Santa Catalina, Tucson, Arizona, USA

Santa Catalina, Tucson, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Santa Catalina
Location: Tucson, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 November 2008, 9:00am

The building

A modern Southwestern Spanish style building on attractive grounds nestled in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The inside is rectangular, wider than it is deep. In the back is a very nice baptismal pool with a fountain featuring the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well. On the right and left walls are what look like oversized fireplaces, with stained glass where you would expect the hearth to be. Most unusual for a Catholic church, there are no statues, votive candles or stations of the cross. The altar and sanctuary furnishings sit on a raised platform backed by floor-to-ceiling windows that afford a spectacular view of the mountains. There were two lit candles on either side of the pulpit, but neither candles nor a crucifix on the altar.

The church

They conduct religious education for elementary and junior high school children on Wednesday afternoon and evening, and for senior high school students on Sunday evening. They sponsor chapters of the Knights of Columbus and the St Vincent de Paul Society, as well as Guadalupanas, a bilingual society devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are three traditional masses in English each Sunday morning, plus a mass in Spanish. A youth mass is celebrated each Sunday evening.

The neighborhood

The bulletin lists Tucson as the church's address, but it is actually located well north of the city, in the town of Catalina. Catalina is one of those places where, if you blink while driving through, you've missed it. There are a few restaurants, a car dealership, a barber shop, a real estate office, and the post office, but that's about it. The church sits on the outskirts of town, literally out in the middle of nowhere.

The cast

The Revd Jimmy Pham, who I gather was sort of loosely assigned to the parish – he is not listed among the staff but was well known to the parishioners. This was Father Pham's last mass at Santa Catalina, as he announced that he had been given an assignment in Minnesota.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

I counted about 500 chairs, and they were all occupied. The congregation were predominantly senior citizens, with a smattering of young couples, some with small children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. Two gentlemen were sitting at a table outside the main entrance selling newspapers and what looked to be raffle tickets, but they said nothing as I passed.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. There were individual metal-frame chairs with upholstered seats and backs, and a pocket in the back to hold the missal. Again, unusual for a Catholic church, there were no kneelers; we stood for the eucharistic prayer.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

On a table inside the door there was a large bowl full of communion wafers, a pair of tongs, and a smaller glass bowl. People used the tongs to transfer a host from the large bowl to the smaller one. Inside, everyone stood about in groups loudly visiting with each other. The musicians rehearsed a bit. Everyone took their seats as mass time approached, but there was still lots of loud talking, as before a concert or theatrical performance.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Welcome to our eucharistic celebration."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A paperback missal/hymnal combination entitled Breaking Bread 2008.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano, electric organ, acoustic guitar, bass guitar, flute and drums. There were also three or four singers.

Did anything distract you?

Just before mass began, I felt something wet on my arm. I turned to see a gentleman entering with a service dog of some sort – it may have been a hearing dog, as the gentleman did not appear to be blind. The dog took delight in nuzzling its nose up against everyone sitting on the aisle.

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

A standard novus ordo mass. The entrance procession consisted of a crucifer and two lectors in street clothes, and the celebrant in a long, amply flowing white chasuble with the Chi-rho embroidered in gold on the front. The two lectors gave the Old and New Testament readings, and a member of the choir came up to the lectern to lead the psalm. At the offertory, the lectors took the two pulpit candles and went to the back of the church, from where they led the procession of gifts (a large glass pitcher of wine, the glass bowl of hosts, and a basket of monetary offerings from the collection). They then placed the candles in holders on either side of the altar. The celebrant's chalice was made of glass. At the consecration, the celebrant elevated the priest's host in his right hand and the glass bowl of hosts in his left, but he only elevated the chalice, leaving the glass pitcher of wine on the altar. There were no bells. As is usual in Catholic churches, everyone held hands for the Lord's Prayer, even reaching across the aisle. The exchange of peace consisted of warm, heartfelt handshakes – no kissing, embracing or visiting. We received communion under both species, with several eucharistic ministers coming forward to pour wine from the large pitcher into a series of glass chalices identical to the celebrant's.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

7 – Father Pham spoke with an Asian accent and was a little hard to understand, and I'm not sure he connected up his points all that well. But his style was friendly and enthusiastic, and he appears to be well loved by the parishioners. He concluded his homily by telling everyone how much he will miss the parish and how he regarded everyone as a good friend – this to much "aawing" and "oohing" and finally applause.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by reading the catechism definition of purgatory. Purgatory is the state by which we receive holiness to enter the joy of heaven. It is good to pray for the souls in purgatory, and to offer masses for them. He said that he has visited hundreds of sick people in hospitals and has anointed them – but they all died. (For some reason the congregation found this funny.) But Pope Benedict has said that we should think of the mystery of death without fear. We believe in Christ, and so we are going to go to heaven.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

For the most part I did not enjoy the music (see below). However, at communion, the organist suddenly began to play that old Victorian seat-wetter "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling." She played with all the flair and virtuosity of a theater organist accompanying a silent film, but even so, a palpable hush fell over the congregation, and if there was an audible sob I'm afraid it was old Miss Amanda's emotions getting the better of her. A theatrical rendition such as this is just what that old hymn needed. The late great flamboyant concert organist Virgil Fox himself would have wept!

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

But as for the rest of the music – it consisted of those vapid, tuneless, emotionless ditties that pass for hymnody in far too many Catholic churches. The offertory hymn was a liberal English rendering of the In Paradisum from the Requiem mass, but it sounded like everyone sitting 'round the fire at bedtime in their jammies at summer camp. The recessional was "I am the bread of life," which is actually one of my favorite hymns and, when done well, moves forward with a throbbing, urgent motion. But here it sounded like one of the jingles we sang in kindergarten that taught us to look both ways before crossing the street. And at several points throughout the mass, the soprano soloist and the flautist appeared to vie with each other over who could produce the most flamboyant descant. The soprano lost at the Great Amen, as she hit a high note that was decidedly several pitches under what she was aiming for.

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

Father thanked the musicians (for what? I wondered) and everyone applauded. To their credit, though, the congregation stayed in their places until the final note of "I am the bread of life" had died out – due, I am sure, to the fact that the procession remained at the altar until the hymn was done. But then everyone left, and nobody appeared to notice Miss Amanda standing at the back of the church looking decidedly lost. I took several photos of the baptismal pool, and a woman told me that it had been crafted by a local artisan. She also asked me what I thought of the view of the mountains through the windows behind the altar – I replied that they probably look better in late afternoon when the sun has come around.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

4 – It seemed like a lively and caring congregation – certainly friendly amongst themselves, which again is rare in a Catholic church in my experience. But personally I would look for more adherence to tradition, especially in the music.

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


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

"Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling" and the lovely baptismal pool.

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