Mt Carmel-St Joseph, London (Exterior)

Our Lady of Mount Carmel & St Joseph, Battersea Park, London


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Mystery Worshipper: Kenelm
Church: Our Lady of Mount Carmel & St Joseph
Location: Battersea Park, London
Date of visit: Saturday, 21 January 2012, 12:00pm

The building

A Victorian brown-brick edifice. The church has a main nave plus a side aisle (which I understand was the original church) that now houses the Lady altar. The interior is painted a pale terra cotta colour but is in very bad repair: the plaster is peeling and the heating is not very effective. It's a far cry from the well-maintained and affluent churches across the river in Chelsea.

The church

The parish priest is a member of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus (MCCJ), and the vast majority of the congregation seem to be Filipino and female. There is a branch of the Legion of Mary and group of the El Shaddai charismatic worship movement, of which many of the congregation and choir were members (wearing El Shaddai tracksuit tops and mantillas, an unusual combination). The church holds regular prayer meetings.

The neighborhood

At the east edge of Battersea Park, and a stone's throw from multi-cultural Queenstown Road, the church is located in a cul-de-sac next to the railway lines, the iconic disused Battersea Power Station, and some gas works. It's not a particularly residential area, and I'm guessing that many of the congregation don't live nearby but come as members of the Filipino community in London.

The cast

The parish priest, the Revd Tesfamichael Debesay Negusse, MCCJ, presided and preached at the mass. A band and choir (wearing white suits and navy shirts) of at least a dozen helped lead the worship, and various parishioners read the lessons and acted as ushers and communion ministers. Those with particular tasks wore an appropriate badge.

What was the name of the service?

Mass with Gospel Choir and Music Group.

How full was the building?

The church's website says that the building can accommodate about 200, and it was pretty full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady greeted me with a cheery "Good morning" as she gave me a hymn book, service sheet and newsletter.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was an unremarkable wooden pew with fixed kneeler: perfectly adequate.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A parishioner was leading prayers (I think the Angelus) from the lectern, and many there were joining in with the responses. Others chatted and greeted each other quietly as the prayers continued right until the start of mass.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Can someone please shut the door at the back? Thank you."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Celebration Hymnal for Everyone, printed mass sheet including readings, and a news bulletin.

What musical instruments were played?

A keyboard, at least two guitars, drums, and some tinkling chimes.

Did anything distract you?

One lady walked up and down the aisle during the service carrying fairly large boxes tied up with string through to the sacristy. Also, the congregation gesticulated more than I'm used to: raising their hands with the response "And with your spirit" and all holding hands during the Lord's Prayer. I'm afraid I didn't participate.

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

The music was fairly happy-clappy, although the hymns were all standard post-Vatican II Catholic ones and not modern worship songs. The celebration of mass was entirely proper: dignified but reasonably informal, with the priest assisted by about six robed servers.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

7 – Father Tesfamichael spoke clearly with scant reference to notes and came across as both genuine and human. Given that English is neither his first language nor that of most of the parishioners, I thought he pitched the level just right.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Mark 1:14-20 (Jesus calls his first disciples). In his gospel, Mark is seeking to emphasise the divinity of Christ. The call to the fishermen to "Follow me" represents an invitation and an opportunity rather than an order. How do we respond to that invitation, and what is the difference between a career and a vocation? There are a number of different vocations that Christians experience, and all are equally valuable. We are all called to follow Christ in our daily lives, whatever we do.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

There is much criticism of post-Vatican II church music, but I thought the choir and band really did it justice at this mass. They sang harmonies in tune and set a good upbeat tempo with a slight lilt that made it easy to join in. The singing added greatly to the service as a whole, and it seemed a genuine and spontaneous expression of worship.

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

In general, I find the peace bearable only when people shake hands with those they can reach without moving their feet. Here, that was sadly not the case. The band struck up with "Let there be peace shared among us" and chaos descended while the congregation rushed around shaking hands and (rather curiously) waving at each other, two fingers outstretched in the peace (or victory) position. It wasn't peaceful at all in my view, but then the missal does say to "make a sign of peace according to local custom." Clearly customs are different in Battersea!

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

One or two parishioners said hello to me, and the priest welcomed me to the parish and asked where I had come from.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There didn't seem to be any, as it was lunchtime by the time the service finished.

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

7 – I very much liked the upbeat music and the less formal style, but the tight-knit and established Filipino community was rather impenetrable to the visitor.

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

Yes, especially seeing the enthusiasm and clearly deep faith of the congregation.

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

The frantic waving during the peace that was faintly reminiscent of a pop concert.

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