Lots of sources say that the building is supposed to have been modeled on the Chiesa del Gesù, Rome. I suppose if you squint and it happens to be a cloudy day, it just might look like a smaller, bleaker version of the Baroque Jesuit mother church in Rome, but to this eye, not so much. It was built in the 1890s, replacing an earlier wooden structure from the 1850s. The exterior appears rather severe. However, the interior is a real testament to riotous Gilded Age exuberance. As my friend said to me after mass, "It may be all business on the outside, but it says party on the inside." The variety in materials used is just wow: pink granite, a variety of marbles, American golden oak. The baptistery, encircled with a wrought iron grate, has mosaics of Favrile glass (a type of incandescent art-glass invented by Louis Comfort Tiffany). The Stations of the Cross are really worthy of notice and among the nicest I've ever seen: large, marble mosaics of such fine quality that they look like pastels.
The parish was founded in 1851 under the name of St Lawrence O’Toole. It was entrusted to the care of the Jesuits in 1866, and the parish name was changed to St Ignatius Loyola with the dedication of the new church building in 1898. This is an extremely active parish with an astonishing number of offerings, from social to service, all of which are detailed on their website. They are especially proud of their music program, including the concert series Music in a Sacred Space, now in its 25th season.
This is the posh and prestigious Upper East Side, Park Avenue in the East 80s. The church is almost completely surrounded by monumental Renaissance Revival style apartment buildings, much sought after and incredibly expensive, that over the years have drawn the wealthiest New Yorkers.
The Revd Ugo Nacciarone, S.J., associate pastor, was the officiant. He was assisted by several lay readers, two acolytes and a thurifer.
What was the name of the service?Sing to the Lord.
How full was the building?
I counted exactly 248. It was pretty full, but not at capacity. The church looks small on the outside, but that is a trick of the eye, as it is really much larger than it seems. It was a bit of a dressy crowd, with some ladies in hats and with more than half the men in coat and tie and not jeans, something unusual for Catholic churches in this city.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A perfunctory "Hi!" from an usher who handed me a service bulletin.
Was your pew comfortable?
It wasn't uncomfortable. I did notice that the pew across from mine was marked with a brass plaque commemorating President John F. Kennedy having sat in this pew at a mass during his presidency. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a member of the parish and was baptized, confirmed and buried from this church, a continuity rare in most people's lives.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bustling with meeting and greeting going on. There was also lots of reverencing by those setting up for the mass, and I noticed one lady curtsey before the altar. I don't think I've ever seen that before.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Invocabit me, et ego exaudiam eum" (He will call upon me, and I will answer him) (Psalm 91:15), the introit for the day, in plainsong chant.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hardbound Catholic hymnal Gather and a paperback entitled Comprehensive Order of the Mass. Most folks left the books unopened, as there was a complete service bulletin that included all music to be sung except the hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
The church's magnificent organ, an opus of N.P. Mander Ltd. of London. The reader is respectfully referred to the church's website for a complete description of this wonderful instrument and its spectacular history. There was a choir of, I'm guessing (they were in the loft behind me out of sight), 15 or 20 men and women, and a robed cantor in the front of the church, whose gesticulations urging the congregation to song were largely ignored.
Did anything distract you?
The communion elements were left sitting on a table uncovered in the middle of the main aisle. As people entered the church before the service, there were some near misses as folks in bulky coats walked by. I had visions of someone carelessly making a table-clearing sweep as they passed. I also thought it odd that they weren't covered at all. Finally one of the ushers realized they were headed for a fall and moved them, but still left them uncovered.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Probably as stiff as Roman Catholic upper lips get before you make the leap to the Tridentine. There was incense and a sanctus bell, and large portions of the mass were chanted, although the priest's vestments were a nod to the untraditional in a diamond pattern in shades of purple, black and tan. The music was exceptionally good, but generically all over the place the introit was chanted and the mass setting was Monteverdi, but the memorial acclamation and Great Amen were modern, atonal and somewhat discordant. The Lord's Prayer was sung, many in the congregation adopting the orans posture, to something tuneless, and that music wasn't printed anywhere, so I have no idea what it really was. The hymns were of the blandest variety and went largely ignored by the congregation. Most did a polite nod of the head rather than a handshake at the peace, which was fairly brief in duration anyway.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Nacciarone would have gotten full marks if he had used the pulpit. The lectern was placed in such a way that it wasn't seen by a good portion of the congregation, but he definitely knew his stuff and was a confident speaker. My friend wondered if the sermon was making some oblique reference to the Pope Benedict's resignation, and I did have a sense that he was speaking to some larger issues in the section of the sermon dealing with vocation.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Riffing on the day's gospel reading (Luke 4:1-13, Jesus' temptation in the desert), he began by asking if Jesus would have to hire PR people and a brand manager to get his message across if he were alive today. Do we need a brand manager to get through Lent? This was precisely what Jesus didn't do. Jesus began his ministry by retreating into the desert to reflect, to search for clear vision, or, in other words, to see his vocation. It is something that those in orders must do, and it something that lay people should do as well. Lent is a time where we take stock and look at our lives with clear eyes. There are temptations, just as Jesus was tempted in the desert. Our biggest temptation is to be satisfied with mediocrity, to become content with the banal. Lent asks us to get involved in service of some kind, to step outside of ourselves and become more charitable.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Monteverdi expertly sung is pretty darn supernal in my book.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
About a third of the congregation left immediately after communion, and some were rather loud about it. I'm not sure what it was about the last five minutes of the service that was so onerous that so many felt compelled to rush out.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing happened. Nobody approached. We walked around taking a few pictures.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't think there was a coffee hour, as nothing was listed anywhere and no announcement made of one. Do Catholic churches do coffee hours? It has been my experience that most don't.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – While I'm a sucker for good music, it is, sadly, a little far for me to travel.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. I was struck by the church's commitment to social justice, something I didn't expect from a Park Avenue church. On entering the church I was stopped by a very nice lady sitting at a table that had information about all of the service options for Lent. It was really impressive, both all of the options and how easy they made it to get involved.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
This thought: Here's a church with a real commitment to liturgical music and yet they're sticking with a responsorial psalm, Great Amen and hymns that are pretty dire. No wonder the congregation just tunes them out. Isn't there a much larger and older tradition that liturgists could plug into that could perhaps be more edifying?