St Sava, Phoenix, Arizona

St Sava, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Sava
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 July 2007, 10:00am

The building

An oblong brick building resembling a blimp hangar with domes. The interior is white, with a vaulted ceiling and dark wood iconostasis and pews. Behind the iconostasis is a relatively large sanctuary over which is depicted the Blessed Virgin enthroned, holding the Christ Child on her lap, attended by two angels.

The church

They are understandably proud of their choir. Other organizations include a seniors group, folklore group, soccer club, Circle of Serbian Sisters, and a Sunday school.

The neighborhood

Phoenix is a city with no sense of the past. As soon as a building begins to look like it belongs somewhere, it is torn down and something else is put up in its place. The church sits on a cul-de-sac across from a vacant lot where a sign promises a high-rise residential tower. What may have been there before is anybody's guess.

The cast

The Very Revd Stavrophor Janko Trbovic, parish priest, assisted by the Revd Marko Marusich, subdeacon, and two servers whose names were not given. Father Trbovic wore a white alb with gold trim, a red cloth of gold stole, and a cope-like garment of red cloth of gold. Subdeacon Marusich was vested similarly except everything was gold. The servers wore black cassocks.

What was the name of the service?

Divine Liturgy.

How full was the building?

Initially I counted 35 people in a building that can hold 250. About 20 or so more came in as the service progressed. The congregation represented a broad mix of age groups.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No.There was a guest book but I didn't sign it. I bought a candle from a gentleman who offered no greeting. People were milling about at the entrance but no one said anything to me.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. It was an upholstered wooden pew and was quite comfortable. There were no kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Some quiet visiting.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

I don't know. The church bells were rung (deep, sonorous bells) and the priest emerged from behind the iconostasis, thurible in hand, and walked up and down the aisle censing everyone in silence. He then muttered something inaudible at the altar and began the chant, which was in Serbian.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, in English and Serbian, and a service leaflet likewise in both languages.

What musical instruments were played?

None. A small but very fine choir in the gallery chanted everything a cappella.

Did anything distract you?

A strikingly handsome young gentleman entered a few minutes after the service had begun, accompanying two likewise strikingly beautiful young women dressed in black. This gave me something interesting to rest my eyes on when my attention lagged. And it took me a little while to figure out the rubrics, which were basically that we stood when the royal doors were open and sat when they were closed, with some exceptions. One woman, however, stood for the entire service.

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

I'd call it an opera between clergy and choir. The congregation were silent throughout, except for the Lord's Prayer, which was recited (not chanted) in English. All the rest of the service was chanted in Serbian, except for a few parts in English. Much of the action took place behind the closed royal doors. At what I assume was the moment of consecration (the doors were closed), a fury of bells broke forth – the sonorous church bells, the jangling sanctuary bell, the tinkling little jingle bells on the thurible. No one received communion except for about a dozen small children.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

6 – Father Trbovic delivered his sermon from in front of the altar and did not use notes. Although we were led to believe he'd be speaking about faith, hope and love, it seemed to me that he dwelled on the first virtue at the expense of the other two.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The most important virtues are faith, hope and love. There are many ways we can strengthen our faith – going to church is one way. Faith keeps us on the road to God. It involves sacrifice and prayerful conversation with God. Always behave as a good child of God, never forgetting who your Father is.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir sang beautifully in four-part harmony, sounding like twice their number. Of special interest was the creed, chanted in English. All voices sang the opening words of each sentence, followed by a recto tono recitative of the remainder of the sentence by a solo voice. This culminated in all voices singing "I await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.Amen." It was very effective.

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

A gentleman stood up, held his digital camera at arm's length, composed the picture in the LCD display, and fired his flash – three times! Miss Amanda hopes her own picture-taking technique was more subtle than that!

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

I queued up with the others to receive the antidoron and then went outside, where people were standing around talking in Serbian. I heard no English. I learned that a smile and "hello" apparently mean "I'm not one of you; ignore me" in Serbian.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

3 – The music was lovely, and everything flowed along very smoothly and with dignity. But unlike other Orthodox services I've attended, I felt this one was lifeless and cold.

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

No. I didn't feel that I had worshipped.

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

The most interesting choral setting of the creed.

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