St Agnes is a Gothic Revival church, built in 1878 according to a design by Richard Upjohn, architect of Trinity Church Wall Street (NYC) and perhaps coincidentally the brother-in-law of the Bishop of Fond du Lac (WI), the Rt Rev. John Henry Hobart Brown. The original church (then named Grace Church) burned down in 1881, but was rebuilt with the exact same design a few years later, of the light yellow ‘cream city’ brick common in Wisconsin buildings in the 19th and 20th centuries. The church interior is compact, with about 20 rows of narrow pews, and features a magnificent rood beam carved by artists from Oberammergau, Germany, who were brought to Wisconsin to work on the Diocese of Fond du Lac’s Cathedral of St Paul.
St Agnes is a mission church, meaning it is not self-supporting at present. Its website describes a number of outreach ministries within the Algoma community, but there was no mention of them during the service or in the bulletin.
St Agnes by-the-Lake is located across from a narrow beach along the shores of Lake Michigan (hence the name) in this small, quaint community with old-fashioned stores and Victorian houses. The church is within view of the Algoma Pierhead Lighthouse, which guided ships bearing northern Wisconsin hardwoods to Milwaukee and Chicago (including the legendary Christmas Tree Ships, commemorated nearby). The churchyard features a statue of the Archangel Michael, protector of mariners, calming the storms – a reminder of the perilous work done by local residents in years gone by.
The vicar led the worship and preached. A gentleman seated in the first row, listed in the bulletin as cantor, assisted the vicar with chanting, but remained seated the entire time (both had beautiful voices). A member of the congregation did one of the readings. A woman seated at the back of the church operated a laptop connected to a digital keyboard, but did not otherwise take part in the service. There were no acolytes, assisting clergy, or choir.
What was the name of the service?St Agnes’s website lists the service as Sunday Mass, although the bulletin specified only Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
How full was the building?
The building was sparsely populated, with about 15 people in attendance.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but I arrived quite early. There were no ushers or greeters in the tiny narthex, just a digital clock with large numbers, along with a note for the bell ringers. Serve-yourself service sheets and other materials were set out on a table right inside the nave. The vicar gave me a nod as he entered and made a beeline for the sacristy.
Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable enough, especially since I had plenty of room. Everyone had a pew to themselves, with the exception of a group of four who entered together and happily sat shoulder-to-shoulder, filling the pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent. People entered respectfully and without unnecessary chit-chat. There was no pre-service music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.’
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The service followed the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (Rite I), but the congregation seemed to know the prayers and responses by heart. The Hymnal 1982 was used for the two hymns sung during the service, and the scripture readings were from the NRSV Bible. Each pew had a spiral-bound book that included the entire liturgy and service music, which I noted was printed in a typeface resembling that of the 1928 BCP. It included a helpful description of Anglo-Catholic practice, which struck me as a nice bit of hospitality for those who may not be familiar, or comfortable, with this style of worship.
What musical instruments were played?
The old pipe organ at the back of the church appeared to have been out of use for some time, but a Viscount keyboard attached to a laptop effectively simulated the sound of one. I learned after the service that the vicar himself had pre-recorded some of the music.
Did anything distract you?
I thought I detected a faint scent of incense when I entered the church, and kept looking around furtively during the liturgy of the word for a thurible. Finally, during the offertory, the vicar smoothly stepped into the sacristy to retrieve one and gave the altar a thorough censing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straightforward Anglo-Catholic liturgy, BCP Rite 1, fiddleback chasuble, and east-facing celebration, offered ‘decently and in good order,’ without pretention. I would characterize it as bells and smells without pomp and circumstance.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
This rusty Mystery Worshipper forgot to jot down when the sermon ended, but I estimate it was 8-10 minutes, no longer.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — Clear and concise; not at all formal; warm but not effusive. He seemed very comfortable in the preaching role.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The preacher connected the theme of persistence that ran through all three readings: Jacob wrestling with the angel; Paul's encouragement of Timothy to be steadfast; and Jesus' parable of the widow and the unjust judge. Persistence is like the steady drip of water which eventually shapes the stone. So it is with prayer, even when we wrestle with it. Prayer is what we do to shape the will of our own stony hearts to God's will. I noted that current events or political issues were not brought into the sermon – the state was bracing for a very contentious election.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was surprised at how quiet the offertory was and how moved I was by the silence. The congregation remained seated for most of it, and there was no anthem or presentation hymn (indeed, I did not see a collection plate being passed). It was as if nothing was allowed to happen that would distract from the preparation of the altar for the Eucharist. I am used to, and greatly prefer, congregational or choral singing at this point in the service, but I found myself contentedly gazing at the altar and the magnificently-carved wooden rood beam.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing hellish, but I struggled to find the correct service music for singing the responses, the Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. The bulletin included codes that corresponded to pages in the spiral-bound service supplement, but I somehow couldn't crack the code.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
First, I embarrassed myself by popping up right after the dismissal, forgetting that in some places the congregation remains kneeling while the candles are extinguished. Once the candles were out, the woman seated ahead of me turned and greeted me warmly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There apparently was none, as no invitation was issued during or after the service, and since the parish hall was in a separate building, there was no obvious parade of coffee-seekers for me to blend in with.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 — St Agnes is a lovely church in a delightful town. I may change my usual Wisconsin travel patterns to pass through here again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The pleasant chat I had in the narthex with the vicar, after he was finished with his post-service duties. I complimented him on his voice, and he patiently answered my questions about how the keyboard and computer worked (something about MIDI outputs which was fascinating but went well over my head) – and shared his enthusiasm about how this setup allows small, rural churches without organists access to traditional pipe organ music.