St Cecilia Parish, Boston, Massachusetts, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Cecilia Parish
Location: Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 November 2021, 9:30am

The building

A Norman Romanesque design. The red brick exterior is unassuming, with a large tower on the right. The interior, though, is quite rich in artistic treasures. The original reredos is still against the east wall; a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper is above it. In the nave, there are imposing sculpted Stations of the Cross, with beautiful stained glass windows above them. In the balcony, surrounded by organ pipes on either side, is a stunning stained glass window of Mary’s Assumption. In a 1954 renovation, statues were added near the front of the church of St Patrick and Pope Pius X (who had only recently been canonized). An extensive renovation in 2012 restored much of the stained glass and gutted the basement, replacing what had been a second worship space with classrooms and music practice rooms (used by the nearby Berklee College of Music).

The church

The parish began in 1888, when Irish immigrants who worked as maids and coachmen for the wealthy of the Back Bay neighborhood requested of the archdiocese a parish where they could worship near where they lived and worked. Their request was granted. Today St Cecilia’s is a large parish in an affluent neighborhood that has not forgotten its roots. They describe themselves as progressive, encouraging strong lay leadership, and LGBTQ+ affirming. They have a strong commitment to Catholic social teaching. They sponsor a Beyond Boston Ministry, which supports educational and health ministries in Kenya, southern Haiti, and amongst the Lakota people of North and South Dakota and the Sherpa of Nepal. They work with several Boston non-profits that focus on homelessness and housing issues. And they recently began a Road to Social Equity initiative, attempting to examine their life as a community and identify blind spots in the areas of diversity and inclusion. There is a strong music program, with three liturgical choirs, and an extensive organ recital series.

The neighborhood

The city of Boston is one of the oldest cities in North America, located on the eastern seaboard north of New York. With a metro area population of nearly five million people, it is the most populous city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and also its capital. It is home to major league professional sports teams in ice hockey, basketball, football, and baseball. It is a cultural center; the Boston Symphony Orchestra has an international reputation. It is home to some of the finest institutions of higher education in the country including Harvard University, Tufts University, Brandeis University, the New England Conservatory of Music, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This in turn has made it a center for scientific and medical research. St Cecilia’s is located in the affluent Back Bay neighborhood, on the city’s North Side, surrounded by historic buildings, affluent shopping, and fine dining.

The cast

The pastor of the parish presided and preached. There were two lectors, three lay eucharistic ministers, an adult acolyte, a pianist/organist, and four singers. Only the priest and acolyte were vested.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

About 80 per cent, I would estimate. A diverse congregation in every way except race, with a number of college students.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed me a service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A bit of chatter coming from the narthex (I was seated near the rear of the church).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The celebrant began with ‘Good morning,’ then a description of the lovely weather Boston was enjoying. It took him a while to get down to ‘In the name of the Father...’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The service leaflet, which was extensive and carefully prepared.

What musical instruments were played?

A baby grand piano, for the most part, and the church's exceptional pipe organ (for the final hymn, ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ and postlude). St Cecilia’s got their first pipe organ in 1902, opus 1465 of the Hutchings-Votey Organ Company of Boston. It was replaced in 1954 by a new instrument that incorporated much of the Hutchings-Votey pipework. But by 1995 that instrument had become unreliable, and a veritable consortium of organ builders was brought in to renovate it completely, and it was rededicated in 1999. Further additions and renovations have been ongoing since then. The main organ is in the rear balcony, and has fifty-two ranks and four manuals. There is a smaller antiphonal organ in the front of the church (two manuals and seven ranks) which was not used in this service.

Did anything distract you?

The presider is an ardent interpolationist. There seemed to him to be no sentence of the missal, or gospels, that could not be improved by additional adjectives, phrases, etc. An example: after the memorial acclamation, he continued the eucharistic prayer with ‘Until you come again, Sunday after Sunday we celebrate the memorial of his death and resurrection.’ All of these interpolations, and other bits (such as an introduction to the readings) led to a very long mass – a bit over 90 minutes. I had arranged for a taxi to take me to the airport at the 70 minute mark, and had to leave at that point – communion was perhaps halfway over (I caught the rest of the service on the parish's live-stream when I got home).

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

Reverent, but fairly informal. No bells, no smells, no chant; not very high up the candle, but that doesn't seem to be St Cecilia's thing. There was a creative approach to musical leadership: most of the service was accompanied by piano and led by a quartet of trained singers, seated behind the altar and socially distanced. In the absence of a cantor, the quartet sang the verses of the psalm and hymns, sometimes singly, sometimes together in parts. After the communion hymn was completed, communion continued, and the pianist improvised beautifully on the hymn we had just sung (Marty Haugen's ‘We Remember’). The bulletin indicated that a Chopin piano work would be the postlude, but instead we were treated to a virtuosic postlude on the parish's main organ.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

22 minutes. I think that is a record for me at a Catholic Mass.

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

8 — If I were basing this on the first 15 minutes, it would have been a solid 10. The last several minutes were not nearly as focused as his first 15. He noted that he gets nervous every time he preaches at St Cecilia’s, since he knows how many theology professors are in the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The pastor began by noting that the next Sunday would be the final Sunday of the liturgical year. In these last Sundays of the church’s calendar, we encounter readings about the end of time. Jesus tells us that we do not know the day, the time, or the hour of his coming again. Given that, we should focus not on worrying about the end of time, but on doing the right thing. It is tempting to look at all that is going on in the world these days and wonder if the end is near. But the writings in today’s lectionary were not intended to scare people, but to encourage them to ask, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ We should not lose hope. We can’t control how much time we have, but we can control what we do about it. Wildfires, the climate, supply chains, covid – the world the way it is, is also the way it was.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

No cantor!

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

I'm not sure all of those interpolations to the mass texts enhance the community's celebration. I won't say ‘hellish,’ but...

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

As I mentioned earlier, I had to leave before the mass ended, to catch a cab to the airport.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

One was announced but, alas, I was already on my way home.

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

8 — Once they're down to 70-75 minutes, a return visit would be most welcome. There is much to admire about this parish and its music.

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

Yes, and grateful for the extensive array of social justice ministries at this parish.

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

The pianist's improvisation at the end of communion.

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