Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Blessed Sacrament
Location: Tolleson, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 8 January 2011, 5:00pm
A stone building in the Spanish Mission style. Inside has a colonial Spanish feel: red tile floor, white walls, dark wood ceiling and window frames, windows of plain frosted glass, Spanish style chandeliers. A communion table sits in front of a small altar that supports the tabernacle; this is backed by a blue wall on which hangs a large cross. Paintings of St Joseph with the boy Jesus and one of Our Lady of Guadalupe hang to the left and right of the sanctuary, respectively. The church still had its Christmas decorations up: trees, poinsettias, a Nativity creche.
They celebrate two Sunday masses in Spanish and one in English, plus the Saturday vigil mass in English. Mass is also said during the week except on Thursdays, when they conduct a holy hour. Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament is held on Fridays.
Tolleson is a tiny (population 5000) community situated on Interstate 10 just west of Phoenix. In 1912, a certain land speculator from South Carolina by the name of W.G. Tolleson, en route to California, stopped in Arizona at a stagecoach station known as Ten Mile Store. Liking what he saw, Tolleson bought up large tracts of land and encouraged settlers to come to the area. Incorporated in 1929, the town of Tolleson was the first in Arizona to pave all of its streets. For most of the 20th century, Tolleson's economy was dependent on agriculture. However, with the completion in 1990 of Interstate 10, linking Santa Monica, California, with Jacksonville, Florida, by way of Phoenix, Houston and New Orleans, Tolleson has become a major shipping and warehousing hub. Even so, downtown Tolleson retains a quaint days-gone-by atmosphere rapidly disappearing from the American landscape.
The Revd Pedro Velez Prensa, parochial administrator, celebrated mass. He was assisted by the Revd Mr Peter Murphy, deacon. Mr Ben McClellan played the digital keyboard and served as cantor, but I'd rather call him Liberace, for reasons that will become evident.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
The church can hold about 200 and was completely full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pews, angled slightly in. They looked like they could use a refinishing. I wouldn't exactly call them comfortable, but they weren't too bad.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A recording of Gregorian chant was playing softly over the PA system. I recognized Puer natus in Bethlehem (appropriate), Pueri Hebraeorum (inappropriate - from Palm Sunday liturgy), and Ubi caritas et amor (inappropriate - from Holy Thursday liturgy). I didn't recognize the other selections, but the overall effect was very relaxing. People entered quietly and knelt in prayer. An electronic carillon chimed outside, clashing with the Gregorian chant. The sacristan, dressed in street clothes, lit the altar candles with a mechanical barbecue lighter. The church bell was rung immediately before the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening. We extend a warm welcome to you all, and especially to our visitors."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hardbound Gather hymnal was stacked on a table in the vestibule, but hardly anyone took one. They couldn't have sung anyway to Liberace's accompaniment - but more about that in a moment. Cards with the new English responses were also available for the taking.
What musical instruments were played?
A digital keyboard, located up in the choir loft. I also spotted some music stands with mikes positioned next to them, but fortunately they remained unoccupied.
Did anything distract you?
Liberace's playing was a major distraction. He chose an electric piano stop from those available on the instrument, and banged away at a volume that drowned out his singing (he doubled as cantor) and in a style full of glissandos, trills, and other embellishments that were fine for a Las Vegas lounge act, but useless as an aid to congregational singing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I was not expecting a dignified, well-executed liturgy, but that's exactly what we got! The entrance procession consisted of thurifer, crucifer, acolytes (all in cassock and surplice and, I'm happy to say, black haberdashery), deacon in alb and deacon's stole, and celebrant in a beautifully patterned white chasuble. We sang "Hark, the herald angels sing" a cappella as Liberace ran thump-thump-thumping up the choir stairs a minute after the procession began. First and second censing, and censing of the gospel book, were done with dignity and grace. The bell was rung at the epiclesis as well as the consecration. No chanting, though. The congregation seemed to have the new English responses down pat.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – I tried hard to like Father Pedro's presentation. He's a very young priest and was trying his best to explain the Epiphany to the congregation. He spoke with a heavy Spanish accent that was actually rather charming. I think he had notes in front of him, but he tried to sound extemporaneous. He would have succeeded had he not rambled on for half an hour after making his point in about ten minutes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Epiphany means "manifestation." The "plain sense" of the Nativity is that God manifested himself to the entire world in the person of Jesus: first to the shepherds (representing the Jews and the common people) and then to the Magi (representing the pagans and the well-born). God chose Israel to be the center of salvation - it flows out from there to the whole world. The spirit of Christmas is the light that dispels darkness. Jesus is that light, the "new star" that the Magi saw. The gifts of the Magi represent Christ's kingship (gold), priesthood (frankincense), and redemptive act (myrrh). We, too, bring gifts to Christ, but we have only ourselves to offer. Let us open our hearts to God so that we, too, can adore him.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
A beautifully executed liturgy in a church reminiscent of colonial Spain.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Oh, that Liberace! He chose good hymns ("We three kings", "What child is this", "Joy to the world") but no one could sing to his bravura playing. And no one did! Returning from communion, I realized that there were two other singers besides himself up in the choir loft: a young man and a woman. But no one could hear them. At communion, after attempting to have us sing "What child is this", Liberace launched into a solo that can only be described as Chopin on crack cocaine.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone filed out quickly.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None on offer.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Lawk a'mercy, I'd like to. But they'd have to replace Liberace with someone who could choose a decent-sounding organ stop on the digital keyboard, if one is available, and play in a style designed to support singing, not show off the keyboardist's technique.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It was refreshing to experience a liturgy of that quality in a Catholic church. But oh, the music! I wanted to scream!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I'm going to put Liberace out of my mind and try to remember Father Pedro's charming attempt to explain the Epiphany to his congregation.