Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut
Church: Santa Eulalia
Location: Luarca, Asturias, Spain
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 June 2019, 5:00pm
While the parish dates at least from the 12th century and likely well before, as it is built on land granted by Fruela II (the Leper), King of Asturias (c. 874-925), this is a simple 19th century church built at the edge of the harbour. Several of its interior aspects are preserved from a previous building, and its most important artistic element is the 18th century Spanish Baroque sculptor and architect José Bernardo de la Meana’s altarpiece and statue of St Eulalia (the shrine of her tomb is in the cathedral in Oviedo, considered by many to be de la Meana’s masterpiece). On the north side there is an old stone ship with representations of the Crucified Christ and Our Lady.
Eulalia of Mérida, a devout Christian girl just entering her teens, ran away from home rather than profess faith in the Roman gods during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the 4th century. The 5th century poet Prudentius represents her as saying: ‘Isis, Apollo, Venus – they are nothing, nor is the emperor anything more, as they were made by the hands of those who should be adoring him who made them.’ Captured by Roman soldiers, Eulalia was tortured with hooks and burned at the stake. As she died, a dove flew out of her mouth and a sudden snowstorm covered her charred body with a white blanket – certain proof (as was thought) of her saintliness. The church that bears her name is the only church in town, aside from a chapel in a northern suburb. There is a seamen’s confraternity annex that is rented out for community activities.
There’s likely been a port here at the mouth of the Río Negro since Neolithic times and its name predates the Romans, who had a fishing port as well as a communications harbour with western Gaul. While it is predominantly used by small fishing boats, there is now a jetty for small recreational craft (no Russian millionaires’ super-yachts yet). To the north of the church along the quay there are a number of seafood restaurants, and to the south a mellow jazz bar, with seating outside in good weather. The town boasts a Nobel laureate in medicine.
There was no notice or announcement, and there is no parish website. The priest wore a white chasuble with a red orphrey. A woman lector assisted.
What was the name of the service?Misa Parroquial (Parish Mass).
How full was the building?
The church might have fit up to four hundred in the nave, and had forty-two women and thirty-six men, including six children and perhaps a dozen adolescents. People were respectably, if not formally dressed, and while some had probably just come in from work, others (the adolescents, wearing outfits that would have left their ancestors catatonic) were likely heading out on the town after they were shriven. Perhaps two congregants were of Filipino origin and there were four French pilgrims at the back.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
They don’t do greeters in Spain and this is a city church where strangers are common. Two beggars were perched by the door and I gave them 50 céntimos each to observe local custom.
Was your pew comfortable?
It had a fairly deep bench, which facilitated slouching. This pleased me inordinately as I had covered twenty-five kilometers that day, six of them in error, and I was feeling sorry for myself.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived shortly before the service and the dozen-odd women saying the Rosary were just finishing up. Then older women began to arrive, some with husbands in tow. Just before the service started, an avalanche of parishioners arrived, greeting each other without fuss or noise. The four French pilgrims came in and sat together. We made eye contact, as we had passed each other during the day.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo. Spain is always good for this – there are never any performance pieces by the clergy or quirky individuality from worship leaders. The priest had an Asturian accent, but it was not too pronounced.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
They followed the service by memory – but (shock warning) there was a four page bulletin with the readings, meditations, and parish notices for the upcoming Corpus Christi.
What musical instruments were played?
None, but the sound system had played some Bach on a cello as we arrived.
Did anything distract you?
I had to slip out during the sermon as I had arranged to meet an Australian pilgrim for dinner at 8.00pm and would be late. I saw him and he agreed to meet me in the jazz bar adjoining, where he would be judging the local brew for the sake of being able to brief his compatriots on his return to South Oz.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was the Sunday evening mass in the main parish church in a small port. Everyone has known each other for several generations and were likely all related somehow, so it felt like a family gathering without the dysfunctionality. Or at least I was not able to perceive it. Nobody was trying to prove anything. About three-quarters stood during the consecration, while the rest of us knelt, French and Anglican pilgrims included.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
We were addressed for about 10 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 — The priest was friendly and varied his tone fairly often. And through a miracle from St Eulalia, I even understood about a third. While he had a regional Asturian accent, his Castilian was clear and I was able to spot many words and observed an interesting cadence of verb tenses, with past, present, and future in the same sentence. I found this really helpful, but my lack of vocabulary stood in the way of my getting much instruction out of the sermon. The sound system was working properly and was competently set up – a rarity in Spanish churches. Everybody seemed attentive to the sermon, eyelids flickering with comprehension, unlike me. However, the French pilgrims did not like the sermon, one of them telling me that the priest was honteux (shameful). I’m still wondering what that was about, but have not lost much sleep over it.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Given that he spoke well, I was able to catch stray words and phrases, but I could have missed its essence entirely. As far as I could figure out, he spoke of the church as a community of brothers and sisters living the Word and evangelizing the world about them. Without the Holy Spirit, it’s just a club with perhaps some folkloric devotions and social activities.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The friendly and relaxed congregation, who took in their stride the presence of this little odd group of foreigners walking through.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing in particular, but a cushioned kneeler would have been nice.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the mass, I went to the sacristy to get my pilgrim’s credential stamped. The priest was pleased to meet a Canadian – as a seminarian, he had spent two weeks in Montreal during Expo 67, and he loved the city. I didn’t mention that church attendance had slipped since then, but I told him that our 150 celebrations in 2017 were much less fun, and he commiserated that young people no longer knew how to enjoy themselves, which got an eruption of laughter from the three young volunteers helping prep for the next morning’s services. We spoke in French, and the four French pilgrims clearly showed disapproval of our terrible accents. I fear that, possessed by a minor demon, I exaggerated my eastern Ontario French pronunciation, rounding my ‘a’ in a way that would cause cardiac arrest all over Paris.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after-service coffee, but the Australian and I headed off to the Barometro, where we demolished a plate of langoustines and rockfish, washed down with a bottle of Godello, one of northwestern Spain’s most interesting wines. The waiter, astonished by our diligence dealing with the fish, identified us as pilgrims. His waitress colleague, who had a fine sleeve tattoo of a cheerful octopus, confirmed that I was a pilgrim who had been at mass, and this earned me a glass of Carlos III brandy on the house (Canadian restaurants should adopt this wholesome practice, which surely would encourage church attendance). I said that I had not seen her there, and she said that she had worn a long-sleeved jacket as she did not know if Our Lady approved of tattooed waitresses (laughter from the staff), but I assured her that St James surely did.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — Luarca is a working town, but if somehow I ended up here, I would likely attend. There was a welcoming spirit among the parishioners and the priest was friendly. Besides, I’d like to have coffee with the tattooed waitress. We’re friends on Facebook now, so there’s hope.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
After a toughish day of walking along with many pilgrims whose intentions are primarily recreational, I found it satisfyingly comforting to slip into a community with which I had a common understanding, even if I can barely figure out what is precisely being said.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Four sourpuss pilgrims from France, and a tattooed waitress, and the South Australian really happy that his wife of 40 years would be waiting for him in Santiago; and that my friend Nicole, in whose place I was walking, would have really enjoyed the evening.