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  1306: St Francis of Assisi, New York City

St Francis of Assisi, New York City

Mystery Worshipper: Rosamundi.
The church: St Francis of Assisi, 135 West 31st Street, New York City.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: This is one of a complex of buildings comprising the friary of the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) and dating from the 1920s. The church, best known by its modern rear entrance, is an Italianate structure not easy to spot from the front due to surrounding buildings. It consists of two worship areas, an upper church and a lower church. The lower church is also the National Shrine of St Anthony of Padua. The decor is simple but tasteful – I loved the paintings of saints on the ceiling of the lower church, although I did wonder if their distance from the altar was an indication of their relative popularity.
The church: The Franciscans are known for their service to the poor. Continually each morning since 1929, the church has maintained a breadline for which the homeless queue down the block and around the corner. The church's website outlines their many other ministries and outreaches. The friary was home to Father Mychal Judge, a much-loved chaplain for the New York City Fire Department. Father Mike responded to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 and was struck by falling debris as he administered the last rites to the injured. Although badly hurt, he entered the south tower to report to the command center, and at that moment the tower collapsed. He was officially listed as the first casualty of the attack. Father Mike was canonized in 2002 by the Orthodox-Catholic Church of America as St Mychal the Martyr.
The neighborhood: Located just west of Manhattan's Herald Square and just east of Pennsylvania Station, the church is an oasis in the midst of a bustling area of tourist hotels, eateries, wholesale merchants, department stores and specialty shops. The area has come to be known as Little Korea due to a recent increase in the number of Korean restaurants.
The cast: An unnamed priest, presumably one of the friars.
The date & time: Sunday, July 16, 2006, 9.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Mass, 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

How full was the building?
I estimate there were about 100 people in a building that could seat 400 or so.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I initially went to the upper church, where I was met by a smiling Korean lady who told me that mass was downstairs. Nobody greeted me, though, when I went downstairs.

Was your pew comfortable?
Standard wooden pew with nice comfy kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverential. The organist was playing soothing background music.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to our liturgy today. Please join in singing the music contained in the program and please make sure your cell phone is turned off."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Printed order of service specific to the day, with the responses, musical notation and hymns.

What musical instruments were played?
Electric organ, played very competently, although it did rather drown out the singing.

Did anything distract you?
Despite the request to a) join in the singing and b) turn off phones, only about half a dozen people were singing, including me, the priest, and the cantor, and someone's cell phone went off halfway through. Also, the British English and American English versions of the mass are slightly different, so I was saying the British responses (because some things are automatic and hard-wired and you don't necessarily read what it says in the service book) whilst everyone else was saying the American responses.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal Catholic worship.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – He was very good – he spoke clearly and confidently. It was a very appropriate sermon for a Franciscan friar, I thought.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was on the Gospel of the day, Mark 6:7-13, Christ's instructions to his apostles as he sent them out to minister. Jesus told the apostles that food and clothes are not important, so don't worry about them, Travel light, and don't be encumbered by the things of this world. The important thing is to bring others to the love of God. Jesus sent his apostles out in pairs, and Christianity is likewise a community endeavor.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The peace and quiet of the church so close to the bustle and noise of midtown Manhattan.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The cell phone going off in the middle of the service.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The priest shook my hand on the way out of the door, but apart from that, nothing – everyone either rushed off to wherever they were going or went to make their private devotions at the various statues around the chapel.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I liked this church. The preaching was very good, and people's faith seemed deeply held, but some sort of after-service opportunity to meet people would be useful.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
My reciting the British version of the Nicene Creed at an American mass.
 
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