|878: St Vincent Ferrer, New York, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Amanda
B. Reckondwythe, accompanied by three other shipmates.
The church: St Vincent Ferrer, New York, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: Located at the corner of East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the Church of St Vincent Ferrer is a large stone church in the French Gothic style. Dedicated on May 5, 1918, the church was designed by Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue and is considered to be one of Goodhue's greatest ecclesiastical works. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, the exterior was being cleaned and was masked by scaffolding and plastic drapes. Attached to the church on the right is the multi-storied red brick monastery of the Dominican Friars, who oversee the church. The church's interior features a long, narrow nave, rather dark, and studded with side chapels. Stained glass windows, favoring cobalt blue, are breathtakingly beautiful but provide scant illumination. The west window, framed by the gallery organ, is particularly attractive. Upon entering the nave, one's attention is immediately drawn to the high altar of black marble with gold trimmings located at the top of five marble steps. Intricate altar carvings depict Christ crowned in glory, atop representations of St Vincent Ferrer overseeing the work of conversions to Christianity for which he is famous.
The church: The church is administered by the Dominican Friars, also known as the Order of Preachers. Founded by St Dominic in 1215, the order was established to preach God's word and to set an example of the prayerful Christian life.
The neighbourhood: Known to many as the most affluent and posh area of Manhattan, the Upper East Side features verdant, tree-lined streets and avenues, exclusive luxury apartments, and some of the city's most upmarket shops and restaurants.
The cast: Rev. Richard Bradford, Celebrant; Rev. Carleton Jones, O.P., Co-Celebrant; Rev. Michael Connolley, Deacon; Rev. David Burt, Cantor.
What was the name of the service?
Mass according to the Anglican use, Pentecost Sunday. The service was a special occasion. Father Bradford is part of a community of Roman Catholic converts from Anglicanism who have been granted permission to use a liturgy known as the "Anglican Use". It is sort of a cross between the Roman Missal and the Book of Common Prayer. Father Bradford is from Boston and had been invited to celebrate mass at St Vincent Ferrer.
How full was the building?
About 40 people. The church holds about 500.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. However, a gentleman stationed at the transept invited arriving worshipers to sit in the great choir. This gave an intimate feel to the service: the 40 of us would have felt lost seated in the cavernous nave.
Was your pew comfortable?
Typical wooden church pews and kneelers in the nave, but the pew backs were attached at an uncomfortable angle. In the great choir, the seating consisted of divided stalls (misericords) at an angle ideal for monastics but too severe for the comfort of us lay folk.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Silent as a tomb. Granted, all were strangers, having come from various parts especially for the occasion, but there was absolutely no talk or movement out of any of them.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The cantor chanted, "The Spirit of the Lord hath delivered the whole world, Alleluia."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Holy Eucharist, Commonly Called the Mass, plus two handouts containing hymns for the day and the Healey Willan setting of the ordinary.
What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ, beautifully voiced and tuned, and expertly played. There was no choir: the singing was led by a lone cantor. He sang beautifully but was no substitute for a proper choir. Even half a dozen voices would have made a positive difference.
Did anything distract you?
Many elements of the liturgy and ceremonial were distracting. The liturgy was essentially Rite 1 with Roman Catholic elements added: mention of the pope; greater mention of the saints than one would normally find in an Episcopalian church; inclusion of the orate frates and differences in the language used at the consecration. "For thine is the kingdom..." was appended to the Lord's Prayer almost as an afterthought. The vestments, too, were mismatched. Father Bradford and Father Connolley wore matching red chasuble and dalmatic, part of a strikingly beautiful antique set, but Father Jones wore just a plain white chasuble over his Dominican habit. The altar, celebrant, gospel book and elements were all censed with a pleasantly fragrant incense, and the deacon censed the congregation.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was like a performance at the theater. There was no feeling of communal worship. With one exception, the hymns appeared to be copied out of the 1940 Hymnal and were unfamiliar. My fellow shipmates and I regarded them as unfortunate choices. Billed as a "Sung Mass," the absence of the necessary ministers made it closer to a low mass. They made a valiant effort: the deacon chanted the epistle in a beautifully mellow tenor voice, and the co-celebrant, a serviceable baritone, likewise chanted the gospel. Beautifully done but, in the absence of the necessary ministers, perhaps a well-celebrated low mass would have been less distracting and more spiritually uplifting.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 Father Bradford read his sermon from notes. His premise was clearly set forth and developed, but to me reading a sermon is not the same as preaching a sermon.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Christ prayed that it would be "expedient" for him to go away. Christ as man could not last forever his physical form was not intended to signify immortality but he promised to send another comforter. Pentecost is the answer to Christ's prayer. With Pentecost we see that although God is invisible he is not distant or abstract. Christ showed us that a personal relationship with the Infinite is possible. Without Pentecost, Christianity would probably have faded into oblivion along with the teachings of philosophers such as Socrates. But the Holy Spirit inspires us. This is the essence of the Christian faith.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I thought that the incense smelled heavenly, but others in our party thought it smelled like grandpa's pipe tobacco. All baptized Christians were invited to communion under both species, although the printed handout couldn't refrain from mentioning that "ordinarily the Catholic Church does not offer the eucharist to Christians with whom it is in disagreement."
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The odd mixture of Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism just didn't seem to jell for most of us. The Anglican Use rite is unabashedly offered as a lure to make disenchanted Anglicans feel more comfortable about embracing Roman Catholicism. Father Bradford had said he would deliver a short second sermon after mass, and so he did; he described a group known as "Anglican Youth" and what can only be characterized as the efforts of the Catholic Church to lure these youth away from Anglicanism and into the bosom of the "one true church". This struck me as distinctly contrary to the ecumenical spirit.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Father Jones invited everyone into the monastery's reception parlor for refreshments.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Fruit punch in paper cups, and an assortment of cookies, served in a rather Edwardian suite of parlors. The hosts attempted with mixed success to have us sign a visitor's book for mailing list purposes. Literature on the Anglican Use was scattered about.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 I certainly would be disinclined to attend another such service when I have at my disposal a well-celebrated high Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian service in any number of churches, without my having to leave Brooklyn. As for Sunday mass at St Vincent Ferrer I might give it a try just out of curiosity in the unlikely event I should find myself on Manhattan's Upper East Side on a Sunday morning.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. It was most distressing to hear ecumenism equated with Christianity as a mixture of traditions in which the wayward were to be lured back into the one true fold.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The wonderfully fragrant incense, the organ so beautifully played, but also, I'm afraid, the proselytising.