Corpus Christi, Morningside Heights, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Corpus Christi
Location: Morningside Heights, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 12 November 2011, 11:15am

The building

A rather plain brick Georgian Revival, not unlike dozens of banks or post offices built in the 1930s, both compact and multipurpose. It houses a chapel, convent and elementary school. The nondescript, unremarkable exterior belies quite an extraordinary chapel. Evoking the 18th century without becoming a pastiche, it features black and white marble floors, crystal chandeliers, white painted woodwork, and an elaborate reredos with an oversized structure on the ceiling suggestive of a baldacchino. There are a couple of strange architectural quirks, which I imagine are work-arounds for the tight quarters. The choir is a small, separate room to the right of the central altar, and the pulpit is accessed through this room up a flight of stairs with a door opening out to the congregation.

The church

While working on a master's thesis on William Blake at Columbia University, the noted writer and mystic Thomas Merton began attending Corpus Christi, where he was baptized November 16, 1938. Corpus Christi hosts a chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society, and many, influenced by his teachings, come here to be baptized. To accommodate the many Spanish-speaking congregants, they have masses in Spanish every day and on Sunday, as well as prayer groups, social organizations and book clubs. For the English speakers there is a centering prayer group, the Legion of Mary, and various classes. There is also a school operated by the Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa.

The neighborhood

This is Morningside Heights, the highest point on Manhattan Island, and the scene of much fighting during the Revolutionary War. Largely farmland until the end of the 19th century, the area was developed in the early 20th to serve as the city's Acropolis: it is home to St Luke's Hospital, the Cathedral of St John the Divine, and a large number of educational institutions, e.g. Columbia University, Barnard College, Bank Street College of Education, Union Theological Seminary, St Hilda's & St Hugh's School, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the Manhattan School of Music, to name only a few. No wonder the area is sometimes called College Town! Morningside Heights was particularly hard hit by urban decline in the postwar years, but Columbia University has steadily been buying up property and is now the largest landowner in the neighborhood, not without some controversy. Yet, despite gentrification, the area remains an odd mix of college students and faculty and the working-class, many of whom are Spanish speakers.

The cast

The Revd Raymond M. Rafferty, pastor. There were four acolytes – two boys and two girls, and two readers, all unnamed.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass (Commemoration of 73rd Anniversary of the Baptism of Thomas Merton)

How full was the building?

About 80. It was a veritable sea of gray hair, tweed, and twin sets.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The person handing out service bulletins and Liber Cantualis said a perfunctory hello.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews are a bit unusual, as the backs and sides are very high, giving the illusion of 18th century box pews, but they were very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Pretty busy – there was lots of quiet catching up going on.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The introit of the day, in Latin: Dicit Dominus: Ego cogito cogitationes pacis, et non afflictionis (Thus says the Lord: I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Liber Cantualis, published by the monks of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes in France, and long the standard for parishes wishing to incorporate Latin chant into their liturgical celebrations; The Catholic Hymnal 1966; and a one-page order of the service. Seasonal Missalette and Flor y Canto (A Spanish hymnal) were in the pews but weren't used.

What musical instruments were played?

A very nice sounding Holtkamp organ, opus 1692, the first Holtkamp installed in Manhattan. There was also a professional choir of eight singers. The Kyrie and Agnus Dei were from Byrd's Mass for Five Voices and sung by the choir. The introit, Gloria, responsorial psalm, creed, Sanctus and communion antiphon were chanted in Latin.

Did anything distract you?

The interior is so unusual it was hard not to get distracted trying to spot the next bit of "ye olde". There were dedications and graphic elements painted on the windows in 18th century script. The paten and chalice were pewter and looked vintage colonial Williamsburg.

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

My friend, a cradle Catholic, turned to me at one point and whispered, "Are they Presbyterian?" And while they weren't quite the "frozen chosen," there was a decided Protestant chill, as it was definitely more like attending an Anglo-Catholic service than a Roman one. They even did Purcell's Funeral Sentences for Queen Mary as one of the anthems. It was definitely a liturgical hybrid, with the only nod to the novus ordo being the priest facing the congregation. There was incense, the gospel was censed on the pulpit, and there was a sanctus bell. The Lord's Prayer was chanted and many in the congregation used the orans posture, a charismatic touch that seemed unconnected to the rest of the liturgy. Communion was in both kinds, also unusual in Catholic churches in New York City.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

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

8 – Father Rafferty is a quite engaging, speaking with energy and conviction. Given the length of his sermon, I was definitely left wanting a bit more.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He was unpacking the day's lesson, Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents, and relating that to the life of Thomas Merton. He argued that Merton was one of the lucky few to receive five talents, risking much at his baptism, becoming a Catholic when it wasn't necessarily the thing to do, yet he worked hard to multiply his gifts, often in the face of extraordinary rejection.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Purcell Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of our Heart is always pretty moving to me, and it was sung very well.

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

There were a couple of folks who were jumping the gun and using the responses from the new Roman Missal, while everyone else was using the old ones. There was one gentleman who was particularly aggressive (loud!) about it. It also took a minute for it register exactly what was what. My first thought was that they were using the Rite 1 responses in the Book of Common Prayer. Also, there was a notice in the bulletin calling on the congregation to write to the community board to block renaming West 121st Street in honor of the outspoken stand-up comedian George Carlin because of his "anti-religious rants, advocacy of substance abuse, and other misanthropic tirades." Carlin apparently grew up on the block and attended the church and parish school, and credited the school for giving him the tools to reject his faith.

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

Nothing. Nada. Not a thing. I read on their website that there was a coffee hour after mass, but no mention was made in the service bulletin or during the announcements, so I had no idea where that would be. Nobody approached us, so we left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

My friend and I both had a craving for a gin and tonic (go figure), which we satisfied elsewhere.

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

5 – It really is a lovely church and lovingly cared for, but somehow its just not very me.

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

Yes. I always marvel at the wide variety of liturgies that make up the mosaic of worship.

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

The arrangement of the pulpit, accessed via a door from the side room. Father Rafferty popping out of the door into the pulpit just seemed so theatrical!

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