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2156: Sts Cyril & Methodius and St Raphael, New York City
Sts Cyril-Methodius-Raphael New York
Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell.
The church: Sts Cyril & Methodius and St Raphael, New York City.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of New York.
The building: Motorists entering the Lincoln Tunnel from the New York side have the best view of this church’s impressive Gothic façade in a checkered pattern of light and dark stone. The red brick cruciform structure with its striking façade of mica schist and limestone dominates the shadows of the gritty side street on which it stands. The church is the work of the early 20th century architect George H. Streeton, who designed dozens of Roman Catholic churches in New York. Originally called St Raphael's, it was built to serve a predominantly Irish, and later Italian, congregation. With the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey in 1937, families moved away and the church fell into disuse. The Croatian-Catholic congregation of Sts Cyril and Methodius took over the building in 1974 and restored it to usable condition, reopening it in 1977. The inside is small but lavishly decorated. I'll have more to say about the decor in a moment.
The church: The parish serves Croatian Americans in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area and sees itself as a champion of Croatian ethnic identity, a place where Croatians can pass their roots on to their successors. The church owns a parcel of land in New Jersey where parishioners can enjoy nature, have picnics, play sport and gather together. There are three masses each Sunday, two in Croatian and one in English.
The neighborhood: This area was formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen and was a rough and tumble enclave of poor immigrant Irish, Italian, and later Puerto Rican families. But gentrification set in around the turn of the millennium, and the neighborhood is better known today as Clinton, Midtown West, or (even more horrifyingly) NoChe (North Chelsea). The area immediately surrounding the church has seen a boom in high-rise luxury apartments, as seven new steel and glass multi-story buildings have replaced largely industrial spaces. Because of its proximity to the Broadway theater district, many theater people make their homes here. Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, as well as actors Bob Hope, James Cagney, Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Robert De Niro, and musicians Madonna and Tony Orlando, all lived in the area at one time or another.
The cast: The celebrant's name wasn't listed anywhere and he didn't introduce himself. Judging from the photos of clergy on their website, he seemed to be the Revd Stipe Renic, vicar. There was an elderly man in a black suit who served as acolyte and lay reader, also unnamed.
The date & time: Fourth Sunday in Lent, April 3, 2011, 10.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Mass (English).

How full was the building?
At the start there were 20, but by the end of the service there were 127. More were heading in as I was leaving.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard-issue wooden pew. I wasn't really seated on it long enough to judge the merits yea or nay.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was pretty noisy. I arrived as the earlier mass in Croatian was ending, and there were roughly 35 or 40 people huddled at the doors talking in Croatian. It wasn't easy squeezing past them.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
The introit for the day, Isaiah 66:10: "Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, all you who love her."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A large-print paperback Today's Missal was the only book actually used during the service, but there was a hardbound order of the mass in Croatian and a printed leaflet of Croatian hymns in the pew.

What musical instruments were played?
None.

Did anything distract you?
Where to begin? The first distraction was the fresco over the altar, where a band of disembodied heads with wings and very serious looks seemed to be saying "Oh no!" I was reminded of the skit from the TV show Saturday Night Live called "Mr Bill", featuring a clay figure that always got himself into ridiculous predicaments, prompting the running gag line "Oh no, Mr Bill!" There was also a crazy fresco on the ceiling of God reaching out to Jesus, doing the Sistine chapel finger-point, in a chariot of clouds pulled by seraphim, wearing a papal tiara! At least I think it was God – I guess it could have been St Peter, but if that's the case the iconography seemed way off. Peter pointing at Jesus? But I must say it was the congregation who were the biggest distraction. People kept flowing into the mass – first in a trickle but by communion a flood. There were more than six times as many people at the end of the mass than at the beginning, and I appeared to be the only person who minded all the foot traffic. Most of them seemed to be arriving for the next mass, which would be in Croatian, and they kept up a non-stop boisterous chatter amongst themselves in Croatian. But best of all, a cell phone rang during the Agnus Dei and the dude actually answered and chatted for a bit.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
You couldn't really tell, since mass was said at breakneck speed. The total service took less than 30 minutes. The elderly acolyte looked like Mr Magoo, the hopelessly nearsighted cartoon character. He read the lessons and psalm in a most unique way. The only way I can describe it is that he seemed to be announcing a baseball game.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
4 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – How could I really tell? Its pretty hard to unpack two readings in four minutes. I can definitely say that Father Renic spoke quickly and with authority. I will, however, admit that his message fit the spirit of Lent.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Mostly it was a recapitulation of the gospel of the day, the story of how the Pharisees objected to Jesus curing the blind man on the sabbath. This is a theological illustration of physical vs spiritual blindness. Our own return from spiritual blindness can be effected only by the sacrament of reconciliation.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I would argue that it was far more purgatorial than heavenly. I think I now know what mass in a bus station in Dubrovnik would be like.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Hmmm... Under 30 minutes for mass, including sermon and communion, is Spartan bordering on the point of ridiculous. I get that the English mass is the "intermission" for the real business of the day, which are the Croatian masses that bookend it. However, if only 30 minutes is allotted to the Amerikanci, at least respect them enough to be quiet and wait for it to be over. If Mario Puzo still lived in the neighborhood, I expect he'd have a thing or two to teach them about respect.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I doubt I was even noticed.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I was lucky to get a mass. Coffee was definitely out of the question. And even if there were a coffee hour, how would I have known about it? There weren't any announcements or even a bulletin.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
0 – Oh hell no! Even if I were in that much of a hurry, I wouldn't want to feel so neglected. I wondered when I walked in if the increase in the population from the luxe apartments around the church had had any impact. I think I got the answer.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not especially. I could hardly focus with all the people talking and walking around, and when I left I felt like I hadn't even been to church.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The Mr Magoo baseball announcer reader and the Mr Bill frescoes. "Oh no!"
 
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