Built in 1937, this brick cruciform church has a few Art Moderne touches, probably the most striking of which is the use of elliptical arches on the exterior front. Viewed from the side, the church has a ship-like appearance, as the long horizontal roof is broken only by a small hip and a wee spire that looks more like a ship's mast or flagpole. The arch motif continues into the interior with a series of seven ovoid arches that frame the nave. Behind the altar is a large stone reredos that suggests the grotto at Lourdes, France. Outside on the grounds is another representation of the Lourdes grotto, about two-thirds actual size, with a statue of St Bernadette that is dwarfed by hydrangea shrubs.
Their website summarizes the Blessed Virgin's appearances at Lourdes in the mid 19th century to the peasant girl Bernadette and how, when Bernadette asked "the beautiful lady dressed in blue and white" who she was, she replied (in impeccable peasant French dialect): "I am the Immaculate Conception." The church's website also states that the parish is "a faith-filled community under the guidance of our Blessed Mother" whose mission is to "pass on our Catholic heritage to future generations by following Christ's example." They sponsor an Altar Rosary Society and a chapter of the Holy Name Society. St Bernadette's school is staffed by the Sisters of St Lucy Filippini. There are four masses each Sunday, three on Saturday, and two masses Monday through Friday.
St Bernadette's is located in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. Originally developed as a wealthy WASP enclave, Bensonhurst was considered by The New York Times in 1906 to be the "handsomest suburb in Greater New York." By the Depression, however, the area had largely become a haven for Italian immigrants, and has often been referred to as Brooklyn's "Little Italy." It is said to have had, by the 1970s, the world's largest population of Italians outside of Italy. Many of the area's better known residents made names for themselves in the world of organized crime: Carmine "the Snake" Perisco, Joseph "the Olive Oil King" Profaci, "Crazy" Joe Gallo, Alphonse "Little Allie Boy" Profaci, and many other members of the Gambino and Colombo crime families have called the neighborhood home. And looking around today you can see that there is an air of "keeping up with the Sopranos," as many relatively modest homes sport large fountains, elaborate iron work, marble columns, and statuary, much of it religious in nature. Bensonhurst is also famous for its elaborate Christmas lights, most of which are professionally hung by design firms and can cost as much as $20,000. The major avenues of Bensonhurst are lined with Italian restaurants, bakeries and delis as well as bargain shops, and weekends bring heavy traffic from all over.
The Revd Joseph A. Gancila, parochial vicar, presided. He was assisted by an unnamed priest and two lay readers, also unnamed.
What was the name of the service?Passion Sunday with the Liturgy of the Palms.
How full was the building?
Simply heaving with humanity, and it's not exactly a small church! We arrived 10 minutes early and it was a struggle to squeeze into a pew, We were packed in the pew like the subway at rush hour. Lucky to get seats, though, as it was standing room only shortly after we arrived. I counted 60 or so in the side aisles, back of the church and vestibule. I would estimate the total attendance was above 400, a feat made even more impressive given this was the third mass of the day.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A warm and hearty hello it wasn't. There was a lady distributing giant handfuls of palm fronds out of a plastic bucket of water to the eager hordes gathered at the entrance to the nave. She handed my friend a bundle. Then, when she saw me, she stopped and looked incredulously at me and said, "Really?" That, in Brooklynese, is an understatement for "You've gotta be kidding!" I answered back with my own "Really" and she handed some over, punctuated with an eye roll. Later, I realized that the custom was to give out one helping of palms per family, and she must have thought that my friend and I were being a very greedy couple.
Was your pew comfortable?
It would have been more comfortable with perhaps two fewer people in it, but, as far as wooden pews with a kneeler go, it was fine.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bustling, loud and crowded. It was well nigh impossible to get into a pious mood beforehand, although a few valiant souls tried. As with any crowd trying to squeeze into a space all at once, it had crying babies, people talking, folks jostling for position, and a number of people complaining about the logjam at the center aisle where the palms were being distributed. (I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet that the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem didn't fight over who would get to wave the palm branches.) There were a few people kneeling at prayer, and I saw one lady interrupted mid Hail Mary, having to stop and stand to let more people into the pew. With a crowd this big, a few ushers would have been useful. Communion was a total free-for-all.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A small-print paperback Today's Missal.
