Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell
Church: St Peter's
Location: Financial District, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 October 2011, 12:00pm
The British banned Roman Catholics from worship in New York, and it was only when they were finally driven out of the city during the Revolution that a church could be built. With the cornerstone for "old" St Peter's laid in 1785, this is the oldest Roman Catholic parish in New York State. But anti-Catholic sentiment remained high, and a near riot ensued on Christmas Eve 1806 when Protestants massed to protest the Popish superstitions going on inside. The current "new" Greek Revival building dates from 1836. While small, it is quite imposing if somewhat severe – perhaps it's all the gray granite and the six Ionic columns that frame the gold doors. The interior is equally restrained, although bright. It has recently undergone an extremely sensitive renovation, with discreet lighting hidden in recesses and a wall of glass to enclose the sanctuary, allowing it to be air-conditioned. The major decorative motifs are panels of white plaster fretwork. Over the altar is a painting of the Crucifixion, a gift from the Archbishop of Mexico City in 1789. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first US citizen to be canonized, often prayed before the painting, and it was at "old" St Peter's that she was received into the Roman Catholic Church from the Episcopal Church in 1805.
St Peter's serves the Financial District with daily masses, and was the first church in the archdiocese to offer mid-day services. St Peter's also has a mission chapel, St Joseph's, in Battery Park City to serve that development as well as the Tribeca neighborhood. There is also a monthly coffee hour.
Located less than a block away from Ground Zero, the church was hit by a portion of the landing gear from one of the planes that struck the Twin Towers. Even so, it served as a staging area for emergency services. The body of Father Mychal Judge, chaplain to the New York City Fire Department and officially the first casualty of the attack, was brought to St Peter's by firefighters and laid before the altar. Father Judge has been declared a saint by the Orthodox Catholic Church of America, and many Roman Catholics consider him a saint even though no formal process for canonization has yet begun.
The Revd Arthur Leone, curate. There was also a lay reader who was unnamed.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass (offered for the oppressed everywhere)
How full was the building?
100 people were present.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but a lady who arrived with a rolling cart chock-a-block with stuff greeted me as she sidled into my pew with me.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, surprisingly so, since it was just a wooden pew with kneeler.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet, with many at prayer. About ten minutes before the service, the organist, who was particularly fine, played what sounded like selections from Handel's opera Rodelinda. That was a total surprise!
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good afternoon, and welcome to St Peter's. Today's celebrant is Father
Leone." (And how nice was it to have the priest's name announced; a
total rarity in most Catholic churches in the city!)
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A softbound copy of Seasonal Missalette.
What musical instruments were played?
A very warm-sounding organ, an opus of Geo. Kilgen & Son of
Did anything distract you?
You could hear the bells ringing in the silence after the organ prelude, and it just seemed to set the right tone for quiet contemplation. I was also struck by the plaster festoons of fruit and flowers and papal tiaras that decorate some of the panels on the walls, as it seemed like a really quirky combination.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A stiff-upper-lip version of a novus ordo mass, if such a thing is possible. Quite frankly, it was the most Anglican of Catholic services I'd ever been to. The hymns weren't 1970s abominations, but recognizable old favorites. And the congregation really sang, all without the aid of a cantor. Everyone arrived in time for the mass and stayed until it was over, with many sitting or praying during the postlude.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 – Father Leone spoke with authority from notes that he didn't really refer to. It was all so reasonable and even-toned. It seemed particularly fitting given the Occupy Wall Street protest just a few blocks away.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was an explication of the reading of the day, Matthew 21:33-46, the parable of the wicked vinedrressers, riffing on the line that the kingdom of God will be taken away from the leadership and given to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom. Anger isn't the best reaction to injustice. It is necessary to focus on areas of excellence where we can see God. Social justice is something that we should work for and will ultimately be rewarded with.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Following the sermon we did a renewal of the baptismal vows, which was a very solemn moment.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
There is a bizarre acoustical effect where the smallest noise on one
side of the church can be heard at the other. I heard two people
whispering in the front of the church as if they were sitting next to
me. Needless to say, there isn't any amplification used.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I hung around to hear the organist and to snap some pictures since there wasn't a coffee hour. Father Leone spoke to everyone as they left, thanking them for coming.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee, sadly.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – It was a real treat to be somewhere that had an energetic and
a classically formal liturgy, but I'd like to see what the community is
like, and I would miss a choir.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. On the whole, it was dignified and reverential.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The painting of the Crucifixion over the altar. It was really striking.