St Agnes, Manhattan, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Agnes
Location: Manhattan, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 November 2011, 5:15pm

The building

The church sits on East 43rd Street just across from Grand Central Terminal. A devastating fire in 1992 destroyed all but the exterior walls of the original 1877 building. The church was rebuilt in 1998, with a design loosely patterned after the Church of Il Ges in Rome, and is the first wholly traditional church built in the city since the Second Vatican Council. The interior is in shades of white and gray. The rather small space is packed with religious art and devotional statues. On either side of the sanctuary a shallow transept opens up, each holding questionable reproductions of Renaissance paintings. There are six side chapels, each with a statue. The eye is drawn to the altar, complete with altar rail (unusual in a church built in 1998) and triptych depicting the apotheosis of St Agnes. She seems a lot older than the 13 year old Agnes who was martyred!

The church

Established in 1873 to serve Irish and Italian workers, St Agnes is the quintessential commuter church, with as many as 36 masses said on holy days. During the week seven masses are offered daily, including three half-hour masses at lunch time, and priests are available to hear confessions in three hour-long blocks daily. The church's biggest claim to fame is perhaps its long association with Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Americas first televangelist. Archbishop Sheen, whose popularity rivaled Lucille Ball in the early years of television, began his ministry in New York at St Agnes in 1930, and for many years the church hosted his famous broadcasts on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. This was also the first parish in the diocese to offer the mass in Latin after it was allowed in 1988, and a mass in the extraordinary form has been said every Sunday since. The church also has strong links to the Irish community. Eamon de Valera, the first president of Ireland, was baptized here (a fact memorialized with a brass plaque on the font), and every St Patrick's day they offer a mass sung in Gaelic, replete with bagpipes, harps and kilts.

The neighborhood

This is midtown Manhattan, home to the largest and busiest business district in the United States. More than 800,000 people commute to the area daily, with many of those coming through Grand Central Terminal. Most of the citys most iconic skyscrapers, hotels and buildings lie nearby, including the Chrysler Building (only a block away from St Agnes), the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the United Nations, The Waldorf Astoria hotel, and the Citigroup Center, just to name a few.

The cast

The priest wasn't introduced anywhere, and I didn't get his name when we left. There was also an unnamed lay reader.

What was the name of the service?

Sung Mass

How full was the building?

I counted exactly 62 people. It is a very intimate space, so even with that low a number it seemed pretty crowded.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. The custodian who was mopping the vestibule opened the door for us and welcomed us in.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not particularly. The pews have an open section at the back, and I felt as though my rear was sticking out into the pew behind me, which I can't say is particularly comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Extremely quiet. We were among the first to arrive.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Welcome to St Agnes. Today marks the first time we are using the new translation of the mass, and you will find cards in every pew with the changes. I will hold the card up as a way of alerting you when we are coming to a changed section."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Celebrating the Eucharist. There were also the aforementioned cards in the pew with the new translation and a handout with the day's musical selections.

What musical instruments were played?

A very warm sounding organ, an opus of the London firm of Mander Organs, one of the only Mander instruments in New York City. There was also a choir of what sounded like four voices, who did a good job with the plainsong chant. (They were in the choir loft, so I wasn't able to see them to verify.)

Did anything distract you?

A family of five arrived late. While making room in the pew for them, I tried to find more service cards and a couple of missals. The custodian saw me and came over with materials for everyone. The rather harried mom at first started to refuse them, but then said, "Oh shit, everything is all different now, isn't it?" and took the missals. It was hard not to laugh, but she sounded so utterly put upon.

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

A pretty formal take on the novus ordo, no incense but plenty of chant. And certainly one way around dealing with the new translation is to, well, just not translate it. Much of the mass was in Latin, including the introit, Kyrie, Gloria, offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and communion antiphon. Communion was taken either kneeling or standing at the altar rail, a kind of mixing the old and the new.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

7 – Quite a confident speaker, and the message certainly fit the spirit of Advent.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Advent is a call to change, and change is one of the major themes of the season. This is why the changes to the mass were introduced during this time. We have this time to ask ourselves how the birth of Jesus has changed our lives and how we can effect those changes throughout the coming year. One way we can do this is through the sacrament of reconciliation, which offers us a new way forward and a way to make more meaningful changes to our lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The priest helping everyone out with the changes. He really did hold the card up to draw our attention to new sections of the mass, and tended to slow down in the new sections of the eucharistic prayer and the communion rite to help us hear the changes better.

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

Definitely some of the wonkiness of the new translation, which I was really hearing for the first time. Everyone has seemed to go on about "consubstantial", but to me the most glaring to my ear was "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." I know that this is a very, very literal translation of Matthew 8:8, but are folks really going to get that? It sounds so leaden. I also had a problem with translating "he" and "him" as inclusive of both men and women. While it might be closer to the Latin, it sounds way too exclusionary for today.

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

Not really a chance to hang around. Everyone just shuffled out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Sadly, no coffee, which was a bummer. It would have been the perfect chance to hear others' opinions on the changes.

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

5 – Attempts to elevate the liturgy are certainly attractive and the plainsong chant was quite good, but I'm not sure how much community there is, given the volume of commuters.

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

Yes, very much so. It was nice to see a priest make a serious attempt to shepherd his flock through the new translation.

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

The rather hot-to-trot St Agnes in the altar triptych. Va va voom!

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