Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut
Church: San Pedro González Telmo
Location: San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina
Date of visit: Thursday, 7 February 2013, 6:30pm
Originally a Jesuit church, Nuestra Señora de Belen, the church was given to the Order of Our Lady of Bethlehem, more commonly known as the Bethlehemites, after the suppression of the Jesuits in 1773 (restored by Pope Pius VII in 1814). (The Bethlehemites themselves were suppressed in 1820 but restored by Pope John Paul II in 1984.) The church was built in 1746 but the dome was not finished until 1858 and the twin towers in 1876. It has a lot of the colonial baroque about it, but is bright and not overwhelmed by cascading gilt. Two founders of Argentinas independence left their traces here: General Manuel Belgrano, who donated the pulpit, and Governor Juan Manuel de Rosas, who donated the altar. The school across the street was one of the first in the city and was later the first medical school in Argentina; in recent years it has returned to its initial incarnation as an elementary school. The Jesuits nearby retreat house and domestic chapel is now the Argentine Penitentiary Museum.
There are a number of youth programmes there to keep kids occupied after school before their parents return from work.
San Telmo is a gritty Bohemian neighbourhood, home to three small universities, lots of antique shops, and many historic houses gradually being redeemed from crumbling by gentrifying Argentines and foreigners. The church is a few hundred metres from La Defensa, the street so named as its rowdy inhabitants fought British troops advancing in from the harbour in 1807. The locals are still rowdy and they likely could still repel a new British invasion. The sidewalks and the cobbles are probably from that period and havent been repaired since. Around the corner and across the street, one finds oneself on the site of a former interrogation centre from the Dirty War of the mid 20th century.
There was no notice or announcement, and there is no parish website. The presider was in his fifties, and was assisted by a young deacon.
What was the name of the service?Parish Mass
How full was the building?
We could likely squeeze in 300. There were 35 present, of a wide range of ages, and almost as many men as women. People were generally respectably dressed, although perhaps half a dozen had just come in from labouring jobs.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I received curious but not inhospitable looks from parishioners, who could see that I was an outsider. Three or four nodded at me and another parishioner greeted me with a touch on the shoulder as he entered and passed by my pew.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a little narrow, but the pews had been spaced decently from each other, so I was not cramped. I was seated near a statue of St Anthony the Abbot, with his foot planted on the devils head this saint is the patron of a country and western music festival in western Québec so I have always had a sneaking admiration for him.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The church was quiet and cool, far from the vehicular noise and fumes, and the heat of the day (32°C that afternoon).
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no service books; the people followed the service by memory.
What musical instruments were played?
There were no instruments aside from the organ, but we had an a cappella hymn during the communion.
Did anything distract you?
Every few minutes, another worshipper would go over to the statue of San Cayetano (patron saint of job seekers and of good luck) and light a candle there was a veritable stream of them.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was very Buenos Aires, friendly and moving along snappily. Everyone seemed quite relaxed.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – I score him by judging the reaction of parishioners – this was the first of many times when I realized that I couldn't understand a word of Argentine Spanish.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I havent a clue. While I can understand the Castilian of Spain, the local variation (porteño) is twice as fast, full of local turns of phrase, and heavily Italian in its intonation. Assume you had learned English in Scotland, and then been sent to Brooklyn; or had learned French in Touraine and then ended up in the east end of Montreal.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The friendliness of parishioners to a foreigner in their midst.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
My inability to understand a word I could barely follow the Lords Prayer, only recognizing it part way through.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much. I took a picture or two and then left as the lights were being doused. But a day or so later, heading off to my regular café for an after-dinner drink and to watch the incredible parade of characters stroll up and down Calle Estados Unidos, my dashingly tattooed waitress identified me from the church, saying that she had never seen a tourist there before.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after-service coffee, but a few steps away, a plate of the exquisite beef of Argentina awaited me, to be washed down with a decent Mendoza.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – This would be my neighbourhood church if I stayed in Argentina. People were friendly, so I would likely give it a 7 or 8.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
As in many other places in this country, I appreciated the quiet friendliness of parishioners to this stranger among them.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The steady stream of parishioners heading to the statue of San Cayetano. He is a favourite saint of poor people in Buenos Aires on the 7th of every month, petitioners ask for his intercession por pan y trabajo (for bread and work), but you must never ask for yourself, only for another. The waitress who had recognised me told me that everyone knew of somebody who needed work and that they kept the saint busy she hoped he belonged to a union!