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Church of St Bernadette, Brooklyn, New York, USA
Worshipper: Acton Bell.
Church of St Bernadette, Brooklyn, New York, USA.
Built in 1937, this brick cruciform church has a few Art Moderne
touches, probably the most striking of which is the use of elliptical
arches on the exterior front. Viewed from the side, the church
has a ship-like appearance, as the long horizontal roof is broken
only by a small hip and a wee spire that looks more like a ship's
mast or flagpole. The arch motif continues into the interior
with a series of seven ovoid arches that frame the nave. Behind
the altar is a large stone reredos that suggests the grotto
at Lourdes, France. Outside on the grounds is another representation
of the Lourdes grotto, about two-thirds actual size, with a
statue of St Bernadette that is dwarfed by hydrangea shrubs.
Their website summarizes the Blessed Virgin's appearances at
Lourdes in the mid 19th century to the peasant girl Bernadette
and how, when Bernadette asked "the beautiful lady dressed
in blue and white" who she was, she replied (in impeccable
peasant French dialect): "I am the Immaculate Conception."
The church's website also states that the parish is "a
faith-filled community under the guidance of our Blessed Mother"
whose mission is to "pass on our Catholic heritage to future
generations by following Christ's example." They sponsor
an Altar Rosary Society and a chapter of the Holy Name Society.
St Bernadette's school is staffed by the Sisters of St Lucy
Filippini. There are four masses each Sunday, three on Saturday,
and two masses Monday through Friday.
St Bernadette's is located in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn.
Originally developed as a wealthy WASP enclave, Bensonhurst
was considered by The New York Times in 1906 to be
the "handsomest suburb in Greater New York." By the Depression,
however, the area had largely become a haven for Italian immigrants,
and has often been referred to as Brooklyn's "Little Italy."
It is said to have had, by the 1970s, the world's largest population
of Italians outside of Italy. Many of the area's better known
residents made names for themselves in the world of organized
crime: Carmine "the Snake" Perisco, Joseph "the Olive Oil King"
Profaci, "Crazy" Joe Gallo, Alphonse "Little Allie Boy" Profaci,
and many other members of the Gambino and Colombo crime families
have called the neighborhood home. And looking around today
you can see that there is an air of "keeping up with the Sopranos,"
as many relatively modest homes sport large fountains, elaborate
iron work, marble columns, and statuary, much of it religious
in nature. Bensonhurst is also famous for its elaborate Christmas
lights, most of which are professionally hung by design firms
and can cost as much as $20,000. The major avenues of Bensonhurst
are lined with Italian restaurants, bakeries and delis as well
as bargain shops, and weekends bring heavy traffic from all
The Revd Joseph A. Gancila, parochial vicar, presided. He was
assisted by an unnamed priest and two lay readers, also unnamed.
The date & time:
Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011, 11.00am.
What was the name of the service?
Passion Sunday with the Liturgy of the Palms.
How full was the building?
Simply heaving with humanity, and it's not exactly a small church!
We arrived 10 minutes early and it was a struggle to squeeze
into a pew, We were packed in the pew like the subway at rush
hour. Lucky to get seats, though, as it was standing room only
shortly after we arrived. I counted 60 or so in the side aisles,
back of the church and vestibule. I would estimate the total
attendance was above 400, a feat made even more impressive given
this was the third mass of the day.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A warm and hearty hello it wasn’t. There was a lady distributing
giant handfuls of palm fronds out of a plastic bucket of water
to the eager hoards gathered at the entrance to the nave. She
handed my friend a bundle. Then, when she saw me, she stopped
and looked incredulously at me and said, "Really?" That, in
Brooklynese, is an understatement for "You've gotta be
kidding!" I answered back with my own "Really" and she
handed some over, punctuated with an eye roll. Later, I realized
that the custom was to give out one helping of palms per family,
and she must have thought that my friend and I were being a
very greedy couple.
Was your pew comfortable?
It would have been more comfortable with perhaps two fewer people
in it, but, as far as wooden pews with a kneeler go, it was
How would you describe the pre-service
Bustling, loud and crowded. It was well nigh impossible to get
into a pious mood beforehand, although a few valiant souls tried.
As with any crowd trying to squeeze into a space all at once,
it had crying babies, people talking, folks jostling for position,
and a number of people complaining about the logjam at the center
aisle where the palms were being distributed. (I'm not sure,
but I'm willing to bet that the crowds welcoming Jesus into
Jerusalem didn't fight over who would get to wave the palm branches.)
