St Mary Cathedral, Lansing, Michigan, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Mary Cathedral
Location: Lansing, Michigan, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 18 August 2018, 4:00pm

The building

The building dates from 1911 and was made the cathedral for the newly-formed Diocese of Lansing in 1937. It is a cruciform shape, with the apse containing the altar and bishop's cathedra. The altar, ambo, and baptismal font are all made from the same granite (and all designed by the New York architect Robert Rambusch). Near the front of the nave on the north side is a Blessed Sacrament chapel, with an imposing baldacchino over the tabernacle. On the south side of the nave is an ambry containing the oil of catechumens, oil of chrism, and oil for the anointing of the sick. Choir and organ are in a rear balcony.

The church

In addition to being the cathedral church of the diocese, St Mary has a parish community associated with it. It has a fairly typical mix of liturgical, bereavement, and hunger ministries. They hold a parish pot luck dinner each Wednesday evening; the last Wednesday of each month game night follows the dinner. There is a St Vincent de Paul group that supports a variety of social justice ministries, including a thrift shop. There is also a Knights of Columbus group, and what is reputed to be a very fine choral program. Three masses are celebrated each weekend, and one mass each weekday. The first Friday of each month there is an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for three hours in the afternoon.

The neighborhood

Lansing is the capital city of Michigan, and thus home to a number of state agencies. The capitol building is only a block from the cathedral. Lansing is also home to one of the country's largest land-grant universities, Michigan State University, enrolling some 50,000 students. St Mary is in the center of downtown. In the immediate area are a large parking garage, an Episcopal church, residential housing, and various state and university agencies.

The cast

Worship was led by a priest, a deacon who preached, an acolyte (adult), lay lector, organist, four individuals who shared the traditional duties of a cantor, and five eucharistic ministers.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

About half full. It was a racially and generationally diverse congregation.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher handed me a bulletin and greeted me.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Reverential, with quiet organ music.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good afternoon and welcome to St Mary Cathedral," from an announcer who then invited us to join in the first hymn. After the opening hymn, the usual "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Worship, Fourth Edition, a publication of GIA, and Breaking Bread with Readings 2018, a publication of Oregon Catholic Press. The latter is a combination missal/hymnal, but all of the hymns were from Worship.

What musical instruments were played?

A three-manual, 50-rank pipe organ. Originally designed (1930) by Casavant Freres for Christ Church (Episcopal) in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, it was moved to the cathedral and expanded by White Organ Co. in 1967-68, then expanded again in 1996 by the Fowler Organ Co.

Did anything distract you?

A whole pew of families with young children a couple of rows in front of me. They had a bit of energy. Good to see them in church, though.

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

A standard North American ordinary form of the mass, with bells at the institution narrative. The parish has a unique way of using several individuals in the role of cantor. One woman, vested in a choir robe, led the responsorial psalm and the alleluia from the ambo. She played no further role in the service (and as best I can tell, did not remain for the service). Another woman announced the hymns from a lectern; she did not sing, although she did give opening remarks at the beginning of the service, and the announcements at its conclusion. Two additional singers (sopranos, miked) were in the balcony, and led the congregation in the hymns and service music, which were all very traditional (a Sanctus by the 20th century Dutch liturgical composer Jan Vermulst, and the well-known anonymous Great Amen commonly called the Danish Amen). I gather that contemporary Catholic hymnody plays no role in the worship at St. Mary – and there is thus no need of a more typical cantor.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

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

8 — The deacon is a confident public speaker.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

This was one of the "Bread of Life" Sundays we get in each Year B. The deacon began by referring to the spiritual invitation of the gospel read today. God invites us to become closer to him by giving us Jesus' presence in the eucharist. Referring to the recent grand jury report (see below), he said that all of us – priests, religious, laity – must seek humility. We are called to walk humbly with out God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I love this space. There is no devotional clutter in the sanctuary area, and there are no columns in the nave to obstruct the congregation's view of the altar. The altar is the center of our attention. And yet there is still statuary and stained glass to remind us that we worship together with all the host of heaven.

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

Purgatorial – but the organist didn't allow even a nanosecond for a breath at the end of each verse of the hymnody. I would call this hellish, except in so many other respects he was quite a fine player. And it was a bit warm – apparently there is no air conditioning (lots of ceiling fans).

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

Nothing. The church cleared out pretty quickly.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

8 — I'm not sure I have ever before been in a worship space that so expertly combines the goals of the liturgical movement with more traditional elements. Music, though, is very conservative.

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


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

Sad, but the several references to the Pennsylvania grand jury report. I mention this here because there is really no other place to mention it. It was unpleasant and uncomfortable, but what the priest said was certainly not hellish. But it was not heavenly either, not by a long shot. During the previous week, a devastating grand jury report on sexual abuse and Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania was released. The celebrant came forward after the announcements and gave what was almost a second sermon. He obviously felt the need to discuss the grand jury report with his parishioners, but found it difficult. On a couple of occasions he had to stop and collect his thoughts before continuing. He noted that the abuse and cover-up had brought forth a plethora of emotions within him, and parishioners that he had talked to. “The heart of what I want to share with you,” he said, “is that Jesus died, but had committed no crime. Carry the shame, feel his pain, suffer, but suffer with Christ. If we die with him, we will live with him.”

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