Mystery Worshipper: Amaranta
Church: St Finbar's
Location: Glenbrook, New South Wales, Australia
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 January 2007, 9:30am
The parish dates from 1912 and the present building was consecrated on 7 May 1995. Its most notable external feature is its roof, which resembles a skate ramp. The building was fashioned out of local sandstone, with a wood ceiling and tiled floor. It is large and airy, if dimly lit, as there are windows only at the short ends of its roughly rectangular shape. The sanctuary is a platform without altar rail, while the chapel for the reserved Sacrament is delimited by a bamboo lattice. The cross, designed by Australian sculptor Tom Bass, has five crimson drops symbolising the five most precious wounds of Christ. There are three icons, some glass plaques near the font, and other symbolic designs on the doors. The rich symbolism incorporated into many of the appointments is discussed at length on the church's website.
The parish was founded in response to the desire of local railroad workers for a Catholic church and school for their children. Hence, the attached primary school is an integral part of the parish community. When I visited, the school was in its summer holidays and some construction work seemed to be in progress, judging by the scaffolding.
Glenbrook is a small town on the lower slopes of the Blue Mountains, just west of Sydney. The upper Blue Mountains are well known for their scenery and bushwalking potential, but this area, though still beautiful, is primarily populated by commuters. The church is on the other side of town from the railway station and main street, and a couple of blocks from the highway, the other main transport artery. These few streets are basically residential, though Glenbrook Oval (a sporting ground), the School of Art, and the RSL (Returned Serviceman's League and Bowling Club) are not far away.
The Revd John McSweeney, parish priest, with sacristan, servers, readers and eucharistic ministers.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass.
How full was the building?
Mostly full. The pews were all occupied, but the congregation was not exactly closely packed.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Under the porch outside I was greeted with a "Good morning" and handed a service leaflet. I had to slip out of my pew later to pick up a hymn book.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was padded and extremely comfortable. On the other hand, it was fortunate that there was little kneeling, because there were no kneelers to cushion your knees on the tiled floor.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The congregation conversed at a subdued murmur, a few people visiting the side chapel to make their devotions.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and welcome to our celebration for the second Sunday in ordinary time."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Some of the music was from As One Voice, a collection of songs that I have heard described as "folky." This was the only book used; the antiphons, response for the psalm, and the gospel acclamation were on the weekly news sheet.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard and guitar. The organ remained silent an instrument built in 1881 for St Peter's Anglican Parish, East Sydney, and bought and restored by St Finbar's on the closure of that parish. It features a fully mechanical action and was restored to its original condition upon installation. Its pipes are richly decorated with a variety of symbols (again discussed at length on their website).
Did anything distract you?
Quite a few congregants came in late, most notably a couple of people who squeezed past me as late as the gospel reading.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Modern Catholic, fairly low, and generally family-oriented. The service ran extremely smoothly, and, while I wouldn't say the train was on auto-pilot, the wheels were certainly well oiled.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Father John touched on quite a number of things in that short space of time, and jumped rapidly to an apparently unrelated concluding series of questions.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It's difficult to say. He drew interesting links between each of the readings, addressing the ways in which kindliness and compassion should be present in our lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The congregation enthusiastically joined in the sung repsonses (apparently from memory), which, combined with a good cantor, made the musical parts of the proceedings something of a highlight. It was also good to see the rapport between the priest and the congregation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The spoken portions of the service were rushed through so fast I could hardly work out where we were, let alone join in. The woman next to me managed to fit "World without end, amen" into three syllables.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not a lot. A few people returned my smiles, and one went so far as to say hello, but otherwise I just stood there drinking my tea, watching everyone else chat.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The tea was of fairly average standard and the coffee seemed like instant. They were accompanied by sweet biscuits and shop-bought lamington fingers (pieces of sponge cake dipped in chocolate and rolled in coconut). There were also cordial and choc-chip cookies for the kids.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It seemed to me that this would be a strong, loving community to belong to, but that it would take quite some time to begin to feel part of it. I suspect that if a person had children at the attached primary school, this process would be somewhat easier.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes – just. While I could sense the warmth of this Christian community from the outside, I felt too much of a spectator to be glad on my own account.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The roof – from the inside and from the out.