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1135: St Anthony of Padua, Greenwich Village, New York City, USA
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St Anthony of Padua, Greenwich Village, New York City, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper.
The church: St Anthony of Padua, Greenwich Village, New York City, New York.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: A large Romanesque church at Sullivan and West Houston Streets, built in 1886. Vivid, attractive stained glass windows all depict events in the life of St Anthony. The interior is a laudable blend of the tasteful and devotional. Statues (among them Saints Anthony, Jude, Rocco, Lucy, etc.) line both sides of the church proper but are accessible to those who wish to touch them. Franciscan saints are dressed in cloth habits. This is the rare church where expansive Italian devotion is accommodated without excess in design.
The church: From the start St Anthony's was a haven for immigrants. Its original congregation consisted predominantly of Italians who engaged in rivalry with nearby Irish churches. Today, though there are still many members of Italian ancestry, recent immigrants from South American and African nations have also made the parish their spiritual home.
The neighborhood: Greenwich Village, known to all as simply "the Village," is a neighborhood of diagonal streets and narrow alleys on Manhattan’s west side below 14th Street. From the late 19th to mid 20th century it was known as a mecca for the rebellious artistic spirit, although today no starving artist could afford to live there. But the vibe still lingers, and the area features a rich collection of offbeat shops, cafes, restaurants, and small parks. It is also the site of New York University’s main campus. The feast of St Anthony marks the start each year of a two-week street festival held in the Village.
The cast: Names were not provided.
What was the name of the service?
Mass and novena for the feast of St Anthony.

How full was the building?
It was absolutely packed, which was remarkable for a midday service on a Monday. People were standing in the aisles.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was late, so I cannot say what greeting I would have received. But there were some elderly ladies seated in front of the church who asked me if I would wish to purchase some raffle tickets.

Was your pew comfortable?
As a latecomer, I ended up standing.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I was not there before the service began, and hope I'll be forgiven for substituting a description of the post-service atmosphere, which merits a mention. I found the atmosphere deeply moving. Many people, including those who were very young, stood in line to kiss St Anthony's relic and then stopped in front of the various statues for silent prayer, reaching up to touch the statues or grasp their hands. I felt surrounded by love and concern as I watched them light candles, pin money on St Anthony's habit, and caress the lilies that had been placed in the statue's hands.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Probably "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen," but in Italian. (The entire mass was conducted in Italian.)

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a special leaflet containing texts for the mass and the novena to follow.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. A young female cantor sang with the voice of an angel.

Did anything distract you?
For all of its charm, seeing many of the faithful wandering about during the mass to pray before the statues was rather distracting. I was overcome with nostalgia as I remembed the Italian parishes of my youth and the priests I knew, the colorful parishioners, and my family members, most of whom are long dead.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I It was reverent but delightfully casual. People seemed attentive and very devout, but had no qualms about greeting one another, talking, and so forth – with the comfortable sense of being "in their Father's house" which I have always loved in Italians and others who seem so very much at home in their parish churches.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
I'm afraid the sermon was just coming to an end as I arrived.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was deeply moved at the sight of everyone offering prayers before the statues and venerating the relic. I sensed that these were devotees who regard those in the heavenly courts as a loving, extended family to whom any care can be brought.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Various food items and other goods were offered for sale in the church hall as part of a fundraising effort. In a misguided attempt to be supportive of the church, I purchased and ate a meatball sandwich. I found myself biting into what seemed to be a small piece of wood. That was the end of any gastronomic adventures for the day.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone went down into the church hall, which was in the basement, where the aforementioned wood log (oops, I mean meatball) sandwiches were being sold, along with assorted religious articles and other food items, including blessed oil and small loaves of bread. Just about everyone who was too old to be in a pram and too young to be a pensioner was shepherding someone who was, and I doubt that Benedict XVI would have been noticed had he decided to join them.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was too hot for me to be drinking coffee, so I quaffed a deliciously cold Pepsi instead, which helped settle my stomach after the meatball disaster. There were only two ladies ringing up sales for such a large crowd, and some of those waiting simply helped themselves.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – Were I Roman Catholic and lived in the area, I might come to this church regularly – but neither is the case. I cannot really judge the feel of an ordinary service based on this one special occasion.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did indeed! The blend of loving petition and fairly elaborate ritual made Jesus of Nazareth seem very near.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Seeing everyone approaching the relic and statue with such obvious faith... and the meatball fiasco. I may never eat meatballs again!
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