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|2295: St Agnes,
New York City
Worshipper: Acton Bell.
Agnes, New York City.
of New York.
The church sits on East 43rd Street just across from Grand Central
Terminal. A devastating fire in 1992 destroyed all but the exterior
walls of the original 1877 building. The church was rebuilt
in 1998, with a design loosely patterned after the Church of
Il Gesù in Rome, and is the first wholly traditional church
built in the city since the Second Vatican Council. The interior
is in shades of white and gray. The rather small space is packed
with religious art and devotional statues. On either side of
the sanctuary a shallow transept opens up, each holding questionable
reproductions of Renaissance paintings. There are six side chapels,
each with a statue. The eye is drawn to the altar, complete
with altar rail (unusual in a church built in 1998) and triptych
depicting the apotheosis of St Agnes. She seems a lot older
than the 13 year old Agnes who was martyred!
Established in 1873 to serve Irish and Italian workers, St Agnes
is the quintessential commuter church, with as many as 36 masses
said on holy days. During the week seven masses are offered
daily, including three half-hour masses at lunch time, and priests
are available to hear confessions in three hour-long blocks
daily. The church's biggest claim to fame is perhaps its long
association with Archbishop Fulton Sheen, America’s first televangelist.
Archbishop Sheen, whose popularity rivaled Lucille Ball in the
early years of television, began his ministry in New York at
St Agnes in 1930, and for many years the church hosted his famous
broadcasts on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the
Faith. This was also the first parish in the diocese to offer
the mass in Latin after it was allowed in 1988, and a mass in
the extraordinary form has been said every Sunday since. The
church also has strong links to the Irish community. Eamon de
Valera, the first president of Ireland, was baptized here (a
fact memorialized with a brass plaque on the font), and every
St Patrick's day they offer a mass sung in Gaelic, replete with
bagpipes, harps and kilts.
This is midtown Manhattan, home to the largest and busiest
business district in the United States. More than 800,000
people commute to the area daily, with many of those coming
through Grand Central Terminal. Most of the city’s most iconic
skyscrapers, hotels and buildings lie nearby, including the
Chrysler Building (only a block away from St Agnes), the Empire
State Building, Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, The
Waldorf Astoria hotel, and the Citigroup Center, just to name
The priest wasn't introduced anywhere, and I didn't get his
name when we left. There was also an unnamed lay reader.
The date & time:
First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011, 5.15pm.
What was the name of
How full was the building?
I counted exactly 62 people. It is a very intimate space,
so even with that low a number it seemed pretty crowded.
Did anyone welcome you
Yes. The custodian who was mopping the vestibule opened the
door for us and welcomed us in.
Was your pew comfortable?
Not particularly. The pews have an open section at the back,
and I felt as though my rear was sticking out into the pew
behind me, which I can't say is particularly comfortable.
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
Extremely quiet. We were among the first to arrive.
What were the exact
opening words of the service?
"Welcome to St Agnes. Today marks the first time we are
using the new translation of the mass, and you will find cards
in every pew with the changes. I will hold the card up as a
way of alerting you when we are coming to a changed section."
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
Celebrating the Eucharist. There were also the aforementioned
cards in the pew with the new translation and a handout with
the day's musical selections.
What musical instruments
A very warm sounding organ, an opus of the London firm of
Mander Organs, one of the only Mander instruments in New York
City. There was also a choir of what sounded like four voices,
who did a good job with the plainsong chant. (They were in
the choir loft, so I wasn't able to see them to verify.)
Did anything distract
A family of five arrived late. While making room in the pew
for them, I tried to find more service cards and a couple
of missals. The custodian saw me and came over with materials
for everyone. The rather harried mom at first started to refuse
them, but then said, "Oh shit, everything is all different
now, isn't it?" and took the missals. It was hard not to laugh,
but she sounded so utterly put upon.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
A pretty formal take on the novus ordo, no incense
but plenty of chant. And certainly one way around dealing
with the new translation is to, well, just not translate it.
Much of the mass was in Latin, including the introit, Kyrie,
Gloria, offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and communion antiphon.
Communion was taken either kneeling or standing at the altar
rail, a kind of mixing the old and the new.
Exactly how long was
On a scale of 1-10,
how good was the preacher?
7 Quite a confident speaker, and the message certainly
fit the spirit of Advent.
In a nutshell, what
was the sermon about?
Advent is a call to change, and change is one of the major
themes of the season. This is why the changes to the mass
were introduced during this time. We have this time to ask
ourselves how the birth of Jesus has changed our lives and
how we can effect those changes throughout the coming year.
One way we can do this is through the sacrament of reconciliation,
which offers us a new way forward and a way to make more meaningful
changes to our lives.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The priest helping everyone out with the changes. He really
did hold the card up to draw our attention to new sections
of the mass, and tended to slow down in the new sections of
the eucharistic prayer and the communion rite to help us hear
the changes better.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
Definitely some of the wonkiness of the new translation, which
I was really hearing for the first time. Everyone has seemed
to go on about "consubstantial", but to me the most
glaring to my ear was "Lord, I am not worthy that you should
enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall
be healed." I know that this is a very, very literal translation
of Matthew 8:8, but are folks really going to get that? It
sounds so leaden. I also had a problem with translating "he"
and "him" as inclusive of both men and women. While
it might be closer to the Latin, it sounds way too exclusionary
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Not really a chance to hang around. Everyone just shuffled
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
Sadly, no coffee, which was a bummer. It would have been the
perfect chance to hear others' opinions on the changes.
How would you feel about
making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 =
5 Attempts to elevate the liturgy are certainly attractive
and the plainsong chant was quite good, but I'm not sure how
much community there is, given the volume of commuters.
Did the service make
you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very much so. It was nice to see a priest make a serious
attempt to shepherd his flock through the new translation.
What one thing will
you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The rather hot-to-trot St Agnes in the altar triptych. Va
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