Cross Island Chapel, Oneida, New York, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Cross Island Chapel
Location: Oneida, New York, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 3 September 2005, 4:00pm

The building

Erected in 1989 by husband and wife Chandler and Kay Mason, who own the pond in which it sits, the chapel is a tiny white box that stands on wooden pilings and is reachable only by rowboat. With a floor area of 51"x81" (28.68 square feet), it is said to be the world’s smallest church. Inside there are four chairs and a pulpit, but no altar. Two small stained glass windows each depict the Holy Spirit. Nearby, a large wooden cross stands amid a pile of rocks.

The church

The chapel has no regular congregation, worship schedule or staff other than Mrs Mason (Mr Mason has since departed for that chapel in the Great Beyond), but is open free of charge to anyone wishing to hold a religious service there. It is a popular venue for weddings – large enough to accommodate only the minister, bride and groom, with guests witnessing the ceremony from rowboats.

The neighborhood

Oneida is a small city that sits near the geographic center of New York State amid lush green farmland and rolling hills. It was named after the Native Americans who originally occupied the region. The city has a small-town air about it, with tree-lined streets featuring stately old Victorian residences, blighted, alas, by the likes of Walmart, Rite-Aid and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Oneida was the site of a religious and social commune founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes known as the Oneida Community. Its members held that Christ had destroyed sin and thus true believers were sinless. Many of their ideas seemed controversial – notions such as equality of the sexes, complex marriage (all men and women were married to one another), male continence (a form of birth control whereby men did not ejaculate during intercourse), stirpiculture (selective breeding of only the healthiest individuals), and others. The Oneida Community counted 306 members at its zenith, but by 1881 quarrels from within and hostility from without led to its conversion to a joint stock company. The resulting entity, Oneida Limited, achieved distinction as a manufacturer of silverware, china, glassware and other kitchen items.

The cast

Shipmate Ultraspike led the service. Shipmates jlg and myself were in attendance and gave some of the readings.

What was the name of the service?

High Evensong.

How full was the building?

Completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. Mrs Mason had a prior commitment that day, but had told us that the chapel was unlocked and that we’d find a rowboat at the shore for our use. We rowed the short distance unheralded. Several passers-by stopped their cars and got out to look at what we were doing. If they were expecting us to row back to shore to ferry them out to the chapel, I’m afraid we disappointed them.

Was your pew comfortable?

The chairs were the right size for schoolchildren, but we managed to makes ourselves comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The short boat ride was an uneventful crossing. We were all feeling pretty festive due to the unusual nature of the occasion. Once we arrived at the chapel, we bustled about preparing for the service.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Yours is the day, O God, yours also the night; you established the moon and the sun."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Specially prepared booklet containing the order of service, hymns, psalms, readings and prayers. The last page of the booklet consisted only of the Mystery Worshipper calling card.

What musical instruments were played?

None. We sang the hymns, psalms, Phos hilaron, Magnificat, Nunc dimittis and Lord’s Prayer a cappella.

Did anything distract you?

The pond was covered with algae that gave it the appearance of thick pea soup. Also, I kept hitting my head on the door sill as I went in and out of the chapel during our preparations. A hornet took an interest in the seat cushions of our rowboat; we were hoping its curiosity wouldn’t extend to what we were doing inside.

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

The service was based on Evening Prayer Rite II from the 1979 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church. We set up a makeshift altar on which we placed two candles, a crucifix and a thurible full of incense (although we didn’t actually cense anything, since no priest was present). It being the feast of St Pius X in the Roman calendar, a collect for the day from the Liber Usualis was read. A collect commemorating St Phoebe was also read, as well as a prayer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

7 — It wasn't a sermon as such; rather, we discussed the day’s readings amongst ourselves.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The story of Rehoboam in 1 Kings teaches that when good men heed bad counsel, disastrous results can occur. But James in the New Testament shows us that patience and perseverance can reverse even the most terrible of mistakes. And who was more patient or persevering than Christ himself, who suffered and died so that the disaster of original sin could be wiped out. The victims of Hurricane Katrina are now enduring incredible suffering, but our prayer is that God will reward their patience also.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The entire experience was heavenly. It was a perfect way to spend a warm, clear late summer afternoon in the countryside. We spotted quite a bit of wildlife on the pond, including several mallard ducks and a heron. Toward the end of the service, the angle of the sun shining through one of the stained glass windows cast an image on the wall that looked something like an apparition – Mother Teresa came to mind.

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

Nothing at the service itself. But the hotel clerk couldn’t quite master the notion that I had reserved three rooms under my name: one for Ultraspike, another for jlg and a third for myself. We couldn’t help but wonder how he would have handled the Transfiguration ("You want how many tents?").

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

We left one of our service booklets behind for Mrs Mason to find, calling card and all. Then we snuffed our candles, dowsed our incense, and rowed round the pond in a grand circuit of sorts. We were able to get fairly close to the heron before we spooked him off. We thought we spotted an alligator, but it turned out to be a partially submerged log.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We retired to a nearby restaurant, Charlotte’s Creekside Inn, where we treated ourselves to a delicious dinner with plenty of good wine. After dinner we returned to the pond to see the chapel illuminated by spotlights in the dark of night.

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

6 — No possibility of that happening due to the nature of the place. But we all felt this was something we’d like to do again.

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

Yes. After all, when two or three (for that’s all we were) are gathered together in Jesus’ name, Jesus himself is there.

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

The awesome calm beauty of the afternoon and of the entire event.

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