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1563: St Maryís, Wells, Maine, USA
St Mary’s, Wells, Maine
Mystery Worshipper: Treatise.
The church: St Maryís, Wells, Maine, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Portland.
The building: A very well kept plain white building, part clapboard and part stone and with a grey shingled roof, speaking Americana from every square inch. A white belfry and steeple reach upward from the roof. The interior is strikingly plain, especially for a Catholic church, but tasteful. Dark pews face a small altar backed by a beige wall that angles out as it joins the ceiling, thus focusing sound into the auditorium.
The church: St Mary's is one of three churches that make up Holy Spirit parish. They minister to seasonal vacationers as well as permanent residents of the town. Two masses are celebrated every Saturday evening, three on Sunday morning and one daily mass during the week. St Mary's is one of the few parishes in the United States that sings solemn vespers every Sunday evening, as encouraged by Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.
The neighborhood: Wells, on Maine's south seacoast, is blessed with outstanding beaches as well as good rail connections both to Boston and to Maine's largest city, Portland. As such, it is a favorite summer destination especially with the middle classes – their wealthy cousins being content to vacation at upscale Kennebunkport to the north or the artsier Ogunquit to the south. St Mary's Church sits on the road that connects Moody Beach to the town.
The cast: The Revd Mr Darrell Blackwell, deacon.
The date & time: Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), Sunday, May 25, 2008, 4.30pm.

What was the name of the service?
Solemn Vespers and Benediction.

How full was the building?
Six, including yours truly. However, it was Memorial Day weekend, a feast of much higher rank in the American calendar, especially for those who have managed to get away to coastal Maine for this, the unofficial first weekend of summer.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
As I entered the narthex, a woman greeted me warmly and asked me if I was there for vespers, and another woman (who I learned later was a nun) handed me the service sheets.

Was your pew comfortable?
Average modern pew, with cushion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I learned that vespers would be sung, and on Memorial Day weekend no less, I thought it an opportunity not to be passed up. I set out in plenty of time to cope with the holiday beach traffic, but even so arrived with only ten minutes to spare. While Deacon Blackwell, the greeter woman and the nun finished setting up for the service, those of us in the congregation prayed silently.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"God come to my assistance."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The proper texts from the liturgy of the hours had been reproduced onto a handout. There was a separate handout with the texts for benediction as well as two sheets for the office hymn and the Magnificat.

What musical instruments were played?
No instruments were played, though I saw two electric keyboards in the corner. But miracle of miracles in the American Catholic Church, the people actually sang! I heard American Catholics chanting and singing nicely without a piano, organ, keyboard, guitar, or hectoring leader of song. Deacon Blackwell had a very nice voice, as did a couple members of the congregation.

Did anything distract you?
Everything was going very nicely, when midway through the first psalm the PA system gave out a crackle as if lightning had struck it, which made everyone jump. It went off twice more before it was finally tamed by the efforts of the nun. Perhaps it and the keyboards were feeling unloved.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a hybrid that I would have condemned as an unholy monster had I not been there. The psalms were chanted, fairly well, between the congregation and the good deacon, and the tunes for the benediction motets were traditional, but the office hymn printed in the handout ("Father we thank thee") was replaced with "I am the Bread of Life." Likewise, the traditional Magnificat was replaced with John Michael Talbotís "Holy Is His Name." I despise both of those songs and their ilk. But it was a beautiful Maine day and here was a parish that actually bothered to have Sunday vespers. And people were singing, even without a leader of song flapping his arms and someone at the keyboard playing riffs and bridges more suited to a hootenanny. (Perhaps thereís a lesson here.) I got into it and belted out the hymns with everyone else.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – A very nice ex tempore homily with solid exposition and inviting delivery.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Deacon Blackwell spoke on the gift of the real presence and how it prepares us to share Christís presence with others.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Benediction literally is heaven coming down to earth, so I suppose thatís as close as it gets. But on a more mundane level, it was like heaven to see a Catholic congregation singing the divine office as naturally as if it were no big deal. Why can't they do this in every Catholic church, I thought.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I would have to say it was the PA system thundering like an angry god because we had forsaken it.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I chatted with the nun who had given me my service sheet, and we were joined by the deacon and another man and woman from the congregation. We talked for about five minutes. It was very warm and friendly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee or nibbles, but my next stop was a Memorial Day cookout at a friendís house one town up the coast.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – St Maryís seems to be a lovely place. They seem to be heavily into folk music, though, which isnít my thing. That said, I have to give major points to any parish that sings vespers every Sunday.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very! I was so glad that I didn't know beforehand what kind of music they'd be singing – I might not have stayed. I was filled with love and charity – or was it sea air and sun?

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The rumbling of the jilted PA system and singing "I Am the Bread of Life" without minding.
 
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