Mystery Worshipper: Altar Ego
Church: Church of the Holy Communion
Location: Paterson, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 23 June 2011, 7:00pm
The congregation was formed in 1856 and is the second oldest Episcopal parish in the city of Paterson. The parish has had a unique history of trouble and triumph through the years. Once there were five Episcopal parishes in Paterson; today only the first two original parishes remain. At present, the church faces the plight of urban decline: high crime, high property taxes, high unemployment, with parishioners moving out or passing away with nobody to replace them.
Paterson is a city in northeastern New Jersey. It is located on the Passaic River at the site of the Great Falls, one of the United States' largest waterfalls. In the last decade of the 18th century, the famed engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who had drawn the plans for Washington, DC, proposed a system of harnessing the falls to supply power for industrial use. A modified version of L'Enfant's plan was eventually adopted, and the city of Paterson quickly became a major manufacturer of silk, textiles, firearms, railroad locomotives and other products. By the mid 19th century the silk industry dominated, and Paterson became known as the Silk City of the World. The silk mill workers attended the Church of the Holy Communion and the silk mill owners attended St Pauls Church (Episcopal) several blocks away. Today, the silk industry is long gone, along with most other manufacturing jobs. There is high crime in the area around the church. Gangs of angry young men, and even young girls, with hatred in their hearts and guns in their pockets, walk the streets looking for their next victim. Derelicts hang out on street corners drinking cheap wine out of brown paper bags. Prostitutes peddle their wares and do their thing in between parked cars. It is not a safe area to be in during the day, let alone at night.
The Revd Gary Blumer, interim rector, was the preacher and celebrant of the liturgy. Stephen Hall, senior warden, served as a lector and canopy bearer during the procession. A gentleman whose name was not listed in the service booklet served as thurifer, lector and acolyte. Cynthia Archer was the organist.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Mass and Sermon with Solemn Procession of the Blessed Sacrament and Solemn Benediction
How full was the building?
In the congregation there were only three men and nine women. Everyone, I guess, was over 50.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. As I was taking pictures before the service, a lady parishioner greeted me from the pews. Then the senior warden said hello as he was passing by. He and I had a brief chat about the church building and the challenges of maintaining it.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were quite comfortable, but somewhat austere in appearance, with flat backs and flat seats. They probably date back from the 1800s. There were no curvatures in the wood to contour to the position of the body. There were also wooden dividers in the middle of all the pews.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church was quiet with only a couple of people in the pews, which gave me the opportunity to take some pictures of the church.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a red booklet with a black plastic binder that was made especially for this service, it being the feast of title. It contained the complete liturgy with all the hymns, along with a history of the parish. In the pews was the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal 1982, and The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.
What musical instruments were played?
Only the pipe organ was played.
Did anything distract you?
During the censing of the gospel book, which took place in the middle of the nave, I couldnt help but enjoy the smell of the incense, which had a somewhat spicy anise aroma to it. It reminded me of the black incense that is sometimes used in the Greek church, although it was not quite as strong.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Definitely high church! Very warm overtones with no stuffiness or pomposity. There was no deacon or subdeacon, and the lone server did the best he could. The priest faced the people. The sequence hymn was "Spirit Divine," no. 510 in the Hymnal 1982, not the traditional Lauda Sion. The priest chanted the gospel and other parts of the liturgy with all the talent that God had given him. There were bells and smells. During the procession, the server doubled as the thurifer. All in all, everyone participated as fully as they could. It was not nosebleed high cathedral worship in the flesh, but maybe it was in the spirit.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Father Blumer spoke from a very well prepared text. However, he spoke softly in a very low voice that might put some people to sleep, especially after a hard days work. Maybe if he had a microphone that could be turned up just a wee bit, it might have improved his presentation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Blumer started out by talking about the opening hymn of the service, "Faith of our Fathers," and noted several facts about the life of its author, Frederick William Faber, who was quite an interesting fellow. He discussed the evolution of faith within the Episcopal Church, which, he said, now sees itself more as a part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, in keeping with the "Faith of our Fathers," rather than as just being another Protestant denomination with its own beliefs. He went on to describe the living faith that Christ imparted unto the Church from himself after his resurrection, when he manifested himself to his disciples in a new Body and was known to them in the breaking of bread. It is this faith and eucharistic action that has been passed on to us and continues, even to this day, until the day when the Lord will return.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Just before the Corpus Christi procession started, the senior warden came up to me, wearing his insignia maroon jacket, and asked me if I would help carry the canopy in the procession. I was very surprised, since I was a stranger to the congregation, to be called upon to perform such a duty, which I considered to be a great honor. During the final part of the procession, as we were walking toward the high altar, we stopped briefly to rest. It was then, when I glanced behind me briefly, that I realized that there was only one gentleman, in the back, carrying both of the poles of the canopy! It was a good feeling of accomplishment to know that despite the lack of people needed to fulfill the necessary roles, stranger and parishioners alike worked together to make sure that the job got done as grandly as grand could be!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During the final hymn I started to feel a little anxious, knowing that I would have to drive through several Paterson neighborhoods before getting out of town. It was now night, and unfortunately I dont drive an armor plated tank. But with the grace of God I made it through the procession, so maybe I could make it through Paterson!
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
As I was leaving, both Father Blumer and his assistant shook my hand, thanked me for coming, and wished my well.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was an after service reception in the undercroft, but I did not attend. I just wanted to jump in my car, lock my doors, drive full speed ahead, and get out of Paterson. If I could make it out alive, then I could live to make it to another service in this church at another time. Maybe again next year?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – Unfortunately there are many theological and disciplinary differences that I have with the Episcopal Church that would prevent me from joining this parish, despite all the things I share in common. However, I think this is a fine church, and there are many opportunities to serve where one can be useful to the parish and to the community.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it most certainly did.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I will remember the plight of this church, its declining membership and its overpowering neighborhood. I hope this church will survive, unlike its namesake, the Church of the Holy Communion in New York City. That church was sold by the Episcopal Diocese of New York and was converted into a night club called the Limelight, which was known as a notorious drug haven before it finally closed. The building now houses an upscale shopping mall. May this parish see many more days and years to come.