St Francis de Sales, Norton Shores, MI (Exterior)

St Francis de Sales, Norton Shores, Michigan, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Francis de Sales
Location: Norton Shores, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 8 May 2016, 11:00am

The building

An unusual design of the Hungarian modernist architect Marcel Breuer, who also designed the Whitney Museum in New York City and St John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. He was assisted by his associate Herbert Beckhard. Groundbreaking was in 1964, the cornerstone was blessed on June 8, 1966, and the first mass was celebrated on December 18, 1966. Externally, the church is in the shape of a trapezoid, above which are three large bells protruding over the front of the church. The entrance to the sanctuary is under a freestanding balcony. There is a lofty nave, soaring some seven stories. There are no windows, though skylights bathe the space in natural light. A large concrete canopy is over the altar; behind the altar are twelve concrete columns representing the twelve apostles. The only two stained glass windows are between the narthex and entrance. Unusual features include the Stations of the Cross embedded in the floor between the sanctuary area and the nave. There is a niche on the wall behind the altar, originally designed for the reserved Sacrament. In the narthex is an unusual statue of the Blessed Virgin designed by Barbara Saint Denis, a Muskegon artist. There is an opening in the image representing the womb of Mary; as the viewer looks through the opening, they see the altar, where Mary's son becomes present in the eucharist.

The church

The parish was founded in 1948 and is now a community of 1,800 households. There are numerous activities, with a strong focus on faith formation and sacramental preparation. There is a chapter of the Knights of Columbus, and they recently sponsored a mission to China. The parish elementary school closed in 2012. They are linked with, and share their pastor with, St Michael the Archangel in Muskegon. There are two weekend masses at St Francis de Sales and one at St Michael's, and a mix of masses and various devotions (Rosary, holy hour) during the week.

The neighborhood

Norton Shores is a suburb of Muskegon, a city on the western edge of Michigan's Lower Peninsula on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. In the immediate neighborhood are single-family homes and small businesses.

The cast

There was no service leaflet, but from their web page I gather that the pastor, the Revd Philip P. Salmonowicz, celebrated and preached. Dan Hurst, the parish music minister, was organist/pianist.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

The building with balcony seats 1800, the main floor 1527. The main floor was about 80 per cent full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A multitude of ushers were most welcoming.

Was your pew comfortable?

Reasonably so.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

In the church, quiet and reverential, though conversations from the narthex seeped into the church a bit.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The cantor said, "Good morning and welcome to St Francis de Sales" before announcing the opening hymn.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Gather Comprehensive, a 1994 publication of GIA Publications in Chicago. This is now a rather dated volume, having been superseded by a second, and then a third, edition. Worshippers could also pick up a copy of Sunday's Word, containing the readings and responsorial psalm for the church year, at the entrance.

What musical instruments were played?

A Kawai grand piano and electronic organ.

Did anything distract you?

A lot of activity just before mass, as I gather a lector needed to be recruited at the last moment. Once the service began, there was very little in the way of distractions.

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

Not quite happy clappy, but tending in that direction. Particularly at the opening of the service, the celebrant had a lot to say about Mothers Day. He embraced each of the family members who brought the gifts of money to the altar, and shook the hands of each of the eucharistic ministers as they came up to distribute communion. Bells were rung during the institution narrative.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

9 – The "9" is for the pastor's skills as a public speaker; he was excellent. He walked around the front of the sanctuary area and preached without notes.
On the basis of content, he would probably merit a somewhat lower score (see below), depending on whether you would like to hear preaching about the Ascension or Mothers Day.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He began by saying that he felt it was so appropriate for Mothers Day and the Ascension to coincide. Mary, Jesus' mother, said "Yes" to God. Without his mother, Jesus could never have made it to heaven (this was the last mention of the Ascension). Mothers are irreplaceable, whether natural or adoptive.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

As Catholic congregations go, this one sang pretty well. And the space is simply overwhelming.

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

Well ... they sing pretty well unless the final hymn has too many verses! After two verses of the closing hymn, people began to leave (which I could live with), or simply remained in the church and started conversations with their friends (to which I'm less sympathetic).

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

No one spoke to me, though I probably seemed preoccupied with my photo-taking. When I went to coffee, though, a very friendly gentleman introduced himself (Fred), and we had a nice conversation. He has been in the parish since the church was built, and had some great stories. (At the time the church was built, its detractors were fond of referring to it as "St Concrete".)

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Freshly-brewed coffee (both caffeinated and decaf), apple juice, and doughnuts. Drinks were served in disposable cups.

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

7 – I would want to attend another few weeks before making a decision. The parish has a choir, which did not sing on this Sunday, and I would want to know more about their music program.

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 overwhelming impression this space made on me.

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