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2493: Old Cathedral of St Mary and Holy Family Mission, San Francisco, California, USA
Old St Mary's, San Francisco, CA (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Galadriel.
The church: Old Cathedral of St Mary of the Immaculate Conception and Holy Family Chinese Mission, San Francisco, California, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of San Francisco. The church is administered by the Missionary Society of St Paul the Apostle, better known as the Paulist Fathers.
The building: A brick structure dating from 1854, serving as the seat of the Archbishop of San Francisco until 1891. The building survived the great earthquake of 1906, only to be completely gutted the next day by the fire that ensued, which even melted the church bells. It was restored in 1909. Inside it is wider than it looks from outside. The high altar is marble, replacing the original marble altar that was completely pulverized by the fire. The reredos behind the altar is a triptych depicting the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and what appears to be St Michael casting Satan into hell.
The church: This was the first church in the world to bear the title of Immaculate Conception, which dogma Pope Pius IX had pronounced only 17 days before the cathedral's dedication. A Chinese mission was established here in 1903, and its successor, Holy Family parish, is the only Catholic Chinese parish in San Francisco. Old St Mary's promotes a wide range of social outreach activities, such as a seniors grocery program, and offers workshops in spirituality and Bible study. It is also linked to a Catholic elementary school that offers an academic program, value based education, computer learning, Mandarin classes, an after school study and after school care program, athletics, and other activities. Two masses are offered every day, with three on special holy days.
The neighborhood: The church, a historic landmark, is located at 660 California Street at the intersection of Chinatown and the financial district, near downtown San Francisco. When the cathedral was first built, this neighborhood was known as the Barbary Coast and bore a rather seedy reputation. A plaque underneath the cathedral clock bears the inscription "Son, observe the time and fly from evil" (Ecclesiasticus 4:23) and was meant as a stern warning for men who frequented the surrounding brothels.
The cast: Celebrant: the Revd Terry Ryan, CSP, a visiting priest from White Plains, New York. Also contributing were the welcomer, Barbara Schmidt; an unnamed cantor and pianist; and assorted lay persons.
The date & time: First Sunday in Lent, February 17, 2013, 8.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Mass.

How full was the building?
About 80 people were present. They were well spread out through the church, so it looked fuller than it actually was.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was welcomed with "Good morning and welcome to you." I was then handed a worship booklet with all the hymns and sung responses, and was advised that the water at the back of the church was holy water, should I wish to use it. There was a further welcome ritual at the beginning of the service (see below).

Was your pew comfortable?
Traditional pews, wooden, firm and a little on the low side but not uncomfortable. For kneeling there was a pull-down kneeler, leather-padded, appropriate for purpose.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quietly reverent. Immediately before the service the cantor stepped forward and taught the congregation the sung response for the psalm of the day.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, everyone, and welcome to all of you." This was followed by a tactful reminder to switch off phones and electronic devices. Then the welcomer said that, since the church gets many visitors, it is their custom to get people to introduce themselves to their immediate neighbors. She introduced herself and then invited us to shake hands all round our seats. This did engender a cheerful spirit; everyone was smiling as they did it.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
All the words of the service, including hymns, were in the service booklet handed out on arrival. Some of the music was modern, but the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei were all based on ancient plainsong chants.

What musical instruments were played?
Piano.

Did anything distract you?
For the first part of the service I could not hear the celebrant. If he had a microphone he was not using it. Having essentially to struggle either to hear or to lip-read, I was not really able to concentrate on spiritual matters.

Old St Mary's, San Francisco, CA (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straightforward modern Roman Catholic mass. Nothing unusual. It was quite brisk but did not feel rushed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
4 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Very well crafted and clear of content, crisply delivered. Fortunately by then he was using a microphone so I could hear every word.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
When we think of vocation, we tend to think of something we do well, which fits our skills. Thatís the secular vocation. Spiritual vocation is the opposite. To be spiritually developed, we need to be saying "no" sometimes. In the desert. Jesus denied himself food, thus practicing saying "no" to his human self so he could open himself saying "yes" to Abba, his Father. For Lent we have to give up something, the giving up of which changes us into someone more Christ-like.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The preaching.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The singing Ė very few people attempted to sing. The cantor was fantastic, giving
a really clear lead, and all the music was in the booklet, but hardly anyone joined in.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the mass, before the final blessing, the celebrant invited everyone to coffee and gave very clear directions how to find it after the service. At the back, people collecting in books also offered encouragement to go for coffee.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was served from a pump flask and was hot though not very strong. Biscuits and cookies were also offered. Very few members of the congregation attended, but those who did were friendly.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – I love my music too much to enjoy worshipping regularly in a church where people donít join in the hymns. However, I would perhaps try the later Sunday morning mass first. Maybe all the singers and keen musicians attend that one?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The cantorís effort to get the congregation to join in with hymns and responses. His enthusiasm never flagged despite getting so little response. And also the sermon; it was cogent and memorable food for thought for the whole of Lent.

 
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