|955: The Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Charleston, South Carolina, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Monastery Hood.
The church: The Cathedral of St John the Baptist, Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
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The building: The cathedral's exterior is of Connecticut tool-chiseled brownstone an imposingly Gothic structure indeed but, oddly, missing a steeple. Apparently, there never was one, due to lack of funds. The cornerstone was laid in 1890 and the present church was built upon the foundation of the original 1854 cathedral, which was destroyed by fire in 1861. The interior was smaller than I anticipated, with little ornamentation other than many stained glass windows (there were seven on each side of the nave depicting the life of Christ, five above the altar showing the Last Supper, with a rose window above those illustrating the Baptism of Christ.) In the clerestory of the sanctuary there were windows honoring the four evangelists. The interior was painted a soft ivory and there was some tasteful use of gold leaf just enough to highlight the vaulted ceiling and supporting columns. The pews were a much handled oak and the aisle and high altar were white marble.
The church: From what I could gather, this cathedral serves a diverse congregation, and its capacity swells to accommodate a good number of tourists. This is the "home church" of the Diocese of Charleston, the only diocese serving the whole of South Carolina, with Bishop Robert Baker in attendance.
The neighbourhood: The cathedral sits on the corner of Legare and Broad Streets in historic downtown Charleston. This is an exceedingly attractive area with hosts of beautiful antebellum homes sporting an abundance of wrought iron, piazzas, stately columns all nestled among immense live oaks draped in Spanish moss and tucked into magical little secret gardens behind ancient brick walls. This is a desirable area in which to live. O that we could be so fortunate!
The cast: I didn't quite catch the name of the monsignor who celebrated the mass, and hoped I would get a chance to ask him afterwards.
What was the name of the service?
Saturday Vigil, First Sunday in Advent.
How full was the building?
The nave was, I would say, two-thirds full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We had spent the day in Charleston a very wet, soggy, blusteringy depressing day. We had decided to find refuge in the cathedral and found ourselves there a full half hour before mass started. As a result, we were the only folks in the nave, with no one to welcome us, for about 15 minutes.
Was your pew comfortable?
Sorry to say, no! Although the seat was padded, it was miserably thin, and we were leg weary from our exploring throughout the day. The kneelers were hard on the knees, too. Still, it was a welcome respite from the weather conditions outside and I hate to grumble about something so measly as seat cushions and kneelers (measly though they were!).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Incredibly quiet and reverential, with the organist playing softly in the upper register.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, and welcome to the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. We especially welcome those visiting with us today..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was a hymnal in the pew rack but it wasn't used. Instead, we were guided by a "worship aid" we'd picked up in the vestibule earlier. This contained the hymns to be sung, as well as a guide to the order of the liturgy. A couple of the responses were in Latin, so the aid was definitely helpful to those of us who were "language challenged"!
What musical instruments were played?
A very pleasant pipe organ, played beautifully.
Did anything distract you?
This is one of those rare occasions when I would have to say that this mass was totally devoid of distractions. In fact, we had seated ourselves close to the altar and at one point before mass commenced, I glanced over my shoulder and was shocked to see the church was practically full. I had heard a few murmurings and discreet coughs, but I had no idea how many folk were seated behind me.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly middle-of-the-road. A standard Catholic novus ordo mass. Bells, but no smells!
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I forgot to look, but I'd say it was around 10 minutes certainly no longer than 15.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 I liked the monsignor-with-no-name. He had a pleasing delivery and a certain warmth. Cathedrals are famous for having terrible accoustics, and this was no exception. I had to concentrate a lot not to miss words here and there. Also, he reminded me of a pastor I used to know and this was comforting.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The second coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24:37-44). Stay awake, be prepared, for we don't know when the Lord will return. The monsignor urged us to live a Christian life, always on the ready for Christ's return. He also talked about the gift-giving time of Christmas and reminded us that a gift is not a gift if we expect something in return then it's only an exchange. A gift can only be called a gift if we receive nothing back. I liked that.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Quite a few things were heavenly. The cantor's voice was hauntingly beautiful a gift from God indeed. The warm nest of the church despite the sound of the horrible weather blustering outside. The enchanting stained glass (I would like to see it with sun shining through it). Many heavenly things presented themselves in this church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
If "the other place" offered nothing worse than hard pews and kneelers, it wouldn't be half bad! I'm hard-pressed to find anything to write here.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There were ushers available to offer a little guided tour around the cathedral, but we didn't take advantage of that because we had many miles to travel (in pounding rain) to get home. When we reached the outside, the monsignor was busily chatting with a lady, so I only offered him my hand and a perfunctory "thank you." I never did find out his name.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments offered, as far as I could tell.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 Yes, I think I could really like this Church, should I live here.
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 cantor's superb voice.