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|2270: St Vincent
Ferrer, New York City
Worshipper: Acton Bell.
St Vincent Ferrer,
New York City.
St Vincent Ferrer is a priory church of the Order of Preachers,
commonly known as Dominicans, Province of St Joseph.
Designed by Bertram Grovsnor Goodhue, arguably the most important
American ecclesiastical architect of the 20th century, in 1918.
Architectural historians argue over whether this, or St Thomas
Fifth Avenue, is Goodhue's masterpiece. The two churches are
certainly very similar: French Gothic with plain limestone exterior
surfaces and sandstone interior surfaces. But St Vincent's has
a more decidedly Romanesque orientation and lacks the lightness
of ornament demonstrated on the exterior of St Thomas. However,
the unrelieved severity of the rather monochrome interior of
St Thomas is replaced with a bit more Gothic exuberance (and
certainly color) in St Vincent's, with brightly colored side
chapels, statues, and paintings, as well as the warmth of the
carved, gilded and painted marble reredos. There are also bits
of unexpected whimsy: the confessionals, for example, were made
to look like the doors of monks' cells.
St Vincent's is a very fashionable church and a favorite for
society weddings. There are four masses on Sundays, three during
the week and on on Saturdays. The parish is also quite busy,
with co-sponsorship of a soup kitchen, a women's shelter, and
free classes in English as a second language.
This is the "Gold Coast" district of Manhattan's Upper East
Side, the most affluent part of the most affluent neighborhood
in the city. It is home to the city's most exclusive shops,
townhouses, and luxury apartments, where a tiny studio apartment
can sell for upwards of a million dollars.
The Revd Uwe Michael Lang, a priest of the Congregation of the
Oratory of St Philip Neri in London, was the officiant. The
homily was preached by the Revd Bruno M. Shah, O.P., parochial
The date & time:
Eve of the Feast of All Saints, Monday, October 31, 2011, 6.50pm.
What was the name of the service?
First Vespers and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament
in the Extraordinary Form.
How full was the building?
I was a bit astonished to see the service so well-attended.
I'd say it was about three-fifths full (the church can hold
roughly 500). And this was for vespers, and not mass, and vespers
in Latin at that. I was also gob-smacked by how young the congregants
were. I would say the average age was 35, and I had been expecting
a phalanx of older ladies in chapel lace.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was greeted with a smile, handed a service bulletin,
and directed to a pew. I was also reminded that there would
be a lecture and reception to follow.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. I was surprised to find that they are the same exact pews
as at St Thomas Fifth Avenue (minus the red velvet cushions,
How would you describe the pre-service
Largely quiet and reverential, with almost all present at prayer.
The service started 15 minutes late, but I don't think anyone
really minded. I had the sense that everyone was in their own
What were the exact opening words of the
"Deus in adjutorium meum intende" ("O
God make haste to help me").
What books did the congregation use during the
No books, but there was a very complete service bulletin in
large print. I definitely appreciated the font size!
What musical instruments
There was a choir of 20 men accompanied by the chancel organ,
one of two instruments, both by the Schantz Organ Company of
Orrville, Ohio. The organist was especially fine.
Did anything distract
The were tons of distractions, too numerous to list. I kept
going back to the stations of the cross that I could see from
my pew. Each one is an individual painting, in a different style
and shape, which I thought really interesting so much
so that I checked them all out after the service. The young
thurifer also had a some difficulty with the thurible. I got
caught up for a minute watching him sort it out.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
I doubt it could get any stiffer. I was a bit bummed that my
sight line was blocked by the Vatican II communion table front
and center, and so I couldn't see the intricate choreography
of birettas off, birettas on, and deacons holding copes and
stoles. The music, however, more than made up for anything I
missed visually. The service opened with a prelude by the 20th
century French composer Jehan Alain, who had studied organ with
Marcel Dupré and composition with Paul Dukas. The procession
was a spectacular improvisation that married the best of sixth
century plainsong to the other twentieth century pieces played.
The Magnificat was a Tomás Luis de Victoria setting and
done really well. The only wrong note, so to speak, was the
postlude, which was Louis Vierne's Carillon de Westminster.
I know its a crowd-pleaser, and it was played perfectly, but
it always sounds so cheesy to me.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 Father Shah ranks among the best preachers I've ever
heard: erudite without being obscure, speaking without the aid
of notes, yet clearly not extemporaneous. And what a great piece
of theater watching him in his distinctive white Dominican habit
and black capuce slowly climb the circular staircase to the
extremely high pulpit.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
Father Shah preached on the nature of the beautiful and the
right use of beauty. Beauty, he argued, is a reflection of the
Creator, and man is testimony of the beautiful in God. While
material beauty numbs us, Christian beauty is a way to lift
the veil of time, inhabiting as we do the time between the promise
of redemption and the final judgment. The purpose of the beautiful,
then, is to bring us both to an awareness of and a call to that
final judgment. The nature of beauty is ultimately an apocalyptic
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
It is sort of a toss up between the virtuosity of the sermon
and the virtuosity of the musicians. Both were excellent. And
just the other day at Occupy
Wall Street I was asking Susan B. Anthony, Dorothy Day,
Hugo Chavez, and Oscar Romero to pray for me. Now, here I was
asking for the intercession of angels, archangels, principalities
and powers, virtues of the heavens, holy doctors of the law,
virgins of the Lord, etc. etc. I really hope with all that fire-power
that someone was listening!
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Holy Savonaroley, Batman! About mid-way through the sermon it
twigged that I was having a total Savonarola moment, and that
isn't really what one expects, well, ever! Here was a powerful
preacher, wearing the same habit as Girolamo Savonarola, his
15th century fellow Dominican, and preaching (as Savonarola
had) against the improper use of art and all at a time
of great financial upheaval, much like Florence in the 1490s,
smack dab in the middle of an ancient liturgy. It did give me
pause. But it was Halloween, so I guess a little creepy is OK.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a chance to look lost. I was approached by someone who directed
me to the basement where the after-service lecture would be
held. Everyone was so friendly. I struck up conversations with
several people before the lecture started.
How would you describe the after-service
The officiant, Father Lang, gave a lecture on "Art, Beauty and
the Sacred," in which he expanded on the thesis that art need
not be wrapped up in the language of the profane, that it is
still capable of revealing the divine (however old-fashioned
that may seem).
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 This isn't the usual fare at St Vincent, so I really
have no idea what their services are like, but I would definitely
like to return for another of Father Shah's sermons.
Did the service make you
feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, without a doubt.
What one thing will you
remember about all this in seven days' time?
Thinking about Savonarola. How often does that happen?
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