St Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, New York City, USA

St Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie
Location: New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 9 April 2006, 11:00am

The building

Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, built his estate on land in the southeast corner of Manhattan, calling it simply bouwerij, the Dutch word for farm. Stuyvesant located his private chapel where St Mark's now stands, making this the oldest site of continuous worship in Manhattan. The present building dates from 1795, and is a stone structure in the Colonial style, fronted by a large covered porch. The interior has been stripped of the usual ecclesiastical furnishings and consists merely of a large open space. The stained glass is quite good – among the windows are one of St Mark and another of Peter Stuyvesant looking resplendent as a medieval knight (the real-life Stuyvesant was peg-legged and foul-tempered). Stuyvesant's earthly remains rest in a crypt under the church.

The church

During the latter part of the 20th century, St Mark's became known for its progressive social stance. It was an early advocate of civil rights and offered meeting space to groups such as the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Poets such as WH Auden (who was a parishioner), William Carlos Williams, Edna St Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell and Carl Sandburg have all read here, and dance legends Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham have staged performances at various times. St Mark's maintains close ties today with the artistic community.

The neighborhood

As New Amsterdam became New York, the Bowery (as the word is now spelled) evolved into a neighborhood of cheap thrills and cheaper housing. It was a notorious drug-infested skid row, the bastion of the down-and-out, until very recently. But gentrification has now set in, and today the Bowery has become rather fashionable and features new high-rise condominiums, trendy boutiques and restaurants, and music clubs.

The cast

The Rev. Julio O. Torres, priest-in-charge, was the celebrant, assisted by the Rev. Michael Relyea, associate pastor. Father Torres was vested in a splendid red chasuble with a collar whose pattern matched that of his stole, rather giving the effect of a boa draped around his neck. Father Relyea wore a red stole over a cassock-alb. This is the first encounter I have had with that particular garment, and I see now why it is so reviled.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Eucharist

How full was the building?

There were about 75 people, filling all available seats.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A young lady handed me a service booklet and said good morning.

Was your pew comfortable?

Metal-frame chairs with plastic seats had been arranged around all sides of the room. They were quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered quietly. The choir was rehearsing around the piano. One of the choir members found it appropriate not only to take a call on his cell phone, but also to pass the instrument to another member so she could join in the conversation. The church bells were tolled just before the service began – there were two bells with different pitches, producing a dah-ding, dah-ding effect.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning, brothers and sisters. Welcome to St Mark's on this beautiful Palm Sunday morning." We then proceeded outdoors for the blessing and distribution of palms, after which we marched around the block singing hymns and handing palms to people we encountered on the street.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Everything we needed was included in a service leaflet. Notation for the hymns and service music was not included, however, and some of the settings were unfamiliar.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano, flute, saxophone, and an African djembe drum. The pianist was very good, especially in her left hand technique, making the piano sound almost like an organ. There was also a choir of six voices. The Children's Gospel Choir of Stanley Clark School, Public School 399, were special guests.

Did anything distract you?

A gentleman sitting a few seats away from me resembled the actor Antonio Banderas. He was impeccably dressed in suit and tie but wore black paratrooper boots. He also allowed his cell phone to ring during the reading of the Passion.

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

Very alternative and quite happy-clappy. The liturgy did not strictly follow the Prayer Book, but rather included several alternative readings. The peace ceremony could have been mistaken for a social hour. The Children's Gospel Choir pieces were roundly appauded. Communion was celebrated on an oval table in the center of the room that was covered with a red tablecloth, looking every bit like a dining room table. The communion bread consisted of a single large pita loaf which we all passed among ourselves, breaking off a bit before passing it on.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

6 – Father Torres had a heavy Spanish accent that was hard to understand, and walked round and round the room as he spoke. He made some interesting points, but I thought he managed to ramble quite a bit in his eight minutes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The newly discovered Gospel of Judas has made headlines. According to it, Judas was Christ's favorite disciple and was only doing what Christ told him to do when he betrayed him. But it's all beside the point – Jesus was ordained to die. Did he in fact have a death wish, as some would say? Anyone who stands up for good in a world full of bad people must be "taken care of" – think of Martin Luther King. At Passover, the Jews eat lamb as a memorial. But in the eucharist, the Lamb is not a memorial – it is Christ.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I have to say that the notion of Holy Communion celebrated on a dining room table has its appeal. The bread and wine placed on the table, the candlesticks, the crucifix as a centerpiece – it all seemed quite homey.

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

The Children's Gospel Choir sang to a recorded soundtrack that also included a children's choir singing very badly off pitch. The entire effect was that of a karaoke machine. Had they sung to live piano accompaniment, we could have appreciated them more for themselves. At the offertory, the thurifer forgot her role, and Father Relyea had to fetch the thurible himself.

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

The service concluded with an interminable string of announcements, despite the availability of an announcement leaflet. Newcomers were asked to introduce themselves and were applauded. Those who chose not to do so were pointed at with "there's another one over there." Miss Amanda managed somehow not only to remain silent but also to avoid being fingered in this manner. After we were finally dismissed, everyone sort of milled about but took no notice of the newcomers.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

An assortment of fruit juices, coffee, powdered cocoa mix, fresh fruit and donuts had been artlessly scattered about on a table. I didn't sample the coffee, but took some apple juice and found it cold and fresh. The Children's Gospel Choir descended all at once upon the table; I thought it best to step out of their way, as one would avoid a flock of sheep in stampede. Again, everyone was sort of milling about, taking no notice of anyone else. So I paid one last visit to the loo, took a look about the room, and then left.

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

2 – This happy-clappy sort of worship is not for me. I could go on forever writing about all the things I found distracting (for example, at the end of mass Father Torres thanked all the participants individually, as if he had just been handed an Oscar, all to tumultuous applause), but space does not permit.

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

Yes, despite it all.

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

Holy Communion on a dining room table.

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