There were a few people kneeling at prayer, and I saw one lady
interrupted mid Hail Mary, having to stop and stand to let more
people into the pew. With a crowd this big, a few ushers would
have been useful. Communion was a total free-for-all.
What were the exact opening words of the
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
What books did the congregation use during the
A small-print paperback Today's Missal.
What musical instruments were played?
A small pipe organ. There was also a choir and a soprano soloist
who was decidedly past her Use By date.
Did anything distract you?
With this many people gathered together, how could one not be
distracted? There was so much going on. Those gabbing during
the service and those loudly shushing the talkers, children
bawling, things falling over, the folks in the aisles shuffling,
impatient for the mass to be over. In a total moment of zone-out,
I found myself wondering about the stenciling of bright green
vines and yellow birds on the elliptical arches that frame the
sanctuary and the navy blue Gustavino tiles. It reminded me
of Clarice Cliff or some other Deco pottery, and was a touch
of whimsy in a place that's not really whimsical.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
Middle-of-the-road novus ordo, which I find neither
happy clappy or stiff upper anything. The whole palm liturgy
was really confusing for me. The palms had apparently been blessed
at an earlier service, as the priest merely read the first lesson
at the door, then walked forward asperging left and right while
we sang the processional hymn or rather, some of us did,
and I think it was a hymn (I'll have more to say about the music
in a moment). At the mass itself, there was no incense and no
chanting, nothing really solemn at all. Not even the bell at
communion, which I found a little sad. It was all very unsophisticated,
bland, a little sterile, and nothing whatsoever to plug it into
the past. Some of the music was on the happy clappy side, at
least I think it was. Sometimes it was difficult to tell exactly
what was being played. There was what I'm guessing to be a five-year-old
boy sitting several rows ahead of me just bored out of his gourd
and letting everyone around him know it, but he provided me
with a memorable impression that I'll save for the end.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
5 Definitely a native son, Father Gancila spoke slowly
and with obvious passion with a very strong Brooklyn accent.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
He argued that in the gospel of the day, the passion of St Matthew,
we are told to be obedient to authority of all kinds. Jesus
is obedient to his Father, and as such we should be so in our
lives: first to our "fathers", who take many shapes, and to
the fathers of the Church. This isn't easy, and we sometimes
stray. This is why reconciliation is so foundational to our
spiritual well-being, as it allows us to be more obedient.
Which part of the service was like being in
Hardly the most luminal mass I've ever heard. I was, however,
struck by the nature of this mass as a corporate experience.
Here was a whole rugby scrum of people gathered together as
the embodiment of the liturgical idea of community. That community
isn't necessarily sedate, polite and quiet, but rather is (at
least in this instance) of an overwhelming active and vocal
nature. That was a nice reminder. Mass can be messy, and that's
not necessarily bad. This jibed perfectly with the reading of
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Catholics don't sing, do they? And who can blame them when what
is on offer is truly, truly ear-splittingly bad. Something was
sung that sounded like the K-mart jingle circa 1980. Another
number, which I thought was going to be a doo-wop song, turned
out to be a 1970s tuneless abomination. The choir and organist
only made matters worse. The organist must have been a beginner,
as it wasn't a case of a few misplaced notes, but rather whole
misplaced passages! During the offertory, one half of the choir
seemed to begin another hymn in a different key and tempo, while
the other half continued on with what they had been singing.
And I don't think it was meant to be contrapuntal. The old soprano
punctuated everything with random impromptu solos. Is it any
wonder that the congregation took the choir coming on as their
cue to talk to one another? Everyone that I could see, save
for one, completely disengaged when the singing started.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
In essence the next mass started before the one I was attending
had ended, so there was not a chance of hanging around looking
lost. After communion slightly more than a third of the congregation
just left, not waiting for the mass to finish. Those waiting
in the back for the next service to begin started filling in
the vacant seats, and they weren’t really quiet about it.
How would you describe the after-service
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 Perhaps if stricken deaf.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. This was perhaps the perfect place to hear the Passion
read, since so much is about "the crowd," the nature of bodies
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The only time the bored five-year-old was still was when the
choir was singing. I was surprised at how attentively he listened,
frowning and making faces throughout, but really listening.
During one particularly bad moment where the choir managed to
sing off-key in tandem with a string of wrong notes, he reacted
by screwing his face into the worst mug, and it was all I could
do not to burst out laughing. From the mouths of babes, so to
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