Old St Patrick's, Nolita, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Old St Patrick's
Location: Nolita, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 October 2011, 12:45pm

The building

The Prefecture Apostolic of the United States of America was established in 1784 and was elevated to the status of diocese five years later, with its seat at Baltimore. The Diocese of New York was carved out of it in 1808, and the cornerstone for this, New York's first cathedral, was laid the next year. The exterior is a tipsy melange of Georgian and Gothic elements, which isn't surprising, since Old St Patrick's was built precisely at the moment when architectural styles were moving away from neo-classical to the Gothic Revival. A fire ravaged the building in 1866, but even though work on the "new" St Patrick's Cathedral was well underway uptown, the church was rebuilt although on a somewhat plainer scale. The interior is rather ornate, with the eye drawn to the huge marble high altar surrounded by an intricately carved gold leaf reredos. St Patrick's reverted to a parish church in 1879 with the completion of the new cathedral. In 1966, the building was one of the first sites to be named a New York City landmark. It was elevated to the status of minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. The crypt beneath the church, as well as the surrounding graveyard, is the resting place for the earthly remains of New York's earliest bishops as well as notables of the newly independent United States. The baptism scene in the film The Godfather, as well as the award ceremony in The Godfather Part III, were filmed at Old St Patrick's.

The church

They seem to be quite the active parish, with community outreach to the homeless, eucharistic ministry to the homebound, mens and womens small groups, sports night, prayer warriors, and other outreach and services, all listed on their website. There are five masses on Sunday, with one in Spanish and one in Mandarin. There are two masses daily during the week and two on Saturday.

The neighborhood

When it opened, Old St Patrick's sat well outside the settled areas of New York City, surrounded by farmland and the country houses of the rich. Today the area is known as NoLiTa (North of Little Italy) and has recently seen an influx of new, wealthy residents, bringing with them an explosion of trendy restaurants, bars and boutiques. Besides being home to Old St Patrick's, it is home to the Puck Building, one of the city's most famous buildings and the setting of Grace's office in the TV series Will & Grace. Also next door is St Michael's Chapel, one of only four Russian Catholic churches in the United States.

The cast

The Revd Jonathan Morris, parochial vicar. He wasn't introduced anywhere, but I recognized him from the ultra-conservative cable TV station Fox News, where he is an on-air personality.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass

How full was the building?

I stopped counting at 350. My guess is slightly more than 400. I'm not sure if this is their regular turnout, or if the attendance was high because there were seven baptisms to follow the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

It was a regular pew with kneeler, which was fine, if a little narrow. I was disturbed to find graffiti on my pew and several others in front of me. Its the first time I've ever seen that in any church in the city.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Hmm... A Macy's one-day sale comes to mind, and we're talking the Macy's in Herald Square. There was so much to-ing and fro-ing and hustle and bustle (and babies crying) that it was well nigh impossible to get one's pious on.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good afternoon ... I said, good afternoon!" Father Jonathan wasn't pleased with the first response, and demanded a second, more hearty greeting from the congregation.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a nice hand-out of the music to be sung, but the order of the mass wasn't included in it, nor were there any missals. You were out of luck if you didn't know it by rote.

What musical instruments were played?

There was a cantor and a small choir of men and women. The organ is a spectacular 1868 opus of the legendary organ builder Henry Erban, one of the first to build tracker organs in the United States. It is the only example of an original three-manual Erban still in existence. The organ case is in the Carpenter Gothic style and was built to complement the reredos.

Did anything distract you?

The distractions were plentiful and varied, with perhaps the biggest distraction being cell phones going off. And yes, one person near me actually answered his phone and had a brief chat. And then there were the latecomers. I would guess that a good third of the congregation arrived late, almost all walking up the center aisle to the front, jockeying for seats in already full pews. This lasted until at least the gospel reading. Communion was a total rugby scrum. They could have definitely used a cadre of ushers. I would also say a good third left after right after taking communion, including the couple who brought the elements up during the presentation.

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

Novus ordo, but with a real attempt to move it several notches up the candle. I got the sense that this move was something new, as the priest gave instruction on what to do during a sung Kyrie ("listen and pray") and the Sanctus ("here we pray by singing it"). And they were well worth listening to: the Kyrie, Gloria, offertory, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei were by Tomás Luis de Victoria and were all nicely done, but marred by the use of a rather incongruous "singing nun" style memorial acclamation and great Amen. I wasn't sure why they didn't go all way with the Victoria.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

6 – Father Jonathan is quite a good speaker, as one would expect of a television personality. He is immensely telegenic and spoke with authority albeit from notes. The sermon was definitely old-school didactic, so no messing about with anything feel-good or squishy hugs, hearts and flowers. The sermon was interesting, but I felt that some things were left a little incomplete and could easily be misinterpreted. It is more than a little loaded when you say God is our lover in the way that a spouse is, and I'm not sure that was fleshed out so that all would understand. I wondered if he was hinting at something like ecstasies a la St Teresa of Avila, but I'm really not sure, and if he was that would have been totally odd.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Why, if God has such love for us, do we seek to replace that love with love for other things? God seeks our good through his love, and the search for that love involves a discipline that we must practice to the exclusion of other loves. God alone is our true lover, and he loves us unconditionally. We may find this reflected in the love we have for a spouse, child or partner, but those are incomplete in comparison. Nothing, then, should come before our quest to return such love to God, and that means putting the love we feel for our spouse or child or job in its proper context.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It wasn't particularly numinous, although the choir were quite good and there was real effort to elevate the liturgy. If only the congregation had played along.

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

Two young women came in really late, at the gospel reading, reeking of cigarettes, each decked out as walking billboards for luxury brands, something that isn't uncommon in that neighborhood. They forced their way into an already packed pew directly in front of me, and talked to each other through much of the rest of the service. At the offering, their Louis Vuitton handbags remained tightly closed, and they left directly after taking communion. Also, I did feel the subject of Father's sermon might have been better suited to a different day – I couldn't help but feel that it would have been a a real downer to be a parent sitting there and having that sermon delivered before my baby's baptism.

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

Not a chance I was going to stick around for seven baptisms!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

No coffee.

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

3 – The temptation to knock heads would be too great, and that isn't a particularly Christian sentiment, now, is it?

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

Yes,. After all, patience is a virtue.

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

"God is your lover." I will still be puzzling over exactly what he meant.

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