St John's, Christiansted, USVI

St John's, Christiansted, St Croix, US Virgin Islands


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St John's
Location: Christiansted, St Croix, US Virgin Islands
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 April 2016, 8:00am

The building

A cruciform-shaped edifice built in the mid-19th century to replace a building from 1772. The exterior is Gothic Revival in architectural style, but the interior is large and spacious and more akin to a non-conformist meeting house. It features a beautifully crafted hammerbeam roof. A campaign has been launched to restore the building. The exterior, in particular, is in rough shape. The endless salt breezes off the Caribbean and the occasional hurricane don't help either.

The church

It was established in 1760 by the Church of England as a house of worship for English merchants and traders living in what was then the capital of the Danish West Indies. When Alexander Hamilton, one of America's founding fathers, lived in Christiansted, he was purportedly turned away from the church school because of his illegitimacy. The congregation identifies as high church (more on this later). The parish has chapters of the Daughters of the King, Episcopal Church Women, and Episcopal Church Men. They also hold Bible study and Christian education programs for all ages. There is a ministry to the sick and shut-ins. A variety of fund raising activities are also an important part of parish life: bake sales, dinners, etc. Every October they hold a celebration commemorating the founding and dedication of the church.

The neighborhood

The Virgin Islands comprise the westernmost Leeward Islands, just east of Puerto Rico, and form the boundary between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Discovered by Christopher Columbus and colonized by England, France, Holland and Denmark, the islands were the subject of territorial disputes well into the 19th century. It was not until 1917 that the United States acquired what were the Danish West Indies, renaming them the Virgin Islands of the United States. Today the British Virgin Islands lie to the east of the US Virgin Islands, and a smaller group, sometimes called the Spanish Virgin Islands, are actually a part of Puerto Rico. In the age of empire, Christiansted was a busy port of call in the trade of both slaves and sugar. Today, it's relatively quiet despite being the biggest town on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. The downtown is full of colonial-era buildings, including a Danish fort that has been preserved as a national park. Many of the streets still bear Danish names. St John's is situated at the western edge of Christiansted's colonial-era downtown.

The cast

The Revd Gregory H. Gibson, wearing a white laced cassock alb and cream chasuble, presided as priest-in-charge. Edward Schell was the organist, according to the bulletin. There were three acolytes wearing red cassocks and white surplices. The choir, wearing dark turquoise academic-style gowns, did not participate in the processional or recessional.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Perhaps 75, excluding the choir and ministers, in a nave that could easily accommodate a couple hundred congregants in the pews (excluding the galleries). Somewhat bizarrely, only one person occupied the pews in the first half of the nave. The congregants did turn out in their Sunday best, though, with many ladies sporting brightly colored dresses, elaborate hats and fancy shoes. A few gentlemen were even wearing lounge suits, despite a temperature above 80 degrees Fahrenheit at 8.30am.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I was completely ignored, except during the exchange of the peace when a few congregants shook my hand.

Was your pew comfortable?

Incredibly uncomfortable due to a complete lack of padding.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

After the doors were finally opened (service time as listed on the noticeboard was wrong) and I was able to go inside, it felt like a ladies club luncheon.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Today's radio broadcast of St John's Episcopal Church is being sponsored by [didn't get the name]."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A bulletin containing various announcements and an abbreviated order of service was on a table in the narthex. Worship was according to the Rite II liturgy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Hymnal 1982 was used for most of the hymns, although one hymn, which was printed in the bulletin, came from Lift Every Voice and Sing.

What musical instruments were played?

A stately organ of unknown provenance accompanied the eleven – yes, eleven – hymns, although a group of schoolboys played in a Caribbean-style steel drum band during communion.

Did anything distract you?

A general inconsistency in the liturgy and churchmanship. Congregants were constantly standing when they should have been sitting or kneeling, and sitting or kneeling when they should have stood.

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

Between the congregation describing itself as high church, the six candles underneath the stained glass window behind the altar, and the half-dozen catholicky statues, including a Mary in the south transept, I expected something higher up the candle than the Roman Catholic church on the other end of town. But outside of the bells – there were no smells – and celebrant singing parts of the liturgy, I found it relatively low, with few congregants showing any interest in ritual.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

N/A – I can't rate the preacher because of his heavy Caribbean accent. It also didn't help that the sound system was really bad. I also couldn't hear any of the readings.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

As best as I could understand, the priest-in-charge spoke about the gospel reading for the day dealing with the Doubting Thomas. As Christians, we can't proclaim Jesus to the world if we don't actually believe.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

In contrast to his speaking voice, the celebrant had a wonderful singing voice, which shined when he sang the great thanksgiving. The organist was quite good, too.

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

After the blessing, announcements were made and the priest asked for newcomers to grab the microphone from an acolyte and introduce themselves to the whole congregation. A recently relocated husband and wife from Wisconsin awkwardly introduced themselves. I slouched down, hoping nobody would notice me.

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

I was ignored. Even the priest-in-charge didn't acknowledge me as I made my way to the exit.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

While there didn't seem to be any after-service gatherings, an announcement was made for an Episcopal Church Women tea party later that day.

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

3 – This just wasn't my church. I won't be back, as there are a good number of Episcopal and Lutheran churches on the otherwise small island of St Croix to visit.

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

I'm going to pass on this one.

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

Standing around for at least a half hour because the church sign was wrong.

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