St Brendan's, Los Angeles (exterior)

St Brendan's, Los Angeles, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Brendan's
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 November 2016, 9:45am

The building

Dating from 1927, it is a Gothic Revival structure, the work of architect Emmett G. Martin, who designed several churches and private homes in the Los Angeles area. There is a time capsule in the courtyard. The interior features large stained glass windows and a rood screen in front of which sits a rather tiny versus populum altar. The high altar, behind the rood screen, has been removed, leaving only a narrow plinth to support the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. Large bas-relief carvings in the north aisle depict the Nativity and the Presentation of Our Lord. Various statues line the aisles, including a reproduction of the Infant of Prague. Over the years the church has served as a popular movie set, most notably for Fight Club, Spider-Man 3 and War of the Worlds.

The church

They appear to emphasize community. Their bulletin states that they have many opportunities for you to become involved in social justice issues but does not elaborate on what these might be. St Brendan's school welcomes students from kindergarten through eighth grade. There are three Sunday morning masses and a Sunday evening mass, and a morning and evening mass on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In 1934, St Brendan's organist at the time, one Robert Mitchell, organized a boys choir that sang in dozens of films, including Duel in the Sun, Giant, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and (most famously) Going My Way with Bing Crosby. The choir disbanded in 2000, but Mitchell himself went on to play the organ at silent film festivals up until his death in 2009.

The neighborhood

St Brendan's is located on West Third Street at Van Ness Avenue, at the eastern edge of the neighborhood known as Hancock Park. Called the poor man's Beverly Hills, Hancock Park features large, elegant homes on large, well landscaped lots that one must be far from poor to be able to afford. Singer Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie, actors Antonio Banderas and Anthony Anderson, and actress Melanie Griffith are a few of the notables who have or previously had houses there. The residences of several consuls-general, including the British Consul General, are also there.

The cast

No names were given, but the priest was a Dominican judging from his habit. The bulletin lists the Revd Joseph Fox, O.P., as one of the supply clergy, so he may have been the priest who celebrated today. (My dentist's name, coincidentally.) The entrance procession consisted of crucifer and two acolytes in albs, readers in street clothes, and priest in alb and purple chasuble, with the amice folded outside of the chasuble in Dominican style. (In the old days, Dominican priests approached the altar with the amice covering their heads, and lowered it only after they made their chalice - which took place at the beginning of the mass, not at the offertory.) I'm assuming that the pianist was Victor Wheeler, director of music.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

I counted room for about 400 - probably 700, if you include the chairs that were put in the transepts where you'd expect choir stalls. The church was completely full, and I think there was also an overflow crowd in the parish hall, judging from what happened at communion time (read on!). A goodly mix of ages and sexes.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered quietly. Some made the rounds of the various statues, praying before them, touching them (especially the Infant of Prague, whose gown seemed to be a particular favorite for touching), etc. There was a veritable crowd of people walking back and forth across the sanctuary on various errands - it reminded me of Grand Central Station at rush hour. The director of music rehearsed the choir in how to use handbells and, just before mass, attempted to rehearse the congregation in the mass setting, which was Mass of Joy and Peace by Tony E. Alonso. I say "attempted to" because no one made a sound despite his best efforts.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Welcome to St Brendan's Catholic Church, and a special welcome to all newcomers."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The hardbound Gather hymnal. There was a handout, but it consisted mostly of advertisements.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano, violin, drums, handbells. A choir of four singers doubled as handbell ringers. St Brendan's once had an organ, an opus of George Kilgen & Sons, which was to be replaced in 1962 with an instrument by MP Mller, Inc. that formerly graced the First Baptist Church of Toledo, Ohio. But the pastor at the time didn't want an organ, and so the Mller instrument was never installed, and both the Kilgen and Mller organs were carted off to places unknown. The organ loft today stands empty.

Did anything distract you?

