|948: Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Brooklyn, New York, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Brooklyn, New York, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
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The building: The Basilica is located at the corner of 60th Street and 5th Avenue, in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. A massive granite building in the Romanesque style, it stands out as a landmark and can be clearly seen even from boats in New York Bay. The interior is of light beige granite with cocoa brown faux marble columns. Dark oak pews fill the nave, and matching dark oak confessionals embellish the side aisles. Intricate and colorful stained glass windows line each wall. In the sanctuary are an electronic organ and grand piano; a large pipe organ in the choir loft stands unused. Both the high altar and communion table are of light marble. A white marble reredos behind the high altar depicts the Crucifixion and is framed by a string of small Christmas-tree-like white lights. Over the sanctuary is a dome with frescos portraying the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Metal folding chairs occupy the space where choir stalls should be.
The church: The church is administered by the Redemptorist Fathers, a religious community founded in 1749 by St. Alphonsus, whose members lead a life of prayer, penance, and good works, with special emphasis on caring for the poor. The church maintains a busy worship schedule both during the week and on weekends, with masses in English, Spanish, and Cantonese. The church sponsors many neighborhood activities, with special emphasis on Cub Scouts, a softball league, and other youth groups.
The neighbourhood: Despite its bucolic name, Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood is a gritty industrial strip stretching along Brooklyn's waterfront from the Gowanus Canal to the 65th Street Pier. The neighborhood is sliced in half by the elevated Gowanus Expressway, one of the legacies with which master builder Robert Moses both blessed and cursed New York. The avenues east of the Expressway are lined with cheap bargain-basement shops and eateries, while warehouses, railroad tracks and shipping piers dominate the land to the west. Brooklyn's once-proud waterfront today lies mostly in ruins, the maritime industry having moved over to the New Jersey side of the bay. Real Estate developers have shown no interest in the waterfront area, which is poorly served by public transportation. Sunset Park's residential streets are tree-lined and have for the most part succeeded in presenting a clean, scrubbed face, although some just can't shake off layers of encrusted graffiti and dirt. The neighborhood's ethnic makeup is largely Latino, with a heavy Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican and Central American presence. Chinese and Middle Easterners also have made significant inroads. Sunset Park's Chinatown, stretching along 8th Avenue, is second only to Manhattan's for its variety of restaurants, bakeries and specialty shops.
The cast: The Rev. John Travers, celebrant. In addition to Father Travers, the altar party consisted of a lector and three women, none of whom were named or vested. As will be seen, the role the women played in the service was not readily ascertainable.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
How full was the building?
About 100 people; the church holds about 600. A few families sat down front, but the rest of the congregation was for the most part scattered along the sides of the nave and in the back, leaving a gaping void in the center.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
The angle of the back was a bit severe; I wouldn't call it comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organist doodled about on the electronic organ, testing the various stops. Just when I thought he had finally broken into a prelude, it turned out to be just more doodling. The congregation maintained absolute silence.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Today's Missal in English and Spanish. Also available in the pews was a Spanish hymnal entitled Flor y Canto.
What musical instruments were played?
The electronic organ. The organist did double-duty as cantor (there was no choir), and his singing can be charitably described as untrained, although stronger adjectives spring to mind. Unfortunately he saw to it that he was overmiked (unlike poor Father Travers, who was distinctly undermiked for his sermon). No one joined in any of the hymns.
Did anything distract you?
The Christmas-tree lights surrounding the reredos were the epitome of tackiness.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The mass was a typical novus ordo Catholic mass, but there was minimal if any participation by the congregation and no sense of community worship. The congregation barely mumbled the responses, and the peace ceremony was the tamest I have ever witnessed. Only one person exchanged the peace with me, but I was in no mood for it anyway by that time.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 Father Travers spoke clearly, which was a miracle being that the pulpit was undermiked and his voice echoed in the cavernous nave, but he made scant eye contact with the congregation and did little else to establish a rapport.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Travers began well, stating that he would speak on the virtue of humility and reminding us that even though we equate worth with material success, God equates worth with how much we love one another. But he quickly digressed into an anecdote about Albert Schweitzer, and in the next breath drew his sermon to a close.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I really can't say there was anything heavenly about this service. But if I must, the electronic organ was well voiced and the organist's communion solo was pleasant to listen to.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
With the exception of the Sacred Mystery itself, just about everything else. See my comments above. The organist's singing was simply dreadful. It broke my heart to see such a magnificent pipe organ sit unused. The person whose idea it was to hang Christmas tree lights around the reredos should be exiled. The three women in the altar party appeared to serve no liturgical function after a flurry of stage whispers, they were pressed into fetching the bread and wine at offertory time, but Father made his chalice and performed his ablutions with no assistance from them or anyone else. As it turned out, they were eucharistic ministers, assisting with the distribution of communion. The congregation was the most uninspiring one I have ever been a member of.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not expecting that anything would happen, I high-tailed it out of there without waiting to find out.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 Wild horses couldn't drag me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
This particular service? No.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will try my best to put the entire experience out of my mind.