. I was accompanied by a handful of people in the visitors’ seating area in the small nave.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was looking mildly lost as I tried to follow the cassock-clad crowd. I was very kindly shown in and welcomed by several people, and given a hymnal, Prayer Book, and order of service.

Was your pew comfortable?

The visitors sat in three rows of cushioned folding chairs behind the rood, which I found very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverent and reflective silence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness, and repented him of the evil."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Prayer Book (1979) and Hymnal (1982) of The Episcopal Church.

What musical instruments were played?

An organ was used sparsely, just the right amount for a said eucharist on a weekday.

Did anything distract you?

The perils of visiting a Gothic chapel in Lent were clear. I found myself spending more time than desired gazing wistfully at the linen coverings, wishing I could see what was behind. Every single thing, from the reredos to the crucifix above the rood, to the side altar, was completely covered in yards and yards of the stuff. I'm also a lover of woodwork, so I caught myself staring at the carvings on the choir stalls.

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

True to the heritage of Nashotah House, the worship was very stiff upper lip, but brisk and pleasantly spare on liturgical excesses. The rubrics of the Prayer Book were followed to the clockwork precision that only a group of people who pray together in the same form every day could ever accomplish. The House observes a uniform of cassock for all faculty and seminarians in attendance, which I have to admit adds a lot to the ambience. The vestments included surplice for readers, preachers, and servers; stole for the deacon; and an unbleached linen chasuble for the celebrant. Morning prayer was entirely spoken, but the ordinary of the mass (except the Credo) was sung in plainchant with one organ-accompanied hymn at the offertory. They alternate the mass between Rite 1 and Rite 2 with the changes of the liturgical seasons, and for Lent, Rite 1 was used. Kneeling was the norm at the confession and eucharistic prayer, and manual acts such as genuflection, the sign of the cross, and bowing were all observed to their fullest.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

4 minutes.

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

8 — The sermon was brief, as expected in a daily mass, but made an excellent and succinct point that suited my level of concentration at eight o’clock in the morning.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The preacher spoke of the role (or rather, lack thereof) of acts in salvation. Rushing around trying to fulfill a checklist of good deeds, while ignoring along the way those people in need, is spiritually unsatisfactory. In our hurry to clothe the naked and feed the hungry to fill our quota of good deeds, we should not ignore Christ standing before us. Rather, we should undertake charitable and holy acts as an expression of love for the risen Lord.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For one morning, I felt completely transported away from the rush of the modern world to this well-oiled machine. It was so incredibly calming to see how lived-in worship felt here, how comfortable everyone was with the text. This wasn't an activity set apart from ordinary life – it was life. The recitation of the psalms in traditional Anglican style, alternating the verses from side to side in choir, was particularly moving.

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

The pace of worship was pauseless, leaving me frantically flipping to find psalms and canticles. It looked like most people had theirs pre-marked in their own books, so this was really just my own fault for not opening my books before the service to the right pages. Also, this is the upper Midwest in March. There is ice, and it is everywhere. Dear reader, do not make my mistake and wear high-heeled shoes. Not only will you risk an orthopedic incident, you will also disturb the silence of the chapel with clacking.

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

I ran into an acquaintance before service, and since everyone adjourned to the refectory for breakfast afterwards, I was invited along. The students and faculty were super welcoming, and most people introduced themselves without any prompting. The community is only about 30 students and half a dozen faculty, so everyone is used to dining together after services.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The post-service meal was in a building a short walk away, built in a classic style in the mid-1900s. There was a breakfast bar with all your continental classics served on nice hot plates. The biscuits were delicious and flaky, the company top notch, and the coffee was hot, dark, and strong from a coffeepot. More to my taste, there was a hot chocolate machine.

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

10 — I'd absolutely come back in a heartbeat for a spiritual retreat to read and meditate. The House has a rule of life and a soothing calm that anyone with an interest in Anglo-Catholicism should avail themselves of visiting.

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

Not just glad, but immensely grateful to be. After the service, I sat through a few amazing lectures, all of which opened with a prayer. Everyone paused for the Angelus bells before lunch. In a modern world where you have to go out of your way to fit in religion, visiting a place where prayer is central and everything else is fit around it left me feeling refreshed in my faith.

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

The importance of being a Christian not just in church, but in all places.

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