St Thomas, Charlotte Amalie, USVI (Exterior)

St Thomas, Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Thomas
Location: Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 May 2016, 9:00am

The building

The circa 1840s Greek Revival-style church is the fifth structure used by the congregation over its long history. It was heavily restored in 1995 following Hurricane Marilyn. Many still call it the Dutch church, as the congregation dates to the Dutch traders who emigrated here in the 17th century. The interior is whitewashed, in keeping with Reformation ideals, and rather plain save for a handful of historic memorial plaques adorning the walls, as one might see in an English countryside parish church. The semi-circular chancel is separated from the nave by two steps and features a small table, topped by a brass cross, sitting underneath a pulpit reminiscent of a judge's bench – emphasizing the prominence of the Word, as opposed to the Lord's Supper, in this Protestant tradition.

The church

The congregation are extremely active and, at least according to the lady in the pew in front of me (more below), include many prominent members of the community. They have an active youth ministry, help a weekly Salvation Army lunch, and sponsor a "hope, faith and purpose" program for at-risk young adults that includes training in trades and other vocations.

The neighborhood

The territorial capital of the United States Virgin Islands and located on the island of St Thomas, Charlotte Amalie was named after Charlotte Amalie of Hesse-Kassel, queen consort to King Christian V of Denmark. The city is rich with history. Formerly a colonial possession of Denmark, it has been a port of trade (legitimate and illegitimate) for hundreds of years. The infamous pirate Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, called here regularly. During the American Civil War, Charlotte Amalie gained notoriety as a smuggling depot for goods destined for the Confederacy, whose ports were blockaded by Union troops. Nowadays, tourism is the mainstay of the city's economy. The church is nestled away in a gritty, not quite gentrified historic neighborhood that is located several blocks away from the waterfront and commercial district – the area where thousands of cruise ship passengers disembark every day to take advantage of tax-free shopping. The Episcopal/Anglican cathedral and the second-oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere are nearby. By virtue of the Virgin Islands being a United States territory, residents are US citizens but cannot vote for President, and the territory is represented in Congress by a non-voting member.

The cast

The Revd Will Brooks, associate pastor of youth and young adults, was the minister.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Worship.

How full was the building?

The pews in the nave were about 90 per cent full, though the galleries remained mostly empty outside of the choir and organist. A lady in front of my pew could be heard whispering to a young gentleman (who I presume was her son) who the "important" worshipers in the pews were, as there were a number of judges, lawyers, doctors and other grandees of St Thomas present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed me a bulletin, which contained the order of service, but never welcomed me or even shook my hand.

Was your pew comfortable?

The wooden pews, which looked original to the church's 19th century construction, were unpadded and not terribly comfortable even for a 75-minute service.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?


What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Chalice Hymnal, produced by the Disciples of Christ denomination, was in the pews and used for a single hymn. The liturgy and other hymns were printed verbatim in the order of service.

What musical instruments were played?

A piano and organ of unknown make.

Did anything distract you?

Trying to come up with the raison d'être for the denomination, which – absent its Dutch heritage – seems, at least on the surface, no different from Presbyterians or Methodists.

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

This being my first Dutch Reformed service, it's difficult for me to ascertain whether the churchmanship was representative of the denomination writ large. Nevertheless, I found it typical of a traditional – as in no praise band or drop-down video screen – service of the staunchly reformed Protestant tradition. The minister wore a sports jacket and trousers without a stole or clergy collar. The liturgy made no reference to the Seventh Sunday in Easter or to the Ascension, although it did include a litany for Mothers Day. The Lord's Prayer was included in the printed order of service, but for some reason the minister omitted it.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

17 minutes.

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

5 – It was an average and unmemorable sermon that drew upon Mothers Day and the recognition given earlier in the service to an elderly female congregant who was there with several generations of her family and their offspring.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The sermon discussed how scripture uses the phrase "these are the generations" to tell the story of faith in families going back to the time of God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Seeing a church full of children, which isn't the case in many churches of my own denomination.

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

The unpadded pew, as I could never find a comfortable sitting position.

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

My companion dragged me off to a brunch, so there was no coffee for me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

While I didn't go to the after-service social affair, the minister made a point of announcing that coffee, tea and cake were being served.

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

5 – If I were looking for a vibrant congregation in the Reformed Church tradition with families and children, this would surely suffice.

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

It felt like something was missing (see below).

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

The minister forgetting the Lord's Prayer.

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