St Thomas the Apostle, Phoenix, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Thomas the Apostle
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 February 2020, 11:00am

The building

In 1951, ground was broken for a building that is now their parish hall, while the congregation worshipped in a nearby school. The present church building, in the Spanish Colonial style, dates from 1960. The most noticeable feature of the exterior is the tower, which rises 105 feet. Inside, one finds a large, bright room with blue star-studded ceiling and white walls. Stained glass depicts sheaves of wheat (south wall) and clusters of grapes (north wall). A marble altar sits on a platform atop six steps. There is a baldachin over the altar, on which is inscribed “My Lord and My God” and on top of which stands the risen Christ with the Doubting Thomas kneeling at his feet. Over the altar is a large crucifix, and behind it is a mural depicting an Arizona desert scene. Confessionals line the aisles, as do shrines to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to a saint whom I didn’t recognize. Choir and organ are located in a loft at the rear. There are several things that distracted me about the décor, which I’ll mention below.

The church

St Thomas the Apostle is a large parish, and a very busy one judging from their website. They have all the usual men’s, women’s and youth groups – see their website for details. There is a Time and Talent Coordinator on staff, who (quoting from their website) ‘can connect you to people and programs that are just right.’ Of special note is Holy Grounds, a group that meets for (again quoting from their website) ‘coffee, conversation and formation.’ The St Thomas the Apostle School includes grades kindergarten through eight and is staffed by Dominican nuns as well as lay teachers. There is one mass each weekday, with an evening mass on Wednesdays. The customary vigil mass is celebrated on Saturdays, and four masses are celebrated each Sunday, one in the evening.

The neighborhood

They are located on North 24th Street at Campbell Avenue in Phoenix’s Biltmore district, so named due to the presence of the very posh Arizona Biltmore resort hotel within its boundaries. (Legend has it that songsmith Irving Berlin wrote the ever-popular ‘White Christmas’ while lounging at poolside at the Biltmore, but the story is most likely apocryphal.) This is an upscale neighborhood featuring financial firms, medical offices, luxury boutiques, high-class restaurants, and gated communities of expensive homes. The sprawling 24-room Wrigley Mansion, not far from the hotel, was built in 1930 by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr as his ‘winter cottage.’ Alas, Wrigley died two years after its completion and so did not get to spend many winters there. Today the mansion is a popular tourist attraction and a highly desirable wedding venue.

The cast

I believe the celebrant was the pastor, although he wasn’t identified and I couldn’t be sure judging from his website photo – he has grown a full beard, which is absent in the photo. He was vested in a lace alb over which he wore a fiddleback chasuble and (yes!) maniple. He was assisted by a squadron of servers in cassock and cotta and (for the most part) proper haberdashery, although I did spot a pair of jeans and (oh, the horror!) one pair of white socks.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Its capacity is said to be about 1100 and it was pretty much full. We were not squeezed in, but every pew was comfortably occupied. A mixed crowd age-wise; lots of families.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Well, no, they didn’t. Outside on the terrace, donuts and coffee were being sold by the Knights of Columbus. I helped myself to a donut (tasty and fresh). Coffee had been poured from a large urn and set out in styrofoam cups. I asked a Knight of Columbus if the coffee was hot or if it had cooled off (it was a chilly morning), but got no answer. Inside, a lady was handing out bulletins, but she looked straight at me apparently without seeing me and without saying anything or offering me a bulletin. I had to help myself from a stack on a table. In short, no one said anything to me. I must have forgotten to turn off my cloaking device.

Was your pew comfortable?

Unpadded wooden pew – it was OK.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People sat quietly – no talking or visiting. The choir rehearsed. A server (vested in cassock) puttered about the sanctuary setting up for mass. I started to take notes but realized that my pen had gone dry. I had another one out in the Amandamobile, and went out to fetch it. Upon returning, I noticed that in the pew was a stack of offering cards, a notepad, and a box of pens. Call me naughty, but I helped myself to a pen to compensate for my troubles.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘We have seen your mercy, O God, in the midst of your temple’ (the introit for the day), chanted by the choir in English to the Gregorian setting.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

No books. There were two handouts: a bulletin of announcements and ads, and a separate booklet with the music and readings. Both were nicely put together. In the pew was a laminated card entitled ‘Roman Missal, Third Edition, Order of Mass.’

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, an electronic instrument up in the choir loft. There was also a mixed choir – I couldn’t see up in the loft from my vantage point and so couldn’t count how many singers there were.

Did anything distract you?

