Cathedral of St Luke, Portland, Maine, USA

Cathedral of St Luke, Portland, Maine, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Frideswide
Church: Cathedral of St Luke
Location: Portland, Maine, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 1 March 2006, 7:30am

The building

A French Gothic stone building, looking very traditional and cathedral-like, albeit with a minimum of towers. One enters from the parking lot in back through a rather squat brown shelter, which although unattractive is clearly signed. Inside, the cathedral features stone floors, elegant hanging lanterns, a grandly carved high altar, and a good supply of stained glass including a glorious rose window. Although rectangular rather than cruciform, the cathedral has side aisles and a satisfying set of nooks and crannies. The chapel (where today's service was held) opens off the west end and is an octagonal delight paneled in mahogany rising in gilded arches to a skylight. An alcove holds the chapel's main altar, with a painting of Madonna and toddling Child, although today's service was held at a communion table set in the midst of the chapel.

The church

The cathedral's newsletter suggests an active congregation with a wide range of interests and offerings – outreach projects, monthly community suppers, a Lenten series on addictions, Sunday morning education for children and adults alike, quiet days, etc.

The neighborhood

Portland is Maine's largest city but still only numbers about 63,000 residents. Founded by the British in 1632, it was destroyed by fire four times during the course of its history. Defiant in the face of tragedy, the city seal features the phoenix, the mythological bird that immolated itself only to rise again from its ashes, and the city motto is the Latin word Resurgam ("I shall rise again.") Today's Portland featues a sparkling clean downtown area that attracts many tourists. The cathedral is located a short walk from the center of downtown in a mixed residential-commercial area. Across the street is Mercy Hospital (run by the Sisters of Mercy) and next door is the large State Street Church (United Church of Christ) and the Portland branch of the Bangor Theological Seminary.

The cast

The service leaflet did not give names. Judging by the photo on the cathedral website, I suspect the celebrant was the Very Revd Benjamin Shambaugh, dean of the cathedral.

What was the name of the service?

Mass with Imposition of Ashes.

How full was the building?

Sparse, but not unpleasantly so – one or two people in most pews, but it's a small chapel and they're rather long pews.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. As I was hesitating by the lectern (which is set up near the door of the chapel) scoping out where to sit, a woman got up and came over. Aha, thought I, someone come to ask if she can help me. However, she was the lector come to check the book, and she sat down again without saying anything.

Was your pew comfortable?

Plain wood pews with a single beam across the back instead of a solid back. Some pews had cushions, though not mine. The beam was more of a bother than the lack of cushion, though eventually I figured out how to lean on it without feeling like I was going to slide out. The pews in the cathedral proper have solid backs but I forgot to test any before I left.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Absolutely quiet and reverential. Except for some idiot whose phone beeped five times when she turned the ringer off before the service. Oops, that was me.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"The service for Ash Wednesday begins on page 264 of the red Prayer Book."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Book of Common Prayer (1979). Most of them were red (per announcement), but some were black. There were also hymnals in the pews (1982 Hymnal), most of which were blue, but some were red.

What musical instruments were played?

No music.

Did anything distract you?

The gorgeous surroundings: the gilded woodwork, the chapel's main altar (and wondering if they ever use it), trying to determine the function of a large wooden panel with odd protuberances over the entrance.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Quiet and reverential, but not stiff-upper-lip. At the peace, most people milled around enough to shake hands with everyone else, but did so reverently, exchanging the peace rather than having conversations. We stood in a circle around the communion table to receive the bread and wine, but we knelt at the chapel's main altar to receive ashes.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

I noted the starting time, but was so enthralled by what Dean Shambaugh said that I failed to look at my watch again until 17 minutes later. I would guess that he spoke for 7 or 8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

8 – The dean read most of his sermon, but was especially effective when he departed from his written text to look up at us and speak ex tempore.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Ashes remind us that we will die. The good news is that God is here with us, and it is possible to be reconciled to God. Lent is a time of preparation, of planting seeds so they can germinate. A brush fire will turn a green field into ashes, but from those ashes growth will come. We should "take on" rather than "give up" for Lent – take on prayer, mediation, scripture reading, and self-examination.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

As I approached the altar rail for the imposition of ashes, I noted that the old language that I love was being modified to suit the gender of each worshipper: "Remember, O man..." or "Remember, O woman..." as the case may be. "Oh, no," I thought, "Why are they doing that?" But as I knelt and the words "Remember, O woman, that dust thou art..." were addressed directly to me, with a firm and clear cross marked patiently on my forehead, they felt exactly right. And then, because I was in the last group of people at the altar rail, I could kneel a bit longer on that soft velvet cushion and soak in being close to God.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Having to get up and stand in a circle to take communion, and then also stay standing there to join in the post-communion prayer.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Nobody talked to me afterwards. I hung around inspecting the photo of the third Bishop of Maine and gazing up at the skylight and generally trying to look like someone hanging around. Nobody talked to me as they cleared the altar and picked up the leaflets. Finally, when everything was picked up, cleaned up, and put away, the altar guild woman and the celebrant emerged and I had a pleasant conversation with each about the chapel and about the pastime of visiting churches. The celebrant brought me a pamphlet and a newsletter. We walked back through the cathedral together and then went our separate ways. No names were exchanged.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No refreshments.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

6 – I love the building. I loved the quiet and reverence of the service and congregation. I love the variety of programs being offered. I liked the preaching. All that is a 10. Never kneeling for communion is a 0.

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


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The chapel's mahogany paneling with its gilded woodwork.

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