Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias
Church: St Aloysius
Location: Detroit, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 12 July 2015, 11:30am
The current structure was built in 1930 on the same location where the parish's first church, a former Presbyterian church, had stood before being torn down. Over each of the three entrances is a semicircular panel with engravings: God the Father; Christ with the Virgin Mary, St John and Mary Magdalene; and the Holy Spirit descending upon the apostles. Above the north and south doors are carvings of the twelve apostles (six on each side).
The church's interior is unique. The most striking feature is the church's three distinct levels: the main floor, with the sanctuary area set inside a proscenium arch; a balcony; and a basement level with seating and a second altar (still against the east wall). There is a semicircular cutout in the main floor (known as "the well"), making the sanctuary area at ground level visible to congregants sitting in the basement level. There are over two dozen different types of marble, and several mosaics in the sanctuary area, the most prominent being one of Jesus the Good Shepherd.
St Al's has been known as "Everybody's Church" since its opening, reflecting the diversity of its membership. It has been administered by Franciscan Friars since 1992, and works in many ways to address the needs of downtown Detroit's residents. Some examples include a street ministry, where bicyclers and walkers deliver sandwiches and basic hygiene kits to those in need; "Flash Picnics" that serve food in the downtown area once a week; and programs that target the needs of senior citizens residing in downtown apartments. There is also a youth program (ages 3-12) focusing on catechesis, and a teen group that meets twice monthly. There are two weekend masses (Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning), and weekday masses slightly after noon each day.
Detroit is still emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of the United States. Downtown Detroit, though, is increasingly an entertainment destination, with historic theatres, four professional sports teams, an opera company and a world renowned symphony, and a large casino. The immediate neighborhood around St Al's is a mix of small shops and restaurants, hotels, and apartment dwellings. The church is within the Washington Boulevard Historic District.
The Revd Loren Thomas Connell, OFM, pastor of St Aloysius, preached and celebrated; the Revd Mr Donald Leach served as deacon. Linette Popoff-Parks was pianist and provided a half-hour organ recital prior to the service.
What was the name of the service?Mass
How full was the building?
Full to overflowing in a building that, at all three levels, seats around 2000. This was not a normal Sunday attendance for St Aloysius; the parish hosted on this Sunday the Detroit Mass Mob, whose members visit a different historic church in downtown Detroit on the second Sunday of each month (except for the winter months of January and February). The Mass Mob movement began in Buffalo, New York, and has now been imitated in several cities, most successfully in Detroit and Cleveland.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. There were quite a few parishioners from St Al's on hand to pass out service leaflets and answer questions.
Was your pew comfortable?
No. No arch in the pews' backs. The kneelers were even less welcoming.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of chatter, picture taking and conversation throughout the organ recital prior to the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
A fairly lengthy introduction welcoming the Mass Mob. Then, after the opening hymn, Father Connell began with: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None, save the service leaflet we were given when we entered. It included a history of the parish, a description of its ministries, and the hymns for the service. A separate insert had the music for the mass setting (Mass for the Motor City), composed by Aaron Kaleniecki, a former music director of the parish.
What musical instruments were played?
A six foot baby grand piano. Before the service, a 35 rank tracker organ built and installed in 1973 by Gabriel Kney Pipe Organ Builders Ltd of London, Ontario, Canada.
Did anything distract you?
The chatter before the service (though to be expected on such a festive occasion), and the uncomfortable pews and kneelers.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A fairly standard Novus Ordo mass. Some of the music (especially M. Kaleniecki's mass setting) was Gospel-tinged, and during the Gloria and final hymn the congregation clapped along. Father Connell discretely introduced non-gendered language ("God" instead of "Lord," for example).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Father Connell is an excellent public speaker, well-prepared. After his sermon, there was a rousing "Amen" from one of the parishioners.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
After expressing his pleasure at seeing the church so full on this Sunday, he noted those signs that Americans sometimes see along the road "Repent!" But what is the "good news" of the gospel? That God loves us, each one of us, you, me, and all of us. Most of us forget that from time to time. We do not tell people what they are doing wrong. We listen, and we let them know that they are not isolated. We not only need to remember that God loves us, but we need to let others know that God loves them.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The acoustics of St Al's, and Ms Popoff-Parks' sensitive accompaniments, were strongly supportive of the congregation's singing. It was heavenly to hear so many Catholics singing so enthusiastically.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Those same acoustics are much less supportive of the spoken word. We were sitting on a side balcony and could not see the readers or Father Connell while he was preaching at all. It was difficult to make out much of what was said.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Lots of St Al's folk were available for questions, and lots of the Mass Mob folks were either taking more pictures or asking questions of the many ushers available. I asked an usher near us about the one-time plans to move the Ford Auditorium (where the Detroit Symphony used to play) organ to St Aloysius. No, he said, those plans have been shelved. I then introduced myself to Ms Popoff-Parks, complimented her on her playing, and chatted with her briefly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Materfamilias (the Catholic in the family) gave St Al's her approval. With their beautiful liturgy and strong commitment to social justice, this Lutheran can't imagine a Catholic parish where he would be more comfortable.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The unique interior of this church, and the singing of the congregation.