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Chicago, Illinois, USA
Church of the Ascension,
Chicago, Illinois, USA.
The Episcopal Church, Diocese
A smallish French Gothic structure of Lemont limestone, a harder,
more finely grained variety of limestone quarried near the Chicago
suburb of that name. The church dates from the 1880s and is
described in great detail on Ascension's website. The sanctuary
is proportionally quite large and is separated from the nave
by a wrought-iron rood screen, but one that still allows the
worshipper full visual participation in the liturgy.
Ascension is probably the flagship of "biretta belt" Anglo-Catholicism
in the Midwest. It embraced an Anglo-Catholic ethos early on
in its history, leading to some conflict with other Anglicans
in the diocese of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Ascension's website includes a link to a fascinating history
of the parish. Among the ministries and devotional societies
sponsored by Ascension are the Society of Mary, Confraternity
of the Blessed Sacrament, St Anthony's Soup Kitchen, and Alcoholics
Anonymous; as well as ushers, lectors, and lay readers of the
Ascension is located north of downtown Chicago, south of the
area known as Old Town. It is a mixed use area: lots of apartments
and condominiums in the midst of some businesses. The Greek
Orthodox cathedral is only a couple of blocks south of Ascension.
The Revd Gary P. Fertig, rector, was celebrant and preacher;
the Revd Kurt Olson served as liturgical deacon. Thomas S. Wikman
conducted the choir, and David D. Schrader presided at the organ.
The date & time:
Fifth Sunday in Easter, April 20, 2008, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
Solemn High Mass.
How full was the building?
The building was roughly 60 percent full. At communion time,
two nuns led in a group of young people who, I suppose, had
been at church school. The congregation appeared multi-cultural
and included worshippers of all ages.
Did anyone welcome you
MaterFamilias and I had arrived about an hour early, as we were
visiting from elsewhere and had not set our watches to the Central
time zone. We stood outside the church gazing at the notice
board when a priest passed us (who we later realized was Father
Olson) and said joyfully, "It's less than an hour from now."
When we entered the church, we were greeted warmly and handed
a service leaflet. A ciborium and a plate of communion wafers
sat on a small table; we were instructed to place two hosts
in the ciborium if we wished to receive. I needed to use the
facilities, and an usher conducted me to where they were. En
route we passed through the coffee room, and the usher mentioned
that we were welcome to join the others for coffee after mass.
Was your pew comfortable?
Typical wooden pew for an Anglican church, with kneelers under
the pew in front of us that folded down.
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent. The organist played a fairly long prelude
by the contemporary French organist and composer Jehan Ariste
What were the exact opening
words of the service?
"Alleluia. Christ is risen."
"The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."
What books did the congregation use during the
The 1982 Hymnal and 1979 Book of Common Prayer
were in the pews, but not used. The service leaflet contained
every element of the service; it was, for the most part, very
professionally done, and enabled us to follow easily every detail
of an elaborate liturgy. Translations into traditional 16th
century English were given for those Latin texts that were used
in the mass.
What musical instruments
Pipe organ. The organ accompanied a very fine professional-quality
Did anything distract
During a very elaborate offertory antiphon, a cell phone rang.
And rang. And rang again. Apparently no one was interested in
silencing it. The choir sang several unaccompanied pieces for
which the organist (presumably to give the pitches) played what
seemed like overly long introductions. And, alas, the communion
hymn in the service leaflet was missing a line.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Obviously, a service called "Solemn High Mass" will involve
a very formal worship style. But "stiff-upper-lip" it was not
– the congregational participation was genuinely exciting,
and everyone shared the peace warmly. The service was bilingual
– Latin and English, that is – and drew on multiple sources:
the traditional Anglican texts for the gloria, creed, and Lord's
Prayer; the gospel chanted using the traditional tone; the propers
(introit, offertory, communion verse) sung in Latin from the
Graduale Romanum; "Pray, my brothers and sisters..."
before the eucharistic prayer; "Behold the Lamb of God..."
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
10 The rector's sermon was low key but effective. I will
never read John 14:1-14 (Jesus tells Thomas and the other apostles
that he is the way to the Father) quite the same way again.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Father Fertig began by talking about reputations. The apostle
Thomas has a reputation as "the doubting Thomas."
But when Thomas asked Jesus how he could be with him when he
didn't know where Jesus was going, he was simply using the reason
God gave him. Thomas was not an unworthy disciple – indeed,
he was an example of the best kind of disciple: one who is not
afraid to say he doesn't understand. Thomas showed a real hunger
to know God's will.
Which part of the service was like being in
The sanctus by the Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, a
beautiful climax to the ceremonies surrounding the preparation
of the gifts.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Hmmm..."the other place" – it's difficult to think of anything
at Ascension being "hellish." But there was lots of chatter
from the narthex as roughly half the congregation stayed in
the church to listen to the postlude and the other half left
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Unfortunately we couldn't stay, despite having been warmly invited
to the coffee hour before the service. The mass had been very
long, and we had tickets for another engagement.
How would you describe the after-service
The usher had described it as "coffee and crumpets."
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 Only a "7" for great preaching, wonderful
music, and liturgy done with great care? Were MaterFamilias
and I to move to Chicago, we would definitely consider Ascension,
but the Tridentine-like ceremonial at the 11.00 mass might be
difficult for us to adapt to. I would probably try the 9.00
mass for a few weeks.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The deacon's chanting of the gospel using the traditional tone.
This was not just a bit of archaicism – it genuinely enhanced
the understanding of the text.
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