Mystery Worshipper: The Vicar
Church: St Agnes
Location: Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 April 2007, 10:00am
The church is constructed in the baroque style and, according to the parish website, is modeled after the abbey church of Kloster Schlgl, a Praemonstratensian monastery in Upper Austria near the town of Aigen im Mühlkreis. The copper green onion dome and red tiled roof can be seen from a considerable distance. The interior is stunning, in a baroque sort of way – lots of murals, statues, gold and marble. Three large chandeliers, originally from the old Minnesota State Capitol building, are suspended above the nave. Large stained glass windows from Munich, Germany, line both sides of the nave.
St Agnes is known for its excellence in traditional liturgy and music as well as its theological conservatism. Monsignor Bandas, rector during the time of the Second Vatican Council, interpreted the Council's reforms very conservatively, and worship at St Agnes reflects that interpretation even to this day.
The church sits in a largely residential area not far from downtown St Paul, in what appears to be a working class neighborhood, a few blocks off Interstate 94. St Agnes School is adjacent to the church.
There was no bulletin listing the names of the sacred ministers, but I assume the celebrant was the parish pastor, the Revd John Ubel, with the deacon and subdeacon probably being the Revd Randal Kasel and the Revd Christopher Beaudet, although I don't know which was which. The three sacred ministers were assisted by a veritable swarm of well-trained and well-attired altar boys, properly wearing black cassocks and neatly pressed cottas.
What was the name of the service?Latin High Mass.
How full was the building?
Probably at least three-quarters full. The church can hold 1,500 worshippers.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
An usher was standing at the door and we exchanged a few pleasantries as he handed us the missalette and advised us what other leaflet we would need.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, quite comfortable. It was a fairly standard, carved wooden pew with a padded kneeler (also quite comfortable).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was as quiet and reverential as it could be with hundreds of people streaming into the church, including many families with small children. Still, there was no loud visiting or laughter. An expectant buzz would be the best way to describe it.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The choir, accompanied by organ and orchestra, sang: Terra tremuit et quievit, dum resurgeret in judicio Deus, alleluia (The earth trembled and was still, when God arose in judgment, alleluia) – whose setting it was I don't know. The sanctuary party processed in at this point, and what a procession it was! First came a flag bearer, carrying what I think was the parish coat of arms. Following him were thurifer, crucifer and acolytes, the aforementioned swarm of servers, a few banners, the clergy in choir, and finally the sacred ministers, wearing birettas and exquisite baroque cloth of gold vestments. The actual first spoken words were: In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Missalettes and a side-by-side Latin and English text of the liturgy. However, most people around us did not seem to use any booklets, as they seemed to know the liturgy quite well.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, orchestra (with brass and timpani). The Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, who are resident at the church, sang Mozart's Coronation Mass, while the St Agnes schola cantorum sang the propers.
Did anything distract you?
Not particularly, although this was the first time I had seen mantillas and birettas in real life. The almost over-the-top design of the church also vied for attention. A young boy, perhaps five years old, perfectly dressed in blazer and tie, was sitting across the aisle from us. Whenever he entered and left his pew, he genuflected and crossed himself perfectly. It was almost cute enough to make Mrs Vicar and me want to start populating the vicarage.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Latin high mass. Start with a hefty helping of smells and bells, birettas and mantillas. Throw in the Coronation Mass and the schola singing Gregorian chant. Add a recitation of the Regina Coeli. Mix well. What do you have? Nosebleed-high liturgy. It was splendid! One thing did strike me as a bit odd, though: neither of the lessons nor the gospel was chanted they were simply read, in English.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Father Ubel preached in the style that I prefer best: clearly, with energy, but not overly dynamic or charismatic. He held our attention without resorting to unnecessary jokes or distracting mannerisms.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Christ's resurrection is a pre-cursor of our own bodily resurrection, which we as Christians can look forward to at the end of our earthly lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Without a doubt it was the music, particularly the ordinary of the mass. Also, the ritual and ceremonial were most spiritually uplifting. It was heavenly to see so many school-aged boys conducting themselves so properly and performing their tasks almost flawlessly. Indeed, Mrs Vicar told me the next day that if she had died during the mass, she might not even have noticed the transition from earth to heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Both Mrs Vicar and I noticed one thing, independently of each other – the body language apparent in some of the families in attendance. In several cases, the father walked very deliberately ahead, carrying one of the younger children, and the mother and the rest of the children followed behind very meekly. One young mother in particular was dressed very plainly and looked very subservient, shuffling with eyes downcast behind her well-dressed husband and kids, looking quite unhappy. My heart went out to her the joy of the Resurrection appeared to be missing from her Easter morning.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the mass, people streamed out of the church and Mrs Vicar and I went along with the flow. Had it been an ordinary Sunday, we might have tried to hang around, but we didn't feel that Easter Day was the right time to get to know the locals.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No mention was made of coffee, and I doubt there was any on offer.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – As far as the liturgy and music go I would give it at least a 9, and I would be tempted to sign up immediately if I lived in the Twin Cities. However, I am Anglo-Catholic, not Roman Catholic, and would have a great deal of difficulty accepting the "trad-Cath" moral theological positions that I understand this parish to take.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely – it was the best Easter Sunday mass we'd ever been to.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
It's hard to pick just one, but I will have to go with the music.