The décor afforded quite a few distractions. Under each Station of the Cross was a small candle on a wall sconce – but there were identical candles and sconces under the ventilation ducts as well! The floor included tiles with various symbols, such as the keys of St Peter. The light baffles on the chandeliers were engraved with crosses. There were six tall candles flanking the altar, but at the beginning of mass the servers brought out six more candles, placed them on the altar, and lit them. I had never seen that done before.

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

It was the most extraordinary celebration I have ever seen. Everything was done with dignity and style. As mentioned, the priest wore traditional Roman vestments, and celebrated ad orientem. Almost everything was chanted. Incense billowed in abundance, and bells jingled at all the right places, including the Hanc igitur, which you hardly ever see anymore. The eucharistic prayer was the Roman Canon. The music was, for the most part, modern Catholic, but miles above the usual Singing Nun stuff you hear nowadays. The priest and choir chanted as much of the mass as they could. The Kyrie was chanted in Greek; the Agnus Dei in Latin. The exchange of peace was rather tame; no one offered me the peace. Given everything else, I was surprised to see that the altar party did not indulge in liturgical embraces – rather, they shook hands. The bulletin tersely warned, ‘Only Catholics who are not conscious of grave sin and have fasted for one hour may be admitted to Holy Communion.’ I did not receive; those who did received under the species of bread only. Mass concluded with the Leonine prayer to St Michael the Archangel. As the altar party moved down the aisle at the recessional, not a single person moved a muscle until the recessional hymn had concluded. You almost never see that in a Catholic church.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

6 — The priest’s delivery was clear and he peppered his sermon with several personal anecdotes. I was going to rate him higher, but after a while he digressed onto two detours, thus actually preaching three sermons in one. I was reminded of the late Billy Graham’s story of how, when he was about to deliver his very first sermon ever, he happened to have three sermon outlines in his pocket – and ended up preaching all three!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Today was the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and so his text was the gospel for the day, Luke 2:22-40. Mary did not need to be ‘purified,’ nor did Jesus need to be ‘consecrated to God’ – he was God! But the Holy Family obeyed the law. Obedience is the key word. Mary obeyed God when the Angel Gabriel announced to her that she would conceive. Joseph obeyed the angel who told him not to call off his engagement to the pregnant Mary. Mary and Joseph both obeyed the angel who told them to flee to Egypt. Jesus obeyed the Father, who told him that he had to suffer and die. Are we obedient to God? (But here the priest began to digress – digression number 1.) We are measured in the same way that we measure (Matthew 7:2). Mary essentially wrote God a blank check: ‘Be it done unto me according to your Word.’ The poor widow gave all she had to the Temple treasury (Luke 21:1-4). And so not only obedience, but generosity, are the key words for today. (Digression number 2.) It is the duty of the Christian family to raise their children in church – sending them to Sunday school is not enough. Children observe their parents’ faith or lack thereof. People are often annoyed by the antics of children in church – but not Simeon, who took the baby Jesus into his arms. Do all you can to bring children to the Lord.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir, and the music, were of a caliber not often witnessed in Catholic churches nowadays – or in any church, if truth be told. The choir sang with perfect intonation, breathing, enunciation and blending – clearly their director knows his stuff and how to teach it. The offertory anthem was ‘Christ Before Us’ by Janet Sullivan Whitaker, to the tune of the traditional Welsh lullaby Suo Gân. Lovely beyond words. The communion hymn was the always-beautiful ‘Be Thou My Vision’ to the tune of Slane.

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

But, as mentioned above, the choir rehearsed in church before mass. I always disapprove of this. Are there no choir rooms? Are there no school classrooms with a piano? People are trying to pray and otherwise to arrange their minds in preparation for mass. Distractions are out of place.

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

I was eager to speak with the priest about his celebration. I asked him if he always celebrated mass this way, and he replied, ‘Only at the 11.00 mass. The others are contemporary.’ I also went up into the choir loft and complimented the choir and organist on the excellent music.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The Knights of Columbus were again selling coffee and donuts out on the patio, but I had partaken before mass and it was lunchtime. I didn’t hang around, but rather headed for my favorite Mexican place, El Taco Tote, where I enjoyed a delicious lunch of tacos al pastor. And of course I stopped in at Dairy Queen on the way home for dessert.

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

8 — I live clear on the other side of town and am not over this way often, but I was very glad I had made the trip this morning. I had almost forgotten how inspiring the Catholic mass can be when it is done with dignity and accompanied by good music. It would be good to make a return visit on a special occasion.

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

Most definitely.

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

The dignity and beauty of it all.

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