A smallish discrete chapel, once the mortuary chapel of the Franciscan complex at the corner of La Defensa and Adolfo Ansina, it is linked to the Basilica of San Francisco by a small ecclesiastical museum. It dates from the 1750s and has the plain white exterior of colonial baroque. The interior is as simple as South American Catholicism gets, with whitewashed walls and a zen-like altar, albeit with carved wooden statues of saints. Glass doors lead onto the small plaza around which the basilica and museum are placed; once the Plaza San Francisco, it has been renamed the Plazoleta Héroes de Malvinas.
I'm not sure if it is a parish with a community or a city church in the Anglican model, with its community being the office workers in the vicinity. It bears the name of San Roque (Roch in French or Rocco in Italian), an early 14th century French ascetic who bore a birthmark in the shape of a cross. Roque walked from town to town treating victims of the plague, but was exiled after contracting the disease himself. He was saved from starvation by a dog who brought him a loaf of bread and who licked his sores, thus causing them to heal. He resumed the life of an itinerant healer, but his illness had left him so debilitated that he was mistaken for a common tramp and imprisoned, where he died. Canonised in 1590 by Pope Gregory XIV, St Roque is the patron saint of dogs, the gravely ill, and pilgrims.
The chapel is at the more prosperous eastern end of the Montserrat district, just to the south of the Casa Rosada (familiar to fans of Evita) and the Plaza de Mayo, the centre of demonstrations in Argentina. It is primarily an office area, but there are some very tony apartments nearby, as well as some very decrepit residential buildings. This is one of the oldest parts of the city, busy with office workers in the day, and crowds proceeding into or back from the nightlife of raffish San Telmo to the south.
As well as an older officiating friar, there was a younger one, as well as two other friars in street dress.
What was the name of the service?Mass
How full was the building?
The chapel might fit comfortably about 70, and with 30 women and a dozen men it seemed quite full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I had not expected to get much notice as this is one of the eight city churches in this barrio. But as I sat in my pew, two parishioners stopped by to shake my hand and speak with me, one slipping into English as my horrible accent outed me as a foreigner. About five others nodded in greeting as they passed.
Was your pew comfortable?
We were the beneficiaries of the best woodworkers of the 18th century, who had prepared seats to suit worshippers at long services. I parked myself near the statue of San Roque depicted as he usually is, with his open sores and friendly dog at his side. The saint is especially dear to Canadians, as in 1940–1942 the St Roch, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner, was the first vessel ever to complete a voyage through the Northwest Passage in a west to east direction, and in 1950 was the first ship ever to circumnavigate North America.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The older friar had parked himself a few pews in front of me, and I soon realised that he was hearing confessions. A small group of penitents sat in a nearby pew, rising and sliding over as each confession was finished to sit by the priest, their heads inclined, his hand on their shoulder. They spoke intently; the priest listening for the most part, nodding and occasionally speaking, then blessing the penitent at the end of it. The Argentines sitting nearby turned this into a zone of silence, looking away and making sure they were not able to hear. I tried to follow their example.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
There were some brief comments before the service began. I sometimes wonder what they were, as the Argentinean Spanish dialect is rather different from Spanish spoken elsewhere.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books in the pews, although there were a few leaflets. Everyone seems to know the liturgy by heart here.
What musical instruments were played?
We had a guitarist who strummed along during a gradual hymn. During the communion, she played a guitar piece that sounded vaguely like Bach to me, but was likely from the rich repertoire of classical guitar, known but little to Canadians.
Did anything distract you?
Sounds from the city outside, coming through the glass doors at the back. The diesel engines of the Buenos Aires colectivo buses sounded a bit like asthmatic aircraft taking off.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As an evening mass for tired office and restaurant workers and some marginal street people, it was both business-like and reflective.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The elderly friar's pacing was good and he spoke with dramatic flair. Sadly for me, his Spanish was inaccessible.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I think he was speaking from the gospel of the day, but thats just a wild guess.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Watching the intensity of the confessions from my spot. Whatever was being said, the penitents were serious, and fixed on the confessors advice.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
By this time in my month-long stay, I had become quite frustrated with my inability to understand the local Spanish, so different from the Castilian to which I had previously been accustomed.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone cleared out very quickly, the friars nattering away to each other. Two parishioners came up to greet me: one prosperously dressed older woman (pearls and a Prada bag) who shook my hand and welcomed me to their casita de paz, (little house of peace), and a very intense young man with a beard and a braided pony-tail who, in the usual Argentine manner of greeting, hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Buenos Aires boasts the best coffee in the world, so I took a cortado (espresso with a splash of milk) in the café attached to the film-makers university a few blocks down as, at 6.30 pm, it was far too early to get dinner.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I were an office worker in this part of town, I could see how San Roque could become a regular stop, although it would be nice to understand what was being said. The guitarist was so very good, her work would bring in atheists by the dozen if they but knew of it – I have heard so many awful guitars in churches over the years that this bit of musical magic still remains with me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The intensity of life in this troubled city and country is such that greetings and even the sharing of the peace seem to have no falseness about them.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The confession ritual, foreign to most Anglicans except in theory, but clearly very meaningful for parishioners in this extraordinary and turbulent city.