Christ Church, Pensacola, FL (Exterior)

Christ Church, Pensacola, Florida, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Christ Church
Location: Pensacola, Florida, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 December 2012, 5:00pm

The building

The present building dates from 1905 and replaces an earlier structure. Its appearance is unlike any other the Kid has ever seen. Classified as Spanish Colonial Revival, the building is faced with stucco made from a fossilized coquina sea shell, now classified as endangered. Upon entry you are presented with the highly decorated interior of a domed structure. The dome is supported by four columns, the caps of which bear the symbols of the four evangelists. The windows are deemed to be among the finest examples of turn-of-the-century glass and are often mistaken for Tiffany (but in fact predate Tiffany). The five flags that have flown over Pensacola (Spain, England, France, United States, the Confederate States of America) are mounted on the back wall, along with a sixth: the Royal Navy Ensign, a personal gift of His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales, who attended services here along with his brothers when their ship called at the Pensacola Naval Yard. The church really has no chancel – the quire sits at the very front of the nave with the sanctuary behind it. During Hurricane Ivan in 2004, the tower bell fell through the barrel-tiled roof at the rear of the nave all the way into the undercroft. This gave rise to an opportunity to make some improvements during the restoration, which took well over a year.

The church

Early records indicate that the Bishop of London assigned a missionary priest to Pensacola as early as 1725. Christ Church was ultimately incorporated by an act of the territorial legislature of Florida in 1829. During the Civil War, Old Christ Church was used by the Union troops as a hospital, and after the construction of New Christ Church it was conveyed to the city for use as a library, among other things. During restoration of Old Christ Church the 1990s, several graves of former priests of the parish were discovered that appeared to have been desecrated during the war. When the restoration was complete and the building rededicated, some attendees reported seeing the apparitions of the long-dead priests in white robes participating in the procession of choir and clergy. New Christ Church is said by some to be haunted as well: certain members and visitors have reported seeing a middle-aged man in a sexton's uniform sitting in the front row. By the time he is approached he disappears. He has been identified by older members as a sexton who was found murdered some 50 years ago on the steps of the church on Easter Day. Today, Christ Church is an active, vibrant parish, with a respected and growing parochial school and all the organizations one would expect from a large parish for children and adults. The ladies of the church sponsor an antiques show in which noted vendors throughout the country are invited to participate, with the profits going primarily to the school.

The neighborhood

The position of Christ Church is so intertwined with the life and history of Pensacola that it is hard to discuss one without the other. Pensacola is the oldest community established in what is now the United States - even older than other cities whose chambers of commerce attempt to lay claim to that accolade. Christ Church is the traditional downtown church, in close proximity to the historic Lutheran church, St Michael's Basilica, a United Methodist church and a Baptist church. This convergence of Palafox and Wright Streets has been "church corner" since the British laid out the street grid and the Spanish named the streets. The commercial part of the city is south and toward the port. That area has become transformed over the past decade into art galleries, points of entertainment and white-table-cloth restaurants - the center of interest for many tourists who arrive by car, air, and ship.

The cast

The Revd Tim Backus, associate curate, was the officiant. He was assisted by the Revd Deacon Betty Jo Brenemen. In charge of the music were Kenneth Karradin, associate for music and liturgy; Paul Shimel, music assistant; and Treece Efird, choral assistant. Several lay members of the parish read the lessons.

What was the name of the service?

A Festival of Lessons and Carols.

How full was the building?

About 80 per cent, with numerous visitors from other congregations.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not really. Notwithstanding a large attendance for an afternoon service, the ushers simply stood in the narthex and passed out service leaflets, leaving the congregants to fend for themselves in finding a seat. Those who were unfamiliar with the church or came late found themselves wandering the aisles in search of proper accommodation.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The pews are of the design originally furnished in 1905, although some were replaced due to damage. Pew cushions have been added recently, creating havoc with the acoustics. The kneelers are covered in a blue fabric.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, with people coming early to get the best seats. Recognition among friends was obvious.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Beloved in Christ, let it be in this Advent-tide our care and delight to prepare ourselves to hear again the message of the angels..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The entire service was set out in a service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ, an opus of Gabriel Kney & Co., Ltd, of London, Ontario, Canada, and donated anonymously in 1973.

Did anything distract you?

The verger, a middle-aged woman, did not participate in the procession or the service, but rather wandered about the church checking to see that votives were burning properly and the offering plates were placed in conspicuous locations, there being no formal offertory in this service. Somewhere in the rear of the church was a child who was openly rowdy.

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

Christ Church, like most of the other churches in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and throughout the Deep South, are low, low church. There was no incense, no crucifix, no genuflection, no kneeling (except for the final prayer), no bells, no academic hoods worn by the choir members. The only oddment was a sanctuary light guarding a never-used aumbry.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

No sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Christ Church is justifiably proud of its music program. The choir are totally volunteer but include some very good musicians. The group were spot-on in tune and on time. The choirmaster has served for over 25 years, and the communication between him and the choir was instantly and completely apparent. The organ fits the room perfectly and its sound is glorious.

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

Although the service leaflet was printed in the grandeur of the language of the original 1918 Service of Lessons and Carols, all the readings were from a more modern version of the Bible. The congregation got to sing only once, other than the first and last song, and that was a hybrid of setting singing alternate verses of "O little town of Bethlehem" first to Forest Green and then to St Louis. Thank God they are both in F major.

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

Although the service had begun with a procession led by crucifer and torches, they failed to show up during the final hymn; hence no one led the procession out of the church. At the end of the hymn the choir appeared at a loss as to what to do next, and congregants began to wish each other Merry Christmas. The organist struck up a Bach recessional, and some people stayed behind to listen to that.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none. What a missed opportunity for a cup of wassail!

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

8 – If the choir are this fine every Sunday, I'd gladly come just to hear them. I do, however, enjoy a bit more congregational participation.

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 organ, the choir and the music.

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