St Alban’s, Rochester, New York, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Alban’s
Location: Rochester, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 18 August 2019, 11:30am

The building

St Alban’s currently shares space in St Cecilia’s Church, a single-story brick building built in 1950 by the Basilian order. The traditional interior is decorated with wooden sculptures and simple stained-glass windows.

The church

St Alban’s is a ‘community in formation’ within the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a non-geographic diocese within the Catholic Church established by Pope Benedict to receive former Episcopalians, other Anglicans, and other new Catholics into communities that worship using a Vatican approved Catholic liturgy based on the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer. Presently the community has about 45 regular worshippers and is growing steadily. They are grateful to the local bishop for allowing them use of St Cecilia’s until they are large enough to be able to afford a building of their own. It should be noted that although mass this Sunday was at 11.30, the host community is moving its mass time to 8.00, which will allow St Alban’s to adjust their time to either 10.30 or 11.00 in the near future. Check their website!

The neighborhood

Rochester, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, lies about halfway between Buffalo and Syracuse – it is actually a bit closer to Buffalo than to Syracuse. The church’s mailing address is Rochester, but they are actually located in the Town of Irondequoit, a northeastern suburb of Rochester bordering three major waterways: Lake Ontario, Irondequoit Bay and the Genesee River. A scenic, pleasant town, it is popular with folk into sailing, boating, and fishing ,and boasts one of the shortest commutes into downtown Rochester. The church’s immediate neighborhood is a mixture of medium-sized single-family homes and small apartment buildings.

The cast

A well-known visiting priest from a Canadian university celebrated, read the gospel, preached, and baptized a new infant Christian. He was assisted by a crucifer, thurifer, two torchbearers, an additional server, and the priest-administrator, who was one of the godparents of the child being baptized and also made the announcements. There was an organist just starting his service to the community this Sunday; in addition to playing the organ, he chanted the minor propers and led the hymns. The parish clerk was the reader for the first lesson, and one of the servers read the second. The offering was taken up by two young children.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass for the Ninth Sunday After Trinity.

How full was the building?

The church holds about 350. This emerging community occupied less than one-fifth of the building, but the large number of somewhat boisterous young children did not make one feel alone in the space.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was greeted as I sat in my car making sure I was at the right place, and many people talked with us for about an hour after mass at coffee hour.

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. Spacious and with a properly positioned fold-down kneeler.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was hushed and reverential, with the organist playing a quiet prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

After the opening hymn (‘All People That on Earth Do Dwell’), the organist chanted the Introit: ‘Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is he that upholders my soul: reward thou evil unto mine enemies; destroy them in thine anger, for thy righteousness’ sake, O Lord my strength and my defender.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Hymnal 1940 of the Episcopal Church; a locally produced booklet: St Alban’s Catholic Church – The Order for Holy Mass – Pew Edition; and a service sheet with the list of hymns, the complete readings, the Alleluia tune, and some announcements.

What musical instruments were played?

Electronic organ.

Did anything distract you?

Children talking and babies crying are a distraction, but a welcome one that indicates a community with a future.

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

As is the case with most (but not all) Ordinariate communities in the United States, the worship style is ‘high church’ of the Anglo-Catholic variety, which some may find stiff, but this community is at ease with the style. Their own priest wore a biretta, but the celebrant did not. Servers wore black cassocks and surplices. The baptism was celebrated according to Divine Worship: The Order of Holy Baptism for Infants. What a joy to hear the words of the 1662 English and 1928 US Book of Common Prayer: 'I beseech you to call upon God the Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that of his bounteous mercy he will grant to this child that which by nature she cannot have...' The infant must have caught the drift as well, for she was amazingly well behaved, as were her siblings, filling the pew in front of us.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

10 — The preacher is a professor and doctor of canon law. He told us what he was going to say, said it, and told us what he said – the so-called ‘Triple-S’ technique that all good speakers learn. I do not give the ‘10’ rating lightly!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

As the gospel for the day (Luke 12:49-53 – Jesus predicts family strife) says, the Christian life will not be easy, and God has expectations for us. Quoting the 19th century French author Léon Bloy, who preached spiritual revival through suffering and poverty: ‘Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.’ Behavior is important, and our actions and attitudes matter: The imitation of Christ, of God living in and through us, is the vision God has for what human life can be. We have something to say to a world about truth, God, passion for the poor and oppressed. For the world to see Jesus today, it has to begin with us – there is nowhere else to look. The world is not paying attention to what we say, but it is watching very carefully what we do.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Gregorian chant of the minor propers, and Healy Willan’s Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena, especially the Gloria. Communion kneeling, on the tongue, with a server carrying a patina.

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

Finding the church. Knowing that St Alban’s was hosted by St Cecilia’s Church, I had set ‘St Cecilia’ in my GPS. Imagine my surprise when the GPS directed me instead to ‘St Kateri’s Church.’ What I didn’t know was that St Cecilia’s is now part of a ‘merged’ parish named after St Kateri, and the new sign has the parish name in large type, with ‘St Cecilia’ in smaller type (which I didn’t see). So I was in a panic, thinking that I must have gotten confused about something, and desperately started looking for the St Alban’s website. But it has recently changed due to their status change from a ‘fellowship’ to a ‘church.’ Was I going to have rapidly to drive somewhere else? Fortunately the parish clerk arrived just as my head was about to explode. He was carrying portable signs saying ‘St Alban’s’ and greeted me, apologizing for being late with the signs. My blood pressure went back to normal.

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

There had been an announcement about coffee hour, and I was quickly invited to the parish hall to join people there.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee, juice, potato chips, veggies and dip, salsa and bean dip, a crock pot with cut-up frankfurters, cookies, brownies, etc. I did not have to go out to brunch.

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

10 — Sadly Rochester is a full day’s drive from home.

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

Yes. As Bishop Steven J. Lopes, the first bishop of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, wrote: ‘Catholics need to experience the real presence of Jesus through worship and fellowship in the beauty of holiness.’

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

The baptism. By God, something important was going on there. And on it goes, that Old Time Religion – not an artifact frozen in 1662, but an expression of the traditional faith with all the accoutrements now customary at Catholic baptisms. Not only will I remember it, but so will this whole family, and both godparents, as they return week after week to St Alban's, and as the community grows.

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