What musical instruments were played?
A small pipe organ. There was also a choir and a soprano soloist who was decidedly past her Use By date.
Did anything distract you?
With this many people gathered together, how could one not be distracted? There was so much going on. Those gabbing during the service and those loudly shushing the talkers, children bawling, things falling over, the folks in the aisles shuffling, impatient for the mass to be over. In a total moment of zone-out, I found myself wondering about the stenciling of bright green vines and yellow birds on the elliptical arches that frame the sanctuary and the navy blue Gustavino tiles. It reminded me of Clarice Cliff or some other Deco pottery, and was a touch of whimsy in a place that's not really whimsical.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle-of-the-road novus ordo, which I find neither happy clappy or stiff upper anything. The whole palm liturgy was really confusing for me. The palms had apparently been blessed at an earlier service, as the priest merely read the first lesson at the door, then walked forward asperging left and right while we sang the processional hymn or rather, some of us did, and I think it was a hymn (I'll have more to say about the music in a moment). At the mass itself, there was no incense and no chanting, nothing really solemn at all. Not even the bell at communion, which I found a little sad. It was all very unsophisticated, bland, a little sterile, and nothing whatsoever to plug it into the past. Some of the music was on the happy clappy side, at least I think it was. Sometimes it was difficult to tell exactly what was being played. There was what I'm guessing to be a five-year-old boy sitting several rows ahead of me just bored out of his gourd and letting everyone around him know it, but he provided me with a memorable impression that I'll save for the end.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Definitely a native son, Father Gancila spoke slowly and with obvious passion with a very strong Brooklyn accent.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He argued that in the gospel of the day, the passion of St Matthew, we are told to be obedient to authority of all kinds. Jesus is obedient to his Father, and as such we should be so in our lives: first to our "fathers", who take many shapes, and to the fathers of the Church. This isn't easy, and we sometimes stray. This is why reconciliation is so foundational to our spiritual well-being, as it allows us to be more obedient.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Hardly the most luminal mass I've ever heard. I was, however, struck by the nature of this mass as a corporate experience. Here was a whole rugby scrum of people gathered together as the embodiment of the liturgical idea of community. That community isn't necessarily sedate, polite and quiet, but rather is (at least in this instance) of an overwhelming active and vocal nature. That was a nice reminder. Mass can be messy, and that's not necessarily bad. This jibed perfectly with the reading of the Passion.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Catholics don't sing, do they? And who can blame them when what is on offer is truly, truly ear-splittingly bad. Something was sung that sounded like the K-mart jingle circa 1980. Another number, which I thought was going to be a doo-wop song, turned out to be a 1970s tuneless abomination. The choir and organist only made matters worse. The organist must have been a beginner, as it wasn't a case of a few misplaced notes, but rather whole misplaced passages! During the offertory, one half of the choir seemed to begin another hymn in a different key and tempo, while the other half continued on with what they had been singing. And I don't think it was meant to be contrapuntal. The old soprano punctuated everything with random impromptu solos. Is it any wonder that the congregation took the choir coming on as their cue to talk to one another? Everyone that I could see, save for one, completely disengaged when the singing started.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In essence the next mass started before the one I was attending had ended, so there was not a chance of hanging around looking lost. After communion slightly more than a third of the congregation just left, not waiting for the mass to finish. Those waiting in the back for the next service to begin started filling in the vacant seats, and they weren't really quiet about it.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Perhaps if stricken deaf.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. This was perhaps the perfect place to hear the Passion read, since so much is about "the crowd," the nature of bodies and community.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The only time the bored five-year-old was still was when the choir was singing. I was surprised at how attentively he listened, frowning and making faces throughout, but really listening. During one particularly bad moment where the choir managed to sing off-key in tandem with a string of wrong notes, he reacted by screwing his face into the worst mug, and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. From the mouths of babes, so to speak.