St Patrick's, Oakland, California

St Patrick’s, West Oakland, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Patrick’s, West Oakland
Location: California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 April 2023, 10:45am

The building

The church, which stands on Peralta St, was built in 1946 in a Californian Spanish Mission style, with roof tiles and a dark wooden ceiling supported by beams, replacing an earlier church built in the 1870s. To the left of the altar is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. To the right is a chapel for Our Lady of Kibeho in Rwanda (dedicated to an apparition of Mary in 1981). The baptismal font and the ambo are decorated with biblical themes carved out of wood by a parishioner. Above the altar is a Byzantine-shaped cross showing the crucified and resurrected Christ framed in a painting of the city of Oakland, which includes St Patrick’s Church. The cross was made from the wood of the original altar and painted by a Franciscan who served in the parish.

The church

The congregation is mostly African American. According to the mission statement of the church: ‘We are a culturally diverse Catholic community of believers in Jesus Christ that gathers to celebrate the mass and the sacraments. We praise God by preaching the Gospel and serving to live it out. We invite all to share at our table of fellowship and our service of those in need.’ There is a Spanish mass at 9am for the Hispanic community, which includes refugees from Central America. There is a Bible study, a ‘Faith in Action’ group which supports an inmate at San Quentin Prison, and a hospitality and fish fry committee, which recently netted $11,315 at a fish fry event. On May 9 the diocese will determine whether or not St Patrick can remain an independent parish. They may be combined with another congregation, and the destiny of their fine church and warm fellowship would then become an open question.

The neighborhood

The church is located in West Oakland in one of the oldest districts of the city. The residential streets are attractively tree-lined; they feature wooden Victorian houses which look run down, but many have been renovated. West Oakland is a transit area where railroad lines and seagoing ships have come together since the 1870s. Originally, Irish railroad workers lived in this area, which is why the church was named for the patron saint of Ireland. Today, it is mostly an Afro-American and Hispanic community, but gentrification has begun. The Black Panther Party, a powerful political organization established in 1966, which fought for justice for African Americans, established its headquarters just a few houses away, on the same street as the church. A co-founder of the party, Huey Newton, is memorialized with a statue and a street named after him, both not far from St Patrick. A prominent program of this party was a free breakfast for impoverished, famished children, which enabled them to get through a school day. According to a local resident, St Patrick School was one of the first to participate in this free breakfast.

The cast

The celebrant and preacher wasa priest of the Society of the Divine Word. Various lay people participated in the liturgy. Several soloists and the choir, consisting of six persons, led the singing.

What was the name of the service?

English Mass on the fourth Sunday of Easter.

How full was the building?

Approximately 30-40 people in a sanctuary with an estimated capacity of 200.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted warmly at the door. After we sat, several people greeted us, including the presiding priest.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet conversation, quiet piano music.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘God is good!’ This was followed by spontaneous words of praise and adoration, concluding 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?

No books. We used a service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano.

Did anything distract you?

The service sheet provided the texts of the praise songs which the choir sang with the congregation, but since there were no musical notes, I was not able to participate in the singing.

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

One parishioner characterized the style of worship as Bapcath, a mixture of Baptist spontaneity and Catholic ritual. Several parishioners are converted Baptists. So there were regular expressions of enthusiasm and approval from the congregation: ‘Amen!’ and applause occurred often. On the one hand there were liturgical texts, eucharistic bells, incense and vestments, but also spontaneous prayers and exuberant expressions of worship by the presiding priest. At the beginning, the congregation was sprinkled with water as a reminder of baptism. Before the reception of the eucharist, a person went to all worshipers and disinfected their hands. After the distribution was completed, a woman came forward to receive a prayer of healing, accompanied by anointing. At the end of the service there were many announcements, also involving family matters. Visitors introduced themselves and received a blessing from the priest, in which the congregation participated by a lifting of hands.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

9 — He referred to his notes regularly while speaking, but his words had immediacy and impact.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The theme of the sermon was ‘Minding our own Christian business.’ Jesus is our example for Christian living. He did not retaliate when he was slandered. As our High Priest he showed empathy for weakness. However, we are not weak. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.’ So we should not ‘play small’, overlooking what God is doing inside of us. Jesus came to bring joy in abundance, so that we can share it. Therefore, we can feel the wounds in others, as though they were our own, which gives us healing power. Jesus feels our outrage over injustice, but is capable of forgiving any sin, enabling us to forgive. Jesus is the Good Shepherd who carries us on his shoulders when we are broken. He teaches us that there is some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best of us. The voice of the shepherd frees us from self-pity, from a feeling of uselessness, from wanting to give up. God made us for each other, so we should make ourselves accessible for others. He came down from heaven to become like us, revealing his empathy with us, which is what saves us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Experiencing the vibrancy and warm-heartedness of the worshipers and the worship leadership was heavenly.

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

Because the praise songs were unfamiliar to me and there were no melody notes, I was not able to sing even one song with the congregation, which cut me off from full participation.

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

Everyone left by a side door. There was no chance to stand alone looking lost, because we became immediately engaged in conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no coffee.

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

8 — The worship experience, the friendliness of the people, and the uplifting atmosphere of the sanctuary were most inviting.

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

Yes, indeed.

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

The impressive cross hanging over the altar, which depicts the crucified and resurrected Christ dominating the city of Oakland, conveying the message: The destiny of this city, like the ultimate fate of humanity, will be determined by what happened on Good Friday and Easter.

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