The parish was established in 1969 and the congregation worshipped in the cafeteria of a nearby school while construction was underway on their church building. It was completed in 1972 and was expanded and renovated over the years. On the evening of April 30, 2019, the church was destroyed by fire, the cause of which is under investigation. Meanwhile, services are being held in the parish hall, which is a plain white-painted cinderblock room with fluorescent lighting. The campus itself consists of office, school, parish hall, and a pile of rubble that was once the church. The smell of water-doused flame still lingered in the air. In the parish hall, an altar was set up in front of a white curtain on which hung a crucifix. Statues flanked the altar on either side. Two candles stood on the floor in front of the altar, but I didn’t see a paschal candle.
St Joseph’s seems to be a very active parish with dozens of ministries all well documented on their website. Of special interest is Band of Brothers, a men’s ministry offering (quoting from their website) ‘fellowship, group prayer and spiritual support.’ Also of special interest is Faith and Light, (again quoting from their website) ‘made up of persons with an intellectual disability, their families and friends, ideally young friends, who meet together on a regular basis in a Christian spirit, to share friendship, pray together, fiesta and celebrate life.’ One mass is celebrated each weekday, with the Saturday vigil mass and two Sunday masses in English and one in Syrian.
The church grounds are located on North 40th Street near Shea Boulevard, in the area known as North Phoenix. It is primarily a middle-class residential neighborhood. The Phoenix Mountain Preserve, popular with hikers, bikers and campers, is just to the south. Piestewa Peak, the Preserve’s second-highest summit, is climbed via a notoriously challenging trail but the view from the top is well worth the effort.
The pastor, in full eucharistic vestiture. He was assisted by a crucifer in alb and cincture – a young man who presented a striking appearance save for his choice of black-and-white checkered sneakers. Also assisting was an acolyte in an alb that was miles too short for her – I thought at first it was a surplice.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
I counted about 175 chairs and the place was completely full – standing room only. Chairs had been set up outside for the overflow crowd. A goodly mix of all ages.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs had clearly been collected from whatever sources were available – some metal folding chairs, some plastic chairs, some what appeared to be schoolroom chairs. I chose a plastic chair and it was OK.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Lots of visiting among friends. No one took any notice of me. The keyboardist played some tinkly bits – I thought I heard ‘Autumn Leaves’ at one point.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Good morning. Welcome to St Joseph’s. Would any visitors please stand.’ (I didn’t.)
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hardbound Gather Comprehensive hymnal. Some people had a bulletin but I couldn’t see where they got it from.
What musical instruments were played?
Digital keyboard, acoustic guitar. There were three vocalists.
Did anything distract you?
The main distraction was the number of people arriving late who scrambled to find seats – and weren’t particularly quiet about it. One old gentleman with a cane made a particular fuss – I think he was trying to find the rest of his party, who had arrived before him.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a mixture of free-wheeling and by-the-book. The music started off well, with ‘O Filii et Filiae’ (in English), but quickly deteriorated into the usual Singing Nun stuff. Very few people sang any of the songs, although most of them sang the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei even though no music had been given. I didn’t recognize the tunes. The pastor rambled on with about ten minutes’ worth of announcements at the start of mass, during which he kept us standing, but then settled down into a more or less standard Catholic mass. No incense or bells. We received communion under both species (white wine).
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 — It was clear that the pastor was speaking from the heart. He used notes at first, but then stepped away from the microphone and spoke extemporaneously for about half the time. He made an analogy between the love of God and the cross that I had never heard preached before – a bit far-fetched, I thought, but it ultimately made sense.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
All love originates with God, who is love. We must share love with others as abundantly as God shares love with us. Love should always be in our hearts and minds. God didn’t merely invite us to love one another – he commanded us to do so! There are no exceptions! The opposite of love is hatred, which consumes the one hating as well as the one hated. Alas, it is all too common in human nature. But there is no greater love than the sacrifice of the cross. [Here is where he stepped away from the microphone.] The cross is a symbol of love: the vertical beam represents love flowing down from God the Father in heaven, through Jesus, to us, the people at the foot of the cross. We love God back, and our love travels up the vertical beam to the horizontal beam, where it becomes an embrace in the arms of Jesus. The mass epitomizes love – Jesus shares his Body and Blood with us, and we share it with all.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The way in which the pastor spoke with such heartfelt emotion, and the way the people responded, indicate to me that this is a living, vibrant, loving, caring congregation.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At the exchange of peace, the delightful lady sitting next to me said, ‘Peace be with you – and may I ask why you are taking notes?’ Uh-oh, I thought. ‘Are you a reporter?’ she continued. ‘I just want to be able to remember the sermon,’ I replied, which is after all half-true. ‘Oh, I thought you might be a reporter,’ she said. ‘I’ll tell you more later,’ I promised.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Again, no one paid me any attention. I asked the delightful lady if she were a computer-using woman. Receiving an answer in the affirmative, I told her about the Ship of Fools and Mystery Worship.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Regular and decaf were available from urns out on the patio. It was hot, strong and tasty – just the way I like it. Donuts were also available for sale. I’m dieting, but I sacrificed my waistline for the sake of the Ship and had a jelly filled donut with maple glaze. Delicious! I saw the crucifer go by, but he escaped before I could catch him and tell him what a good crucifer he was and that I almost forgave him for his abominable taste in footwear.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — I might pay them another visit when their church has been rebuilt – perhaps for the dedication – but that is a long way off. The enthusiasm and togetherness of the congregation were palpable, and that made up for the interminable announcements, tiresome music, disastrous haberdashery and non-engagement with visitors.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
How saddening it was to look at the pile of charred rubble that was once their church.