Mystery Worshipper: Clandestine Christian
Church: St Peter's
Location: Staten Island, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 November 2008, 12:00am
The congregation first celebrated mass in a gun factory in April 1839. Their first church was dedicated in 1844 and served until the 1890s, when it was destroyed by fire. The present structure of Romanesque and Gothic design was laid out in 1900 by the architectural firm of Harding & Gooch, noted for several commercial buildings in lower Manhattan. The church is still today possibly the most magnificent and largest edifice on Staten Island. Situated high on a hill, it is clearly visible from New York Harbor and has served as a reference point for sailors at sea. The bell tower somewhat resembles that of London's Houses of Parliament. Inside, the vaulted ceiling was constructed in such a way that no pillars are necessary, thus affording an unobstructed view of the sanctuary from every pew. The interior is resplendent with stained glass and appointments in the style of the Italian Renaissance.
In its early days, St Peter's parish was governed by a succession of rather colorful pastors, one of whom was the nephew of Elizabeth Seton, the first native-born United States citizen to be canonized, and another of whom ran off to join the California gold rush and was later struck by blindness. Today, St Peter's is one of the leading Roman Catholic parishes on Staten Island. They sponsor a men's and boys' choir and are active in such charitable works as clothing drives, etc. They administer a grammar school and high school as well as a cemetery. Masses are held Sundays at 9.00am and 12.00 noon, with a 5.00pm anticipated mass on Saturdays, as well as at various times throughout the week.
The bulletin and several websites give the address of St Peter's as New Brighton, but it is actually still within the limits of St George, the Staten Island neighborhood closest to Manhattan. The ferry is within walking distance, and most of the houses near St Peter's are historical landmarks, some displaying breathtaking architecture. This is a place of steep hills, which, along with the Victorian houses, make it a sort of a poor man's San Francisco. Little bodegas are within walking distance, as is the center of St George, with little shops and restaurants, a lovely historic theater, a pharmacy, and other amenities. St Peter's bells toll the hours except at night. There is a terrific view of Manhattan across the water, and the harbor is quite busy with huge cargo ships escorted by cute little tugboats. But there is also a view of the chemical tanks of New Jersey, just one of the many contradictions that are Staten Island, the "forgotten borough" of New York City. A concise history of Staten Island can be found in an earlier Mystery Worship report. In recent years the borough has become more suburban and urban, as unbridled and quite ugly development continues to encroach upon the rural and rustic setting that the island once enjoyed.
The Revd Pablito C Maghari, parochial vicar ("Father Pabs"), was celebrant and preacher. He was assisted by a team of lectors and eucharistic ministers identified only as M. Smith, A. Philip, R. Bradshaw and L. Kronenthal.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass
How full was the building?
Around 50 people, something like one-eighth full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Two said hello to me upon entering (the same two people who later took up the collection), but they didn't hand me anything or point out the necessary books.
Was your pew comfortable?
Comfortable enough. It was a polished wooden pew, unpadded, with connecting (folding) kneeler.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a bit of talking, mainly from the cantor, who was setting up his guitar paraphernalia.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The cantor said "Good morning" and welcomed us; then the priest began with "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Daily Missal and a service book/hymnal entitled Breaking Bread 2008.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
It was a little distracting to hear the standard hymns played with acoustic guitar instead of organ, but it was pleasant enough. The priest had a slight accent that I couldn't place (Filipino, I later learned) and that distracted me, along with a highly reverberating sound system. There also was a small disturbance when someone came to sit directly behind me, and then got up and found another seat. There were so many empty seats – what was the problem?
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A standard novus ordo eucharist, but with the hymns and sung parts of the mass accompanied by guitar. There were no acolytes or servers. The psalm was sung responsively with the cantor, and the Lord's Prayer and some other parts were sung. The priest chanted the parts of the liturgy that are usually chanted, but there were no bells or incense. The congregation seemed engaged, as much as possible, and not bored, although many did not join in the singing. The guitarist was very good. The hymns were standard, not some silly type of folk mass stuff. It was pleasant, but different. At the exchange of peace, everyone just nodded and gave a conservative little wave of the hand – no getting out of the pews to shake hands, something I've never cared for much.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Father Pabs (I suppose he must like to be called this) was an interesting looking man who could be mistaken for a Japanese actor, with a thick mop of black hair in a Beatle haircut. He was very enthusiastic, used expansive hand gestures and was a bit loud sometimes, I believe to wake up the rather sleepy congregation. He didn't rely on notes, which was nice. Even though it was a short homily, he did seem a bit unfocused although his material was sound.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke of Christ as victor, king, judge, and the one who is coming. As the liturgical year ends and a new year begins with Advent, we must lead Christ-centered lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
After communion there was quiet – no guitar, no children fidgeting, no one talking, only some shuffling and clunking of the folding kneelers. It was a good atmosphere for prayer.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Alas, a little child couldn't be restrained for long during that peaceful silence after communion. The tyke seemed to have quite a bit to say that he must have been holding in for some time.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no coffee hour, and as everyone was leaving it didn't seem worth it to hang around acting lost. Father Pabs was busy meeting with people and I didn't get to talk to him.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee hour that I could see.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – There really doesn't seem to be much of a community. I can do without the coffee hour, but I like to be in a church with organ and choir. The men's and boys' choir must sing at the earlier mass – why is it that the early service is always the traditional one?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Being in a lovely church, to pray in silence and sing pleasant hymns, with a Christ-centered homily.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Father Pabs and the nodded peace.