St Augustine's, Oakland, California

St Augustine's, Oakland, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper: Hart
Church: St Augustine's
Location: Oakland, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 September 2007, 10:30am

The building

A modern building reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance style, especially the tower. A large white cross, which the visitor can't fail to notice, graces the entrance. On the inside, one's attention is drawn to the very attractive white and green marble altar on a raised platform, and matching crucifixes on the west and east walls. Around the church are stations of the cross and well done stained glass depicting many different saints in very vibrant colors, including Saints Peter, Augustine, Monica, Pius X, Rose of Lima, Francis of Assisi, and Vincent de Paul. On either side of the sanctuary are small chapels, one a Blessed Sacrament chapel and the other, I think, a Mary chapel.

The church

The parish was founded in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and originally included a school and convent as well as the church. In lieu of their own school, the parish now supports the Escuela Bilingüe Internacional and the Pacific Boychoir Academy. The former convent is now Elizabeth House, a home for women and their children in transition. The parish is known as a welcoming, nurturing community and sponsors several ministries and social events, all listed in detail on their website

The neighborhood

Located across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland is a major West Coast port and has quite an industrial feel to it. But years have passed since the city's most famous daughter, poet Gertrude Stein, infamously quipped that once you get to Oakland you discover that there's no "there" there. Today's Oakland is a progressive city with a renewed downtown, cultural projects springing up all over the place, and a sculpture entitled simply "There." The church is situated in North Oakland, on the rather forebodingly named Alcatraz Avenue.

The cast

The Most Revd Allen H. Vigneron, Bishop of Oakland, presided, with about a half dozen priests concelebrating with the bishop. The pastor, the Revd. Mark Wiesner, served as liturgical deacon and homilist.

What was the name of the service?

Centennial Mass. St Augustine's was celebrating its 100th anniversary this Sunday

How full was the building?

Very full, which according to the bulletin means about 600 people. Due to the solemnity of the occasion, there were a few more hats on the ladies and jackets and ties on the men than you'd see in most Catholic parishes around here on a Sunday morning, but they were still in a minority.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. We were welcomed by people at the door who were handing out service booklets, and just before the mass began we were encouraged to greet our neighbors in the pews.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews, of Appalachian red oak, as well as the kneelers were very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

It was a little chatty for my liking, but a lot of people had returned to St Augustine's for this service who had been absent for many years and they, naturally, wanted to catch up. I wish they had stopped when the orchestra began its lovely rendition of Bach's chorale Sheep May Safely Graze, but they did quiet down when the choir offered Bruckner's Locus Iste as their contribution to the prelude.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," chanted by Bishop Vigneron.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A specially made booklet printed on very nice card stock. The booklet included melody lines for all the congregational music.

What musical instruments were played?

Chamber orchestra consisting of strings, horns, piano and tympani. In addition to the regular church choir, the Pacific Boychoir made a guest appearance.

Did anything distract you?

The people talking over the prelude were quite distracting. The event was being recorded, and the cameramen and sound technicians, as well as a swarm of paparazzi, also proved to be an annoyance. But one can't object very much to this – I'm sure the DVD version of the service will provide much comfort for people who were unable to attend in person or who want a special memento.

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

A solemn mass with all the pomp you'd expect from a bishop and concelebrants plus deacon – formal, but without being rad trad. The mass was west facing and in English, but most of it was chanted and the hymns were traditional ones ("Joyful, joyful we adore thee" and "Holy God we praise thy name"). Among the many beautiful motets offered by the choir was Pablo Casals' Nigra Sum Sed Formosa, with text from Song of Solomon 1:5 ("I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem"), as an homage to Oakland's large African-American community. The thurifer provided plenty of smoke, and a reasonably large collection of other altar servers did their thing with dignity and aplomb. Communion was given in both kinds.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

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

9 – I was slightly disappointed that the bishop didn't preach, but the pastor made up for it with a warm, joyful, engaging homily.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

God is everywhere, but that doesn't mean that everywhere contains the fullness of God. For instance, our hearts need to be further filled with God, which we should strive for until we die. Augustine marveled about how God could enter our hearts and Solomon marveled about how God could be present in the First Temple. In the same way, we can look back at the last hundred years at St Augustine's Church and marvel. We must also pray for the continuation of this for the next hundred years.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music was amazing – even the contemporary worship music of Marty Haugen can sound good when played by a competent orchestra! I especially liked the nine-fold Kyrie, where even the pastor joined in (with a slightly better singing voice than the bishop's, I might add).

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

I recognized one of the concelebrants as the pastor of a church which received a rather negative Mystery Worship report from me a while back. Imagine my chagrin when communion time came around and I discovered that he'd be distributing communion to my section of the church! This was doubtlessly good for me, though, so maybe it was more purgatorial than hellish.

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

I spoke to a few people, but none of them turned out to be regulars of this parish. I'd have to return another time to vouch for the friendliness of the locals on a typical Sunday. They seemed to be talking to each other, though.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The coffee was fine, as was the punch, the cheese, the shrimp, the sandwiches, the fruit and the cookies. There was also sausage, chicken kabobs and meatballs.

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

10 – I know this can't be typical of their normal services, but if it was any indication of how they handle their major feasts such as Christmas and Easter, I love it!

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

Yes, and happy there exist parishes like St Augustine's to which, one hopes, God will grant many more years of welcoming people to, and preserving people in, our Christian faith.

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

How good the music sounded, especially the chamber orchestra, and in particular the horn section, which played especially well at the Great Amen.

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