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2270: St Vincent Ferrer, New York City
St Vincent Ferrer, New York (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell.
The church: St Vincent Ferrer, New York City.
Denomination: Roman Catholic. St Vincent Ferrer is a priory church of the Order of Preachers, commonly known as Dominicans, Province of St Joseph.
The building: 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.
The church: 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.
The neighborhood: 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 cast: 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 vicar.
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, of course).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
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 contemplative bubble.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Deus in adjutorium meum intende" ("O God make haste to help me").

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books, but there was a very complete service bulletin in large print. I definitely appreciated the font size!

What musical instruments were played?
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 you?
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.

St Vincent Ferrer, New York (Interior)

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 sermon?
20 minutes.

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 one.

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 coffee?
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.

St Vincent Ferrer, New York (Confessional)

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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