Immaculate Conception, Portsmouth, NH (Exterior)

Immaculate Conception, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Immaculate Conception
Location: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 11 July 2015, 4:00pm

The building

The present church was dedicated on October 21, 1934. It has a red brick exterior that dominates the small side street on which it is located. Two trumpeting angel statues welcome you as you enter. The interior has a barrel vaulted ceiling with a central aisle and much older pews. The old high altar behind the modern altar is intact, as are the two side altars. But the eye is drawn to the central tabernacle. One very unusual but very edifying architectural feature is that each of the dozen plus columns features an angel holding a banner that reads "Ave Maria."

The church

The parish appears to have a very robust assortment of ministries and outreach efforts, all of which are documented on their website. All in all, there are three church buildings included within the parish.

The neighborhood

Portsmouth is an old New England seacoast town that is a popular tourist designation during the summer months. Everything in the town reminds one of the set of the old Angela Lansbury TV series Murder, She Wrote (set in the fictitious Cabot Cove, Maine) – but in a good way. The neighborhood around the church is very residential, with most of the housing stock clearly dating to the late 19th or early 20th century, but very well kept.

The cast

The celebrant was the Revd Phong Pham, a visiting priest from Vietnam. He was assisted by the Revd Mr James Wilson, deacon. There were also an organist (very good), a cantor, lector, three altar servers, and a master of ceremonies who appeared to be in his 20s. None of these were named.

What was the name of the service?

Vigil Mass

How full was the building?

About 90 per cent full. The crowd appeared to be mostly older, with a good number of younger families and individuals who I suspect were visiting tourists.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes! There was a whole crew of five or six ushers who welcomed everyone.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not at all! It's an old church, but I don't go to church to pamper myself.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverential. We arrived quite early, but a good-sized group had already begun to recite the Rosary.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The standard Oregon Catholic Press hymnal/music combination.

What musical instruments were played?

Old fashioned well tuned pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?

It was the hottest day New England had seen in more than a year, and here I was in a suit and tie, sweating a bit more than I would have liked. The church was not retrofitted with air conditioning.

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

The format was formal. The servers were properly attired in cassock and surplice, and the congregation sang pretty well.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

9 – The visiting priest was quite animated. At one point he gestured toward the crucifix to remind everyone that Catholics are called to follow Jesus and make the world a better place.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He compared the journey of life to crossing the road, and used this as a metaphor for expressing one's faith and working to impact the world. Be brave (he said); do not be afraid to face the dangers inherent in crossing the busy and dangerous street of the secular world. It is by this that we will be made whole.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The church itself. We were early enough to admire the architecture. My wife remarked that I was like a kid in a candy store. I enjoyed it so much! I would also have to say that Father Pham's animated pointing toward Jesus was an unexpected treat.

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

The heat was brutal!

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

Unfortunately, we could not hang around as much as we would have liked to, as we were on a tight timeline to get to a wedding at 5.00. But I should note that one of the ushers wished us well as we headed for our car.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was no after-service coffee.

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

7 – I would actually like to visit this church again when I would have time to linger a bit. If I had the chance, I would like to go earlier and stay longer.

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

Yes. Father Pham preached brilliantly, and the church was beautiful and full.

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

Three things: the architecture; Father Pham's sermon; and what I perceived to be a degree of enthusiasm from the congregants.

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