First Presbyterian, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: First Presbyterian
Location: Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
Date of visit: Wednesday, 7 August 2019, 5:30pm

The building

It is in the Pueblo Revival style and is the third worship space for the congregation. They purchased their first worship space from a Baptist congregation in 1867; it was later described in a report to the Board of Missions as potentially ‘a valuable shelter for horses.’ That building was replaced by a red brick church in 1882, which was replaced by the current church in 1939. It was extensively renovated in 2006 after much planning. During that renovation, other structures were razed and replaced. They gave serious consideration to moving from the center city in the 1990s but decided to stay in the city – a decision that led to the substantial upgrading of their facilities over the next couple of decades. There is a columbarium and a pre-school. The baptismal font is in the center of the congregation's seating. Choir and organ are behind the communion table and pulpit. The acoustics of the space are superb, and a number of musical ensembles in the Santa Fe area make use of the space.

The church

First Presbyterian is the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in New Mexico. Their activities as a congregation are extensive, and amply documented on a well-designed web page. There are the usual Christian formation and social justice activities (I would want to check out the ‘Science and Faith’ discussion group that meets twice monthly if Materfamilias and I were to move to Santa Fe). I noticed on their web page that they held a joint worship service with an Episcopal parish and the Catholic cathedral-basilica on the Santa Fe central plaza on Palm Sunday. The music program is extensive, including TGIF, a Friday night recital series that runs throughout the year. There are two worship services each Sunday morning, and a Celtic Evensong (which is the service we attended), a short worship service in the Iona tradition, with holy communion, each Wednesday evening. A group of parishioners from First Presbyterian visited Iona a couple of years back and wanted to introduce services in the Iona tradition to their parish.

The neighborhood

Santa Fe celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2010. It is the capital of New Mexico and has been a capital city since 1610, with only one brief interruption in the 1680s. It also has the highest elevation of any state capital in the US. First Presbyterian is only a couple of blocks from the plaza in the center of the city, and is surrounded largely by businesses, with the occasional residential property.

The cast

There was a worship leader who guided the proceedings and presided at table. Musicians were a pianist, who provided a prelude and accompaniment, and a vocal soloist who sang at the beginning of the service.

What was the name of the service?

Celtic Evensong.

How full was the building?

There were ten of us present: nine humans and one very well-behaved canine.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

As I entered, there were three worshippers placing the books we would use on sixteen chairs in the front of the worship space. Each stopped to welcome me and to introduce themselves.

Was your pew comfortable?

We sat in chairs arranged in a circle. Quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet, but we engaged in some conversation.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good evening, and welcome to our weekly worship service.’ Or something close to that. In such a small gathering, I wasn't comfortable taking notes.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Iona Music Book and Iona Worship Book, published by the ecumenical Iona Community from Scotland.

What musical instruments were played?

A nine-foot grand piano. The parish also has a three-manual Fisk pipe organ and a harpsichord in the sanctuary, but these were not used.

Did anything distract you?

I have cataracts, and the quite dim lighting made reading very difficult – especially the very small page numbers, so that when ‘page 97’ was announced, I was lost. A young woman sitting to my right offered me a magnifying glass with a light, which saved the day!

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

Informal but reverent. The Iona Worship Book provides structure and has some liturgical texts, but also allows much opportunity for the worshiping community to create their own prayers. The service had a call to worship, a scripture reading (Psalm 71 – ‘In you, Lord, I have taken refuge’), free intercessions, a litany of intercession, and holy communion. The communion had a brief eucharistic prayer (improvised?), followed by the Lord's Prayer, and then the institution narrative (common Presbyterian practice). We administered communion to each other, receiving the crackers and grape juice from the person on our right, and passing them to the person on our left with whatever words of administration we wished to use. The service concluded with a blessing, and we then shared the peace.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The warm welcome of this community, and the emphasis on peace and justice in the prayers and readings.

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

Absolutely nothing hellish about this beautiful, reverent service, although I would have welcomed a bit more singing – for a service called Evensong I thought it unusual that we had only an opening and closing hymn (plus the vocalist's solo as a part of the prelude music).

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

Sharing the peace at service's end led to several worshipers welcoming me and asking where I was from (Santa Fe is awash in tourists this time of year), how long I would be staying, etc. And the young woman who lent me the magnifying glass told me to keep it – a thoughtful gesture, I thought.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

10 — We visit Santa Fe from time to time, and when we are next here I look forward to worshipping with this warm, welcoming community. Maybe by then I will have had my cataract surgery and can return the magnifying glass.

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 beautiful way we shared communion.

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