Distractions consisted mainly of odd liturgical bits and missed cues. For example, at the beginning of mass a layman, not the priest (who looked rather surprised at it all), lit the Advent wreath candle. At the offertory, the servers appeared unaware that they needed to bring the priest the water cruet as well as the wine carafe for making his chalice. He tried to show them what he needed via a series of hand gestures, including one that appeared to mean, "No, not the lavabo bowl, the water cruet!" Finally he had to go over to the credence table and fetch the cruet himself - an act he repeated later under different circumstances (again, read on!).

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

A fairly standard mass within the guidelines of modern Catholic practice - by which I mean not sloppy (as we unfortunately see in some churches) but not precision-perfect either (as we happily see in some other churches). The mass setting and the songs were uninspired Singing Nun stuff, with two exceptions that I'll mention below. No incense, but bells at the elevation. Mostly bows and smiles at the exchange of peace - very little handshaking. The children were dismissed with a blessing just before the readings, and then returned at the offertory and stood around the altar (which I'll number among the distractions, although I have to add that they looked darling) during the eucharistic prayer.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

13 minutes.

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

10 – The Dominicans are the Order of Preachers, after all, and this priest did honor to the title. He spoke clearly and conversationally and right on point, using humor as appropriate but not overdoing it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Today, the first Sunday of Advent, we begin a new year of worship. Its also football season. Just like a football coach will give his team a pep talk, God is talking to us, his team. Hes telling us to get back on track to wake up! The scripture readings for today describe cataclysmic events thats what God thinks it takes to get through to us. Don't be clueless - listen to the coach! Advent is the time to put on Christ, to study more carefully the faith that we profess. God is preparing us for the return of the Son of Man. Let us be glorified by our response.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Two pieces of music stood out: the psalm setting, which was a jaunty, jazzy, gospel-like tune that I had never heard before; and the communion hymn, which was "Prepare! Prepare!" by Stephen Pishner - an upbeat spiritual-like number that indeed did wake the congregation up.

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

At communion, as the priest recited the Ecce Agnus Dei, the aisles suddenly filled up with people waiting to receive. Where had they come from? I wondered. I looked around and saw that they were streaming in through the rear doors. Apparently there was an overflow crowd in an adjoining room. As communion proceeded, the crowd in the aisles didnt appear to diminish. I looked around again and saw that people were queuing for communion beginning with the rear pews and working their way forward. I include this among the hellish bits only because it was completely unexpected and I had never seen communion done that way before. But then the hellish truly did happen: one of the eucharistic ministers dropped a chalice on the floor! The priest calmly fetched a cruet of water (but he was used to doing this - see above) and abluted the spot, mopping up the Precious Blood with a purificator. What he did with the purificator afterwards I didn't see.

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

As the altar party receded up the aisle during the recessional hymn (which was "O come, o come Emanuel" complete with handbells), most of the congregation fell in step right behind the priest. Only a handful remained in the pews to finish the hymn. They cleared out pretty quickly too. I hung around to snap some photos of the windows and the bas relief carvings, but no one said anything to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The bulletin had listed a refreshment rota, but no announcement had been made about refreshments. By snooping around I discovered that they were being served in the basement of the parish hall. When I got there, I helped myself to hot, tasty coffee and some cut-up donuts (I took two half donuts), but again no one spoke to me. People were visiting among themselves and speaking in a language I didn't recognize. By looking over some shoulders at some newspapers that people were reading, I deduced that the language was Tagalog and that most of the people were ethnic Filipinos. I tried making eye contact with some of them, but no one made eye contact back. As the crowd began to thin, I took my coffee outside, where again some people were standing around visiting in small groups, but again no one took notice of me. So I finished my coffee and headed for the bus stop, where a bus came along in less than a minute.

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

5 – Very hard to judge. I would long for the days when Robert Mitchell and his boys choir added their voices to the liturgy. The gallery looked so empty without them, and without an organ, for that matter. The director of music apparently has an ear for good stuff, as evidenced by the psalm setting and the communion hymn, but seems happily entrenched in Singing Nun land otherwise. I'd like to know more about parish activities - as I said, both the bulletin and website are vague on the matter. Despite their stated philosophy of inclusiveness, the congregation seem very much into their Filipino ethnicity and uninterested in welcoming Anglos into their fold.

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


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

The psalm setting and communion hymn.

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