Chapel of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA

Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel
Location: Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 October 2009, 12:00am

The building

The chapel was built in 1953 and is a domed octagonal stone building crowning a prominent knoll on the Marist College campus. The inside is of light oak, with the altar sitting in the center, surrounded by pews. The original windows featured large photographic images of moments in the life of the Blessed Virgin, as portrayed by a young professional model. When the windows were installed, there was some controversy over whether they would prove to be more than just a slight distraction to the celibate religious who were resident at the college. But the windows have faded over the years and have been replaced by abstract stained glass. The sanctuary floor was decorated with a harvest display (pumpkins, apples, and an assortment of fall foliage).

The church

Marist College was founded in 1905 as St Ann's Hermitage by the Marist Brothers, a religious community of teachers established in France in 1816. For the next 40 years it served as the novitiate and training school for the Brothers. The Hermitage changed its name to Marian College in 1946 and was granted a college charter by New York State. An ambitious building program ensued, conducted entirely by the Brothers themselves. In 1960 the college became Marist College and began to admit laymen to its academic programs. Women were first admitted in 1968. One of Marist's first female students was murdered outside the dining hall; her ghost is said to haunt the place to this day. In 1969 the Catholic Church relinquished ownership of the college to a private corporation. However, the Brothers still maintain a major presence on campus, and the school's Catholic heritage remains strong. Marist College has continued to expand over the years, and campuses exist today in about a half dozen cities in New York State as well as overseas.

The neighborhood

Poughkeepsie's name derives from an Algonquin Indian word meaning "the reed covered lodge by the watering place." Founded in 1687, the city sits on the east bank of the Hudson River about 75 miles north of New York City. It is rich in historic sites from pre-colonial and colonial times, including several well-preserved examples of Dutch colonial architecture. Marist College is located on the north side of the city, and the campus affords some splendid views of the highly scenic Hudson River valley.

The cast

The Revd Richard La Morte, chaplain, was celebrant. He was assisted by the Revd Mr George Mills, Class of 1959, deacon. There were no servers. Father La Morte wore a forest green chasuble with stole outside; Deacon Mills wore an emerald green dalmatic with stole inside (he had brought his own vestments along with him).

What was the name of the service?

Alumni Mass. Marist College is my alma mater, and I was attending a special homecoming and reunion weekend at the college.

How full was the building?

The chapel holds about 250 and was three-quarters full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

My father and I were the first to arrive. A security guard let us know that the chapel was open and that we could go in. Father La Morte was busy setting up for mass, and he recognized my father (who was a member of the parish where Father La Morte had been pastor) and came over to shake hands. He didn't recognize me until I told him who I was, but it's been over 40 years since he last saw me. We chatted briefly. A gentleman came over, shook our hands, and gave us each a service pamphlet.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People visited among themselves.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Welcome to our Sunday gathering of the Catholic community at Marist."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A pamphlet especially prepared for the occasion, containing the readings for the day, the text of the songs, and the names of deceased Marist faculty and alumni. In the pews were the New St Joseph Sunday Missal and the Breaking Bread hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?

Digital piano, played by a woman whose name was not given. There was a small vocal group of three students. A large digital organ console remained shuttered and silent.

Did anything distract you?

Being back on campus distracted me. Although the college has grown considerably since my day, I took comfort in visiting the old buildings I remembered. Here is the lecture hall where Dr Hooper, our biology professor, had rambled on so fondly about the DNA of Drosophila melanogaster, otherwise known as the fruit fly, opining that the sex act was "an exciting moment in the life of a fruit fly." Here is the classroom I was in when someone brought the news that President Kennedy had been shot. The chaplain in those days was a Dominican priest, Father James Driscoll, and the mass was still in Latin (the Dominican rite, don't you know). Father La Morte was newly ordained, fresh out of seminary, and had been assigned as junior curate to a local parish church. Here is the grotto where Father Driscoll conducted outdoor Benediction during the annual student retreat. We were all so young and good-looking back then (Father La Morte included), and here we are now, so wrinkled and sagging (again, Father La Morte included, but Miss Amanda no exception either!).

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

While chatting with Father La Morte, I had asked him to give us a good mass, and that's what he gave us. The Gloria and psalm were recited, but the Sanctus and Agnus Dei were sung. There was no chalice veil or burse - the elements for consecration were set out on a credenza and covered with a corporal as large as a tablecloth. At offertory time the deacon spread the corporal on the altar and placed the chalice and ciborium on it. Father La Morte did not elevate the sacred elements at the consecration, and there were no bells. He took some liberties with the mass text, including the words of institution ("When you do this, remember me"). No one held hands during the Lord's Prayer, nor did anyone affect the orans position (Hallelujah - praise God for small favors!). We received under both species, with all partaking of the Precious Blood from the one altar chalice. The music was what I call "singing nun" stuff, but we sang all the verses of each song, and at the end no one left until the last verse of the concluding song was done.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

10 – Father La Morte spoke very expressively and walked back and forth in front of the altar as he spoke, turning so as to include everyone regardless of where they were sitting. I really liked his sermon a lot - he took a homely image and connected it up to our spiritual journey.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father spoke on the gospel reading, Mark 10:17-30 (to gain eternal life we must forsake material possessions). He described how preoccupied he had been with a camera he had once owned, and how he worried that it might be stolen or damaged by, say, sand at the beach. He loved taking pictures but could never understand why folks are so easily bored by having to look at other peoples' photos. We can be so caught up by everyday things that we lose sight of what is truly of value. Our photos mean something to us because they call to mind our memories that we have captured. True wisdom consists of being able to separate experiencing things from the things themselves. The rich man in the gospel passage could not understand that. But isn't that why we alumni have returned to Marist this weekend? - because of our memories of college, not the college itself? We don't worship Jesus because he was a carpenter.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I had hoped that the chapel would "put on a better show" for the returning alumni. After all, Father Driscoll would put on the occasional solemn mass (in the Dominican rite, no less), getting out the gold vestments, for special occasions. It was heavenly, though, to see that we were being invited to be a part of the ordinary Sunday mass at which the students worship every week. We were welcomed into their community so that we might all share our love of God with each other. And it was heavenly to be back on campus after all those years. I felt almost as though I were still a student. I am convinced that heaven is the perpetual reliving of the moments in life that gave us the greatest pleasure.

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

Even so, I was disappointed in the music. Marist is blessed with a strong music curriculum, including several choirs, and it saddened me to see that not one of those choirs saw fit to offer their services at mass. Indeed, at the previous night's alumni dinner, we were treated to several numbers by a choral group that might have sung very well at mass. Today's singers were not of choir caliber - the young man who stood closest to the microphone would be well advised to let someone else stand there! And although the piano sounded good, the organ might have sounded better (well, maybe not to accompany "singing nun" ditties).

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

After the last song, everyone left. We shook Father La Morte's and Deacon Mills's hands.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

A reception was held in the college library, which adjoins the chapel. Coffee was dispensed into styrofoam cups from large urns; it was hot and tasty. There were several kinds of cheese and crackers, as well as cookies and cut-up fruit.

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

5 – When I was at Marist, some students attended church at neighborhood parishes rather than at chapel. If I were still there, I'm not sure what my preference would be. There is a high independent Anglo-Catholic church in Poughkeepsie, the Church of the Holy Comforter, and there are several good Episcopal churches as well. I would probably seek one of them out.

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 back at my old alma mater.

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