Holy Family, Jerome, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Holy Family, Jerome
Location: Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 20 April 2024, 8:30am

The building

Dating from 1900, Holy Family is a boxy brick structure featuring a symmetrical façade with a tower over the entrance and pointed-arch windows on either side. The interior is also boxy, with white plaster walls and ceiling, both showing some chips. Windows are of plain glass. The eastward-facing high altar is backed by a reredos depicting the Holy Family and is flanked by two side altars: the left dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the right to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The pulpit bears an icon of St Jerome. As the town of Jerome’s fortunes declined (see below), the church fell into disrepair. When the last pastor died in 1979 he was not replaced and the parish was dissolved, although the building was never deconsecrated. Parishioners soon discovered that the pastor had stashed away a considerable cache of money, which they used to clean, repair and repaint the interior – not with complete success, however. Even though the building has been declared structurally unsound, it remains open. It is one of only two churches that still exist in Jerome, the other being a Methodist church.

The church

Holy Family Church played a major role in the colorful history of this old mining town, being one of several churches that attempted to instill the fear of God in the rough-and-tumble men who worked the copper mines. Even though Holy Family is no longer an active parish, the church is open daily to tourists, and a visiting priest celebrates mass on the third Saturday of each month. The church also is the venue for the occasional wedding or funeral of town noteworthies. A lit sanctuary lamp stood above the altar, so I assume the Blessed Sacrament is reserved there.

The neighborhood

Jerome sits in almost the exact geographic center of Arizona. Large deposits of copper ore were discovered hereabouts in 1876. The town prospered along with the copper mines, and the population grew to about 10,000 – almost 78 per cent male! Alcohol, gambling and prostitution were so rampant that Jerome earned for itself the epithet ‘the wickedest town in the West.’ But as the mines became depleted, Jerome’s fortunes declined. The mining operations had resulted in extensive soil subsidence that caused many buildings to weaken or collapse – the town jail actually slid 200 feet downhill to its present resting place! By the time the last mine closed in 1953, Jerome’s population had dwindled to about 100. But those 100 were not about to let their town die – they rebuilt and restored what they could, and turned to tourism to regrow the economy. Today, visitors will find an assortment of craft shops, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and the like. The town is built into a series of precipitous hills, and many of its attractions are reached only via long, steep stairways. Not a place for the feeble of body. The Grand Hotel, originally a hospital, is said to be haunted by the ghosts of children running up and down the halls, a nurse who goes from room to room checking on her patients, and a cat that rubs against guests’ legs and leaves paw prints on their pillows.

The cast

A visiting priest from the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the nearby town of Cottonwood, vested in a lace alb and white Gothic chasuble. He was assisted by an elderly acolyte in cassock, surplice, and (oh, the horror) sneakers, and a lay reader in street clothes.

What was the name of the service?

Mass. I was wondering if, so early in the morning, it would be the Sunday mass vigil, but it was instead the ferial mass for the day. I was also wondering if, being that there was only an eastward-facing altar and no versus populum communion table, we would be treated to a Latin Tridentine mass, but again no.

How full was the building?

The church can hold about 150. There were 10 people present – mostly women, including three nuns. I couldn’t tell from their habits what order they belonged to – I wanted to ask them, but they were deep in prayer before mass and deep in post-mass devotions afterwards and I dared not disturb them.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. When I arrived, I was not sure the church was open yet, so I waited in my car. At length the elderly acolyte drove up, and when I saw him enter I followed. He nodded but did not say anything. When the priest entered, he likewise nodded. None of the other members of the congregation acknowledged my presence in any way, although it was clear that some of them knew one another, judging from their greetings.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a plain uncushioned wooden pew. I wouldn’t call it comfortable, but it wasn’t bad. The kneelers were clad in leather – it looked as though they had recently been redone.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The priest and acolyte greeted each other and then retired to a small room at the back of the church. It might have been a confessional – oops, ‘reconciliation room’ is what they call it now, I think. Another elderly gent – the sexton? – removed two vases of flowers from the altar and then returned with two new vases of fresh flowers. The acolyte, freshly shriven, vested and puttered about setting up the altar, using the Sacred Heart of Jesus side altar as a credence table. He lit the candles. The priest glanced around, gave a nod of approbation, and then retired to the sacristy to vest. The congregation tricked in silently save for subdued greetings among those who knew each other. The nuns did their pre-mass devotions in silence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Please stand,’ whereupon priest and acolyte processed up the aisle, the acolyte bearing a processional cross.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

None at all.

What musical instruments were played?

None. There was no singing. The organ, an opus of Kilgen & Sons Pipe Organ Company of St Louis, Missouri, is one of only three of that model that still survive. Time has rendered it unplayable, although I understand restoration has been underway – with what progress if any I don’t know.

Did anything distract you?

The elderly acolyte looked almost exactly like an old school chum with whom I keep in touch – well, as my old school chum looks now. None of us look like we did back in our school days.

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

A standard mass, eastward facing – nothing out of the ordinary to report. Well, nothing, that is, except the acolyte rang the bell at the Hanc igitur as well as at the elevation – something you never see anymore – and we received communion on the tongue, with the acolyte holding a paten under our chins – something else you never see anymore. At the conclusion of mass we recited the Leonine Prayer to St Michael the Archangel, which I always like to do. Lord knows there are enough evil spirits prowling about the world these days seeking the destruction of souls.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

3 minutes (yes!).

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

7 — The priest delivered a good message even though he read it from a printed sheet, which to me is not the same as preaching.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus offered up his life for us – something that many people cannot comprehend. But those of us who do believe are open to the Holy Spirit. We truly love God. To love is to obey and believe in the beloved.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was heavenly to be hearing mass in this historic old church.

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

But I think they missed an opportunity to be hospitable to visitors. Surely the regulars could spot an outsider. No ‘Hello, welcome, where have you come from?’ No ‘Thank you for coming, and won’t you please give a small donation – or, better, still, buy a donut – to help us maintain and restore this wonderful building?’ No nothing. Perhaps they’d rather not have outsiders there at all.

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

Everyone left as silently as they had entered – except for the nuns, who knelt in post-mass devotions. I went into the sacristy and chatted briefly with the priest and acolyte. I complimented the acolyte on his ringing the bell at the Hanc igitur, and the priest said it was standard practice in the diocese and, he thought, the standard universal practice – which liturgically-savvy Catholics know not to be the case. In my post-mass afterglow I forgot to leave the Mystery Worship calling card – there had been no collection.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none. I couldn’t find a parking spot near the Jerome breakfast nook where I had hoped to stop for breakfast, so I drove back to Phoenix (about a two hour drive) and stopped in one of my favorite neighborhood places for a late breakfast of eggs and corned beef hash.

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

1 — As mentioned, this is not an active parish. Mass is celebrated only once each month. I doubt if I would be invited to the wedding of anyone making the church their nuptial venue. I don’t know anyone at all in Jerome, so I would not be inclined to accompany them to the grave when they shake off this mortal coil. I have ‘done’ Jerome now, and I don’t imagine I’ll be back to ‘do’ it again. Those hills and sharp stairways are not for someone of my age anyway.

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


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

Being in this historic church.

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