Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: St Andrew's
Location: Foley Square, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 October 2011, 12:00pm
Dating from 1939, replacing an earlier 1819 structure, it is the only building in New York City by the famous Boston firm Maginnis & Walsh, who designed the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC, as well as St Catherine of Genoa, Somerville, Massachusetts (perhaps their masterpiece). St Andrew's is one of the best examples of Colonial Revival architecture in the city. It is pleasingly proportioned, with the facade flanked by statues of St Andrew and St Peter, and a trio of high-relief angels above the portico. I did have a chuckle to find that the statues had been wired with electricity to ward off pigeons. The interior is very, very interesting, as most of the ground floor and much of the second floor gallery are paneled in mahogany, as if it were an ecclesiastical Art Deco ocean liner. A very "serious" interior – imposing, if not a little somber. There is an enormous intricately carved mahogany baldacchino over the altar, and the ornate altar rails survive Vatican II. A life-size crucifix with Corpus stands in place of the reredos.
St Andrew's is the church of the law courts, as it is flanked on three sides by judicial buildings: City Hall, the New York City Police Department headquarters, the US Attorney's office, the Thurgood Marshal Federal Court Building, and the New York State Supreme Court. It carries on an active weekday ministry, with three masses throughout the day, eucharistic adoration, the rosary said twice daily, and three masses on Sunday. The church has been staffed by the Blessed Sacrament Fathers continuously since 1842.
This is Foley Square, instantly recognizable by anyone who has watched the TV series Law & Order in its many incarnations, as it features prominently in almost every episode. Foley Square replaced the notorious slum Five Points at the turn of the 20th century, an effort spearheaded by the pioneer social reformer Jacob Riis. It has been reshaped over the years, with the most recent renovation in the early 1990s, which led to the discovery of what has become the African Burial Ground National Monument. Historians argue that as many as 20,000 people of color were buried at the site, and it is one of the largest urban archaeological projects in the US.
The Revd James Hayes, SSS, celebrant. There was an unnamed acolyte/reader as well.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass
How full was the building?
The church could have held many, many more people than the 45 souls present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, surprisingly so, since it was an uncushioned wooden pew with a kneeler. The angle of the back was just right, which made it very sittable. Not that I wanted to linger – read on! I must also add that the original mahogany pews are really beautiful.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The guitarist was practicing something jazzy a la "The Girl from Ipanema" sotto voce, so there was the element of a hotel cocktail lounge. Sadly, this jazzy piece wasn't played during the service. There was also a pregnant woman in the pew directly in front of me taking big, noisy, swigs from a Diet Coke, which seemed wrong for a variety of reasons. And she continued to drink throughout the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Thank you for coming" repeated three times.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Word & Song.
What musical instruments were played?
Guitar, with a trio of singers. A pipe organ, an opus of Ernest M. Skinner & Son dating from 1939, has been unplayable for years. The mass setting was 1970s singing nun style.
Did anything distract you?
Oh, so many distractions! Where to begin? Besides the woman drinking Diet Coke, I found my eye drawn constantly to the baldacchino It was really monumental and grand. But I also couldn't stop myself from looking at the gallery. Someone had decided to hammer a row of six (three on each side) white plastic desk fans into the mahogany wainscoting of the second-floor gallery, which not only looked ghastly, but have rendered this otherwise priceless woodwork worthless. Also, as it turned out, the triple greeting mentioned above was not the only thing said in threes – the celebrant made such a habit of it that I began to anticipate his triplets and was not disappointed.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Happy clappy, I suppose, but sort of hard to say. My friend who attended with me rather ungenerously but accurately described it as "happy cracky." As the altar party processed in, the celebrant "high fived" people he recognized. During the responsorial psalm, he tapped the altar in time to the music. At the consecration, he called everyone up from their seats to the altar. During the peace, he insisted that everyone introduce themselves and give a two sentence bio of what they felt was critical for everyone to know about them.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
2 – While "Father Jim" (as he insisted he be called) definitely gets points for knowing everyone in the congregation, his delivery of the sermon was very much like the conduct of the rest of the mass: a bit wild, very high-energy, and individual. He delivered his sermon from the floor in a call-and-response fashion, asking questions of members of the congregation as a way to illustrate his points. It sometimes took several rounds of questions to get the response he was looking for, and it was very clear that it was extemporaneous.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He was attempting to flesh out Matthew 22:1-14, the parable of the wedding banquet, but he glossed over the line, "Many are called, but few are chosen," choosing instead to focus on the "Many are called" part. He argued that God calls us in many different ways, and that through training and dedication we can hone our calling into a vocation. It is this discipline that brings us closer to God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Oh gosh, I really hope heaven is nothing like this!
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Much like the processional, the recessional turned into an extended meet and greet – that is, until Father Jim got to our pew, where he stopped and glared at us for what seemed an eternity but was probably only a minute. I'm not sure what that was about, but it seemed threatening. I did wonder if he was going to hit me. And afterward my friend told me she thought the same thing! Was it because we chose to stay in our seats and not gather around the altar for communion? I sort of think it was.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the mass, but before the dismissal, instead of announcements, Father Jim exhorted us to "Bundle up! Bundle up! Bundle up!" as "Indian Summer will not last throughout the week" and it is "important to be prepared for the worst." We were eager to flee as quickly as possible. The priest refused to greet us on the way out, ignoring us as we said good-bye. Not that we were itching for an introduction. It hastened our escape.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't one, and I'm kind of bummed there wasn't. If the mass was any indication, I imagine the coffee hour would be utterly Loony Tunes too.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – Hell would have to have a very, very hard freeze.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No, but it did give me a greater appreciation for a thoughtful, reasoned approach to liturgy.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
"Bundle up!" has been my earworm, and I just can't get it out of my head.