St Stephen's, Pensacola, Florida, USA

St Stephen's, Pensacola, Florida, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Stephen's
Location: Pensacola, Florida, USA
Date of visit: Thursday, 25 December 2008, 10:30am

The building

This is a smaller church near the city center. The current church was built in the early 1950s and reflects the economies of the time. The simple, unadorned red brick exterior is in an architectural style that defies description – in short, ugly! A large library/conference center has been built within the close and completed in this last year; its style matches nothing else on the campus. Inside the church, the stained glass consists only of colored glass with no design. There are simple Stations of the Cross along the walls. In contrast, in front of the low altar was a Christmas crèche that was obviously a work of love. It must have had at least 300 figures including, in addition to the Holy Family, animals, a waterfall, a creek, a star that gleamed and glowed, and campfires – not to mention sheep and Magi coming over a hill.

The church

They are the only church in the diocese to offer the traditional Latin Tridentine mass. They sponsor a Holy Name Society, Ladies' Society and Legion of Mary.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood St Stephen's serves can best be described as inner-city and polyglot, composed of North Floridians and people of Mediterranean and Latin American descent. This is reflected in the congregation. The church is located on Garden Street in the city's historic area. It is adjacent to the city center on the west, a very upscale community to the north, and a multicultural neighborhood to the west and south.

The cast

The Revd Hector R.G. Pérez y Robles, STD, pastor, was the celebrant and preacher.

What was the name of the service?

Missa de Angelis (the Mass of Angels), a celebration of the Tridentine High Latin Mass.

How full was the building?

The church seats about 200: there was a congregation of about 60 to 75.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Another couple approached the doors of the church as we did and asked us if mass was scheduled. Later, an older gentlemen passed out missals and song sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?

A traditional wooden pew with serviceable kneelers was the order of the day.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

When we walked into the darkened church about 20 minutes prior to the time scheduled for the mass, there was a group of about eight or ten people, along with the acolyte corps, reciting the Rosary at the direction of a layman who knew what he was doing.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to St Stephen's."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Worship, a missal cum hymnal, was in the in pew slots. We were provided a Latin/English booklet containing the Tridentine service. The Latin was on the left page, the English on the right, and the rubrics in the margin, along with illustrative cartoons. We were also given a song sheet with the Gregorian Chant ordinaries for the Missa de Angelis.

What musical instruments were played?

A ho-hum electronic organ, a chiming clock and some electronic bells.

Did anything distract you?

The choir was composed of three or four people, one of whom was a better-than-average tenor who bore the load. The organist was inept. One hymn was in B major (5 sharps) and the organist bombed. It was apparent that no preparation had gone into the music. The congregation did not sing.

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

Tridentine mass, eastward facing (the pastor is on record as opposing what he calls the "Johnny Carson mass," i.e. facing the people). The celebrant wore white vestments with gold ornamentation. Plenty of incense, bells and candles galore. There was a corps of five teenage acolytes who knew what they were doing: one was the thurifer, another the crucifer, and the other three did their biddings and well. Nary a slip-up! The celebrant chanted beautifully, right on pitch and with clear enunciation of the Latin text – none of the gobbledygook that we sometimes suffer with others who only do it once in a while. The peace was exchanged among the altar party only, not being passed down to the people. Communion was under the species of bread only, and restricted to baptized Catholics properly predisposed. Is this high church or what?

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

4 – He wished everyone merry Christmas at the end of the sermon: in Latin, English, French, German, some Eastern European languages and a host of undefinable ones.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father Pérez's theme was Christmas, of course, and the mother Mary as the new Eve.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The flow of the mass and the mastery of the service by the celebrant.

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

The music, or lack thereof, or the malperformance thereof! The usual Christmas carols were on the list, in the usual humdrum arrangements. Aside from the choir, the only people who sang were Mrs Kid and I (I am a choir/choral society singer and can’t keep quiet).

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

We talked to folks; no coffee. We met one couple from Dothan, Alabama, a town about 150 miles away, who said they traveled to this church every week for the Tridentine mass. Father Perez invited me to "swim the Tiber" when he learned I was Episcopalian!

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 mass is a liturgical treat, but like fruitcake, only good for me once in a while. My doctrinal differences with Rome would prevent me from membership in this church.

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


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

The creche.

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