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||1323: Church of the Intercession,
New York City
Mystery Worshipper: Björn Egan.
The church: Church of the Intercession, 550 West 155th Street, New
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: This large cathedral-like church, along with its vicarage,
parish house and cloister (one of the only cloisters in all of North America),
is just about the best example of the beautiful Gothic Revival style to
be found anywhere. The work of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue (who also designed
the Cadet Chapel at West Point, St Vincent Ferrer and St Thomas Fifth Avenue),
it dates from 1912-14 and sits on a hill in upper Manhattan's Washington
Heights overlooking the Hudson River, on what was once a rural cemetery.
Goodhue considered Intercession his best work, and it has a well-deserved
spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Goodhue is buried in the
north transept, in a monument created by the sculptor Lee Lawrie, his frequent
The church: Intercession is known as the Mother Church of Washington
Heights. Their website lists the many ministries and advocacies sponsored
by the parish. In addition, the building is used as a community center for
the neighborhood. And well over a dozen different television shows, movies
and commercials have been filmed there.
The neighborhood: West 155th Street marks the boundary between Harlem
and Washington Heights in the area known as Sugar Hill. Once a popular residential
enclave for wealthy African-Americans (jazz great Duke Ellington, Supreme
Court justice Thurgood Marshall, boxer Joe Louis, and Congressman Adam Clayton
Powell lived there, among others), even today Sugar Hill is a calm, quiet
neighborhood, free of drugs and crime so common to areas close by.
The cast: The Rev. Ivan Romito Griffith, assistant minister, was
the celebrant. The Rev. Fred Hoyer Johnson, vicar, preached. The organist
was William Earle Randolph, Jr.
The date & time: Sunday, July 2, 2006, 10.00am.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn High Mass.
How full was the building?
Well, I counted approximately 500 to 600 chairs, and there were exactly
41 people in attendance, including ushers, altar party, organist and congregation.
I felt rather like a nickel tumbling around in a cement mixer.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Every person whom I met before the service smiled and gave me a cheery "Good
morning!" I felt at ease and at home immediately.
Was your pew comfortable?
There are no pews, only oak chairs with a very thin vinyl pad. It was okay
at first, but if your posterior region is as bony as mine, it won't be long
before the squirming begins. I must have been fidgeting quite a bit, because
there was a charming young girl aged about seven or eight a couple of rows
over who turned around and gave me a fierce stare and shushed me, bringing
me back to reality and making me forget about my predicament.
How would you describe the pre-service
Everyone of course knew each other quite well (I was the only rather obvious
stranger in the house). They quietly greeted those around them and then
sat silently waiting for the service to begin. All in all, a respectful
performance. I noticed, oddly enough, that about 85 percent of the people
sat in the front right (epistle side) of the nave. I was sitting in the
middle left. More about that later.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
What books did the congregation use during the
The usual: 1979 Book of Common Prayer, 1982 Hymnal, and
Lift Every Voice and Sing. The readings were New Revised Standard
What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ, expertly (majestically) played by Mr Randolph. The organ is
the fine Aeolian-Skinner instrument that was originally housed in St Paul's
Chapel in downtown Manhattan.
Did anything distract you?
At first the traffic noise from the open door on the Broadway side of the
nave was a little distracting, but that was very soon put to shame by the
distraction of the sound system in the church, which is to say the lack
of a sound system. If it actually works at all, it's not very sound. I couldn't
hear a single word the celebrant said – not the epistle, not the gospel,
and almost not the sermon except that I strained extra hard. Now I understand
why those who know sit in the front right side of the nave (directly in
front of the pulpit).
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Very much smells and bells – this is high Anglo-Catholic. Everyone was
quiet and reverential. In fact, I couldn't really hear if anyone was following
along in the responses or songs or if they were just moving their lips.
Very reserved and discreet.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon lasted exactly 16 minutes and 55 seconds, not a second of it wasted.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 Is there any way someone can be satanically angelic? Or angelically
satanic? The preacher (Fr Johnson) was neither satanic nor angelic, but
I hesitate to mark him in the middle because it doesn't accurately represent
his style. Fr Johnson read his sermon, which usually makes me squirm and
look for an exit. However, despite the wooden chair, my bony butt, and the
read sermon, I found myself hanging on every word. He read in an easy, conversational
manner, and with a wicked sense of humor – he even managed to get a reference
to Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch into the sermon. He quite obviously
knew exactly what he was talking about and managed to tie into his sermon
topic not only all three readings, but the psalm as well.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Serve the Lord with gladness. Be generous to your fellows, giving not grudgingly
but with joy.
Which part of the service was like being in
When I went up to communion, the little girl who had previously shushed
me tugged at my shirt. When I looked down, she proceeded to show me how
to kneel and how to make the sign of the cross, and how to properly hold
my hands to receive communion. When I had done everything to her satisfaction,
she gave me the most beatific smile I have seen in many years. I don't mean
to sound gooey or anything, but I saw all the host of heaven and a choir
of angels in that smile.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm sorry to say that between the unsound sound system and the chair I was
sitting in, it was very much what I would expect eternity in the other place
to be like.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
My mistake in sitting in the middle left side became apparent directly after
the service ended. Since most everyone was sitting in the front right section,
when coffee hour came they all got up immediately and went through to the
hall. I was left standing quite alone in the center aisle with no one around
me. I wandered over to the door leading to the coffee room and was met by
Fr Johnson, who struck up a conversation with me and invited me into the
How would you describe the after-service
I can't really say with any kind of authority what kind of food was available
at coffee hour because by the time I got there, there wasn't anything left.
I don't think this is a bad thing, it's just the way this particular church
does it. Any child from a large family knows that if you want a pork chop,
you've got to get in there and take one. I was late for coffee hour, so
it was my misfortune, not theirs.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 I'd love to live in that part of Manhattan and attend services
at such an impressive church in a diverse community. The building needs
a lot of work, and it's the kind of volunteer work that I love to do. However,
having said that, there were only 41 in attendance at a church that can
hold almost 600. Granted, it was an awfully hot July day, and a lot of folks
may have been on vacation. But attendance like that can only spell financial
doom for a plant the size of this one.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
I'm happy to report that yes, indeed, this service made me glad to be a
Christian. Our basic teachings were evident here in abundance. The people
were gracious and thoughtful. They were aware of a stranger in their midst
and did what they could to make me feel comfortable. Help the least of my
brothers, and you are helping me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I'll be seeing that little girl's smile for a long time.
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