St James, Hyde Park, NY (Exterior)

St James, Hyde Park, New York, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St James
Location: Hyde Park, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 September 2012, 8:00am

The building

Opened in 1844 and nestled in a lush green woodland setting, St James Church is a small but beautiful example of the Gothic Revival style. The interior is long and narrow, with whitewashed walls and ribbed arched wooden ceiling. Dark red carpeting covers the floor. The sanctuary is simple, with a large east window letting in plenty of light behind a simple wooden altar. The church was badly damaged by a fire several years ago, and all the stained glass had to be replaced. Several memorial plaques were also lost in the fire.

The church

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was born in Hyde Park and who often spent time at the family estate throughout his presidency, was baptized at St James and served on the vestry. The funeral of Eleanor Roosevelt, who died in 1962, was held here. Although President and Mrs Roosevelt are buried at the Roosevelt estate, the earthly remains of several notable figures rest in St James churchyard. Among these are Henrietta Nesbitt, a personal friend of Mrs Roosevelt, who served as cook and housekeeper at the White House during FDR's presidency; and Dr Samuel Bard, personal physician to George Washington and co-founder of the medical school at Kings College (now Columbia University). Today the parish sponsors all the usual ministries as documented on their website. Guided tours of the graveyard are offered by lantern light and are generally sold out. There are two services each Sunday: a Rite I service and family worship using Rite II, plus Sunday school.

The neighborhood

Hyde Park (not to be confused with New Hyde Park, which is located on Long Island) is a village on the east bank of the Hudson River about 80 miles north of New York City. First settled in 1710, it was named in honor of Edward Hyde, governor of the British colonies of New York and New Jersey from 1701-1708, although what was being honored is an open question. Hyde, a moral profligate and reputed cross-dresser (he is said to have presided over the opening of the New York Assembly dressed as Queen Anne), is generally regarded as possibly the worst governor Britain ever imposed on an American colony. The village includes some interesting historic structures such as the early 19th century Dutch Reformed church and the post office in the Dutch Colonial Revival style, a product of President Roosevelt's New Deal. The F.D. Roosevelt Library and Home, a national historic site, is situated south of the village; Eleanor Roosevelt's private retreat, Val-Kil, is nearby. St James Church sits north of the village, across the road from the estate of Gilded Age railroad tycoon Frederick Vanderbilt, now also a national historic site.

The cast

The Revd Charles Kramer ("Father Chuck"), rector.

What was the name of the service?

Rite I Worship with Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

There was room for about 200, and there were about 40 people present. I sat toward the middle, but most of the others sat behind me. The front several rows were empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I got out of my car, Father Chuck was walking over to the church from the rectory. He greeted me and asked me where I was visiting from, and said I was most welcome. Inside, no one had much of anything to say to me, although there was much handshaking during the exchange of peace.

Was your pew comfortable?

No. Narrow and straight-backed, with hassock kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I walked around the churchyard before going inside. It had rained heavily the night before, and everything was quite damp. Crows were caw-cawing in the trees. Spooky! Once inside the church, I noticed quite a bit of loud talking at the back, but people were quiet once they settled into their pews.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to St James on this beautiful morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Prayer Book 1982 and a service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

None. A tracker organ in the rear gallery stood silent. This was a spoken service.

Did anything distract you?

Bright sunlight poured in through the east window. It was glorious, but the glare made me squint. It also illuminated several cobwebs crossing the pew a few rows in front of me.

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

By-the-book Rite I. Father Chuck was vested in green chasuble. There were no servers, although two laymen came forward to assist him during the eucharistic prayer. There were bells but no incense.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

8 – No complaints here. Well prepared and well delivered.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The line between Bible and politics is often blurred. Let politicians stray across that line if they dare! Unfortunately the poor have become a political issue: why, some ask, should we take from the rich to give to the poor? But that's not political - it's biblical! We may always have the poor with us, as Jesus said, but the poor didn't choose to be so, nor do they remain so out of laziness. Today's gospel lesson (Mark 7:24-37 the Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon remarked to Jesus that even dogs eat the scraps that fall from the children's table) shows that there is plenty for all; the poor are only asking for a little. We must "inform" politicians with our faith. Instead of asking what the poor want to "take" from us, we should consider how much love we will give them.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sunlight pouring in through the east window was heavenly. The previous evening's rain had freshened the air, and morning had dawned clear and crisp a typical early September morning in the Northeast.

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

To me, the congregation seemed very much attuned to each other but oblivious to strangers.

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

Father Chuck began a healing service at the altar. Some went forward for that, but most visited among themselves as they left the church. No one took any notice of me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

5 – If they ignored me again on a second visit, I wouldnt bother.

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


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

Sunbeams and cobwebs.

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