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109: St Stephen's, Olean, New York
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St Stephen's Church, Olean, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Eagle Eye.
The church: St Stephen's, Olean, New York.
Denomination: Episcopal Church, USA.
The building: A fairly small red stone Victorian cruciform church with an odd combination of Gothic, Romanesque and Norman detail. The stained glass depicting scenes from the life of Christ was stunning.
The neighbourhood: The church is located on the side of the central square in the town, complete with gazebo and miscellaneous memorials to famous Oleanites.
The cast: The rector, Rev T. James Snodgrass, was on a pulpit exchange with the Very Rev Allen Farabee, Dean of the Diocesan Cathedral in Buffalo, so we had the dean for the morning.
What was the name of the service?
The Holy Eucharist, Rite II.

How full was the building?
For most of the service there were about 75 folks in a building which would seat 225 or so, although they scattered themselves around so that it didn't seem quite as empty as it sounds. Most pews had at least one or two people in them.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes, an usher handed us a bulletin and said a hearty "good morning" as we entered.

Was your pew comfortable?
No cushion, but reasonably comfortable nevertheless.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Small town chatty. The only time you were really aware of talking was when the organ stopped between one piece of prelude music and the next.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1982. In addition, the lessons were on an insert in the bulletin so worshippers could follow along.

What musical instruments were played?
Just the organ. Incidentally, this small church has a wonderful four-manual organ with pipes displayed on both sides of the choir loft, as well as an impressive antiphonal organ situated high on the rear wall of the church. The music was of a very high standard; the organist using the instrument thoughtfully to embolden the rather sparse congregation in singing hymns and responses without overwhelming them with thunder. The nine-person choir, including what appeared to be a lady tenor, was surprisingly good.

Did anything distract you?
The church is equipped with a sound system, but it was not operating. The dean, who did not speak too clearly to begin with, was not quite equal to the task of projecting his voice to the congregation. Also, during the prayer of consecration at communion, a trio of fire trucks roared through a nearby intersection, with sirens blaring, drowning out the proceedings at the altar.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Moderately stiff-upper-lip. There was a procession to the center of the church for the reading of the gospel. The preface to communion was sung by the priest and congregation and there was also a sanctus bell, which sounded remarkably like a telephone instead of the gentle clash of multiple bells used in some churches. This was, however, a smoke-free service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
I'd give him a 7. The content was good, but the delivery was hindered by the non-functioning speaker system.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Sermons should not condemn the congregation, but should offer encouragement as St Paul does again and again in his letters to the fledgling churches of his day.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
None, really. There were a couple of potential moments when we were moving in that direction, but the pearly gates never actually opened.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
None. The firetrucks were there to put out the flames.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We didn't have the chance as we had reservations for brunch in a nearby restaurant. However, the congregation did seem friendly, particularly the usher, who asked for all kinds of identifying information.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Educational, I presume.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Well, it is the only Episcopal church in town and I would enjoy the music, I'm sure. The bulletin identified a lot of activities and the congregation seemed welcoming, so I'd give it an 8.

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 windows.
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