St Helen’s, Glendale, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Helen’s, Glendale
Location: Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 14 February 2024, 3:00pm

The building

A modern structure in brick on a large plaza that includes parish hall, gift shop, and Stations of the Cross arranged along the outer perimeter. But I could discover nothing about the building’s history or architecture. A photo on Google Maps dated August 2019 shows the Bishop of Phoenix celebrating mass here, assisted by a crowd of clergy – I assume that’s when the church was consecrated. The interior is a large room. At first I thought it was windowless except for an east window depicting, I think, the Holy Spirit – it was rather abstract. But then I noticed that there were other windows angled in so that they were visible only from the front of the church. A rather simple altar was backed by the Blessed Sacrament altar. Sedilia were to the right; the pulpit to the left. On the floor in front of the altar was a formation of rocks on top of which had been placed some barren branches. Musical instruments were off to the left. I saw no organ and no choir loft. Confessionals – oops, I mean reconciliation rooms – lined the rear wall.

The church

They appear to be a very active parish, judging from their website. There is a chapter of the Knights of Columbus and one of the Ladies of the Mystical Rose, which appears to be a sort of Knights of Columbus Ladies’ Auxiliary and, so far as I can tell, is unique to this parish. There are also several youth groups. Again judging from photos posted on their website, they seem to be quite fond of festivals and processions. There is a weekday mass and three Sunday masses plus the Saturday vigil mass. Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament takes place on Fridays. For today’s Ash Wednesday commemoration, there were six masses scheduled at various times throughout the day, with the 3.00pm mass followed by a soup supper in the social center (someone whose mother was frightened by alliteration posted that sentence on their website).

The neighborhood

They are located on West Cholla Street at North 55th Avenue in Glendale, a western suburb of Phoenix. There is an elementary school across the street and an assisted living facility in the opposite block. There is a smattering of businesses here and there, but the area is primarily working-class residential.

The cast

Either the pastor or the parochial vicar – I couldn’t tell which. He was assisted by a crucifer and two servers, plus lay readers and extraordinary ministers of the eucharist.

What was the name of the service?

Ash Wednesday Mass with Imposition of Ashes followed by Soup Supper.

How full was the building?

It’s a large church, and it was just about completely full. People were still coming in as late as the sermon.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

When I arrived, the church was still locked. A handful of people had gathered on the patio. Soon a gentleman came along, unlocked the doors, and said, ‘Come on in!’ Other than that, no greeting.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard cushioned pew – comfortable enough. But I stood for a goodly part of the service – read on!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered quietly for the most part. A grandmother and her small granddaughter sitting behind me were carrying on a rather loud conversation – I changed my seat. Then a woman sitting behind me who was wearing a mask coughed – I changed my seat again. A large family entered my pew, taking up all available space – I got up and stood in the back. One of the family members shot me a puzzled look, but I pretended I didn’t see her.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good afternoon, everyone. Please stand.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Gather hymnal, plus the Journeysongs hymnal, which I hadn’t seen before, were in the pews, but we didn’t use them. There was also a laminated card with the mass ordinary. Words to the songs, but nothing else, were projected on screens.

What musical instruments were played?

Digital keyboard, two guitars, drums. There was a female vocalist, and one of the guitarists also sang.

Did anything distract you?

The two altar servers, a little boy and little girl, were wearing cottas that, if they were any shorter, could pass as bibs. And both of them were wearing sneakers! The crucifer’s cotta was also short, but she was properly shod.

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

A fairly standard Catholic mass. The music was all the folkish, countryish, stuff you generally get from ensembles of elderly guitarists. I have to admit that some of it sounded relaxing, though, and a few people were actually singing along in hushed, timid little voices. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei were both in Latin to the Gregorian Requiem Mass settings – this appears to be standard in the Diocese of Phoenix. Laypersons assisted the priest in the putting on of ashes. I heard the priest say only ‘Repent!’ as he ashed his line, but my – what? Ashwoman? – used the standard Memento formula but in English. Bells at the consecration. Communion was under the species of bread only – standard communion wafers. The mass ended with the Leonine prayer to St Michael the Archangel – highly appropriate, I thought, in these troubled times.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

7 — The priest spoke with a heavy African accent that was difficult to understand, but I think I got most of it. He appeared to be speaking extemporaneously, and every now and then he punctuated a sentence with ‘You know?’

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Ash Wednesday begins Lent, a season of repentance. Fasting and abstinence reinforce repentance. It is a time when we acknowledge human weakness, make amends, and change our attitude. (You know?) Thank God for giving us a new beginning. It’s all for the greater glory of God. We must examine ourselves, our prayer life, how we treat others, and let Jesus guide us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I didn’t think that anything in particular rose to that height. You know? Well, maybe the prayer to St Michael the Archangel.

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

Perhaps the number of times I felt it necessary to change my seat. And the servers’ choice of footwear.

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

People applauded the musicians (ugh!) after their recessional song. Everyone cleared out pretty quickly. Most headed for their cars, not for the soup supper in the social center. Perhaps they were frightened by alliteration also. But I followed the rest into the social center for the soup supper – alliteration doesn’t scare me at all!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

About a dozen different kinds of soup had been set out in crock pots. I’m pretty sure they were all meatless, but I had my doubts about one of them. I helped myself to French onion soup – thick, hearty and delicious! Various kinds of bread had been set out at various places on the tables – I chose a seat opposite what seemed to be the most interesting bread. There was also salad available, with choice of ranch or Italian dressing. The only beverages were lemonade and water. Table conversation was limited to ‘Pass the butter, please’ and ‘Where did you find the salad?’ All in all, a very Lenten dinner, although I confess to having a cupcake when I got home.

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

5 — It wasn’t a bad service, but the music was not the kind I prefer. I don’t begrudge it to the regulars, however, as it does seem to be a very ‘with-it’ parish.

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

Eventually, yes, after I was able to find an empty seat toward the front upon returning from being ashed.

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

Probably the prayer to St Michael the Archangel – and the excellent French onion soup.

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