Having been built in 1848 after the emancipation of slaves in the Danish West Indies, the cathedral is relatively old for an American church. Constructed of local stone and brick used as ballast aboard ships, with molasses included in the mortar, the building is mostly a square meeting house with some rudimentary Gothic Revival some might say gothicky characteristics. The interior is open, with many modern additions, including air conditioning units where clerestory windows would normally be located but I'll have more to say about the interior in a moment. A semi-octagonal-shaped dais serves as the chancel and is separated from the nave by wooden altar rails. The intricately carved wooden high altar now serves as a reredos for a versus populum freestanding altar.
The seat of the Episcopal bishop of the Virgin Islands, the diocese spans two flags: the United States Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands. Despite its cathedral status, the congregation feels more like a mid-size parish church than a cathedral. Its biggest offering is an acclaimed private school on an island with relatively bad state schools. The service bulletin listed its mission as an "inclusive Christian community that worships God through actions and ministries, service to others, promoting peace, justice, reconciliation, and empowerment for the St Thomas community." There are two Sunday services plus a midweek eucharist on Wednesdays. One of the Sunday services is recorded for broadcast over the radio on Sunday evening.
Formerly the Danish West Indies, the islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas plus several minor islands were sold to the United States by Denmark in 1916. As a United States territory, the residents of the US Virgin Islands are citizens of the United States but cannot vote in Presidential elections. The territory's principal industry is tourism, although a percentage of its economy is devoted to farming. Charlotte Amalie, the capital city, is named in honor of Charlotte Amalie of Hesse-Kassel, queen consort to King Christian V of Denmark-Norway. The city is known for its deep-water harbor, once the refuge of pirates but now frequented primarily by cruise ships, and its colonial area architecture. Some streets are a little gritty, particularly after dark. The cathedral is located several blocks from the harbor.
The Revd Erminie A.L. George, curate, presided, assisted by the Revd Deacon Clarence T. Scipio. The curate wore a cassock-alb and chasuble, and the deacon a cassock-alb and deacon's stole. The organist was Maureen L. Welsh.
What was the name of the service?Holy Eucharist with Sermon.
How full was the building?
There were about 50 worshippers, including clergy and ushers, scattered across the pews, excluding those pews in the galleries. The space could easily accommodate several hundred people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Upon entering about seven minutes before service time, I was handed a visitor's card and bulletin that contained the order of service. However, I was never greeted until the exchange of the peace, when many congregants greeted me. This is definitely one of those congregations where the peace becomes a social affair.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was acceptable for 90 minutes despite a lack of padding, but would have been uncomfortable had the service gone on longer.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
You could have heard a pin drop.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, Christian brothers and sisters."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Hymnal 1982, the Prayer Book 1979, and The Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version, were all in the pews. However, most of the liturgy and hymns were printed in the bulletin and order of service. Almost all of the music was taken from the Lift Every Voice and Sing hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
A not-so-good electronic organic was accompanied by a small band.
Did anything distract you?
The ugliness of the cathedral's interior, which for an older church was very cluttered and in need of restoration.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I would classify it as a liturgical variant of a black church meaning, it fit certain stereotypes of black churchmanship: ladies in hats, hearty singing of mostly black church hymns and a vibe only a peg or two removed from Pentecostal and charismatic churches, at least what I imagine worship in those traditions to be. The words of the liturgy, however, were standard Episcopal Rite II.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3 – While the curate was seemingly reading from notes or prepared remarks, the sermon was about 15 minutes too long and really disorganized (see below).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The curate started off by discussing the importance of being open to hearing God's word and humbling ourselves to rely upon him, but quickly turned into a tirade against prosperity and local United States Virgin Islands government policies on taxes, pay raises for government workers, health care benefits, and other political issues that, according to the preacher, were greed.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As with most West Indian churches, the congregants joined hands and sang the Lord's Prayer in their good and not-so-good voices. This is always serene.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Missing communion. I expected the ushers, as is the custom in many churches, to signal each row of pews when it was time to get up. As those around me were not partaking, I missed out, as it was a free-for-all communion. Anyone, seated anywhere, could go up without direction from the ushers.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I followed the example of everyone else and made my way to the exit.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no mention of an after-church gathering.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – While they were friendly at the exchange of peace, it just wasn't my church.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
It didn't feel like a cathedral at all.