Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut
Church: San Ignacio
Location: Montserrat, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Date of visit: Wednesday, 20 February 2013, 7:00pm
This is one of the oldest churches in Argentina, first built in adobe by the Jesuits in 1675. The current building dates from 1686 and was the first brick building in the city. The Jesuits retook possession of the place in 1836 after the orders re-establishment and have been turfed out of it at least once since. In any case, theyre back. It is one of the great historical churches of the country, where a mass of thanksgiving was said for the reconquest of the city from the British in 1806, and where the University of Buenos Aires was inaugurated. It also served for a while as the cathedral. It has two great square towers in the front and its whitewashed exterior dominates the street. The blue and gold high altar features Our Lady of Montserrat sitting in front of the jagged mountain in Catalonia.
It has the character of a university church, serving its college to the south and the four small universities in the neighbourhood (Buenos Aires has almost 50 universities). Apparently a centre for charismatics, it maintains a ministry to the deaf, as well as to latchkey children.
San Ignacio is on the western end of the Montserrat district, and it is the less prosperous end, with offices and apartments from 70 years ago. Its restaurants cater to a poorer clientele. It is in the Manzana de las Luces zone, the centre of intellectual ferment during the enlightenment of Carlos III and the independence era. Argentines continue to be proud of this period: I was twice propelled by acquaintances into an extraordinary bookstore across the street, which was the powerhouse of writing, history, science, and poetry for a century. Students artfully drape themselves over benches and steps outside the church with the languid insouciance and coiled energy of the young folk of Buenos Aires.
As well as the officiating priest (the rector, Padre Francisco Baigorria?), there was a deacon, as well as another priest in mufti, and two women lectors.
What was the name of the service?Mass
How full was the building?
It could seat about 400; I counted 48 women and 35 men.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Welcomers are not part of church culture here, but as I made my way to my pew, two students stopped me, one to shake my hand and the other to hug me and kiss me on the cheek (a universal practice here, even among police constables greeting each other) and ask me where I was from. One of the mufti priests stopped by my pew and said hello with a more restrained handshake and shoulder-pat. I got nods of greeting from other parishioners as they came in.
Was your pew comfortable?
Worshippers at Jesuit churches seem to benefit from comfortable pews, although the kneelers looked rather spartan.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The warm weather had broken with a downpour, turning the insubstantially-dressed porteos into very drenched folk. One worshipper provided another one with a light sweater so that she did not look as much like a refugee from a wet t-shirt contest.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The usual invocation of the Holy Trinity.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were some parish leaflets with the weeks propers and notices, and New Testaments about, but no missals. Everyone seems to know it by heart here.
What musical instruments were played?
There was an a cappella hymn as the gospel book was brought into our midst for the reading by one of the women lectors.
Did anything distract you?
Three young women students sitting in front of me, whose liveliness made me feel my years.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
San Ignacio is apparently the centre for the charismatic movement here; about a dozen worshippers had their hands in the orans position during the consecration prayers.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I score him thus as he cast his voice well, not using the microphone, and with a modulated tone. Everyone seemed to pay close attention to what he was saying.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Given that he spoke well, I was able to catch stray words and phrases, but not enough to report on this.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Trying to figure out the protocol for the collection, as the (women) ushers went up and down and around the pews with their little collection sacks.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was only moderately dampened by the downpour, but it was a bit chilly. Given that the day had been in the high 20s C. and quite humid, I should not complain.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The young couple who had greeted me previously came up to me again and we spoke in a mixture of English and Castilian. They were both students and were to be married in May. Like many other students in this troubled country, they soon asked me about the availability of work in Canada ("Is it true that there are jobs for young people who want to work?"). This conversation was interrupted for a minute as they gave some coins to a mendicant parishioner doing the rounds of those left in the church.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
At 8.30, the restaurants were opening for dinner, so I headed to an outdoor caf near the legendary statue of Mafalda for the justly legendary beef of Argentina.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – For its friendliness. I can see that this would be a good place to meet people and so perhaps I would have been sensible to have gone there more frequently.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The intensity of Buenos Aires somehow is reflected in ones perceptions of everything about one, including church services.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How, for two students worried about their future, their first reaction was to help someone poorer than they were.