St Mary's, Derby (Exterior)

St Mary's, Derby, England


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Mystery Worshipper: The Revelator
Church: St Mary's
Location: Derby, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 24 December 2011, 11:30pm

The building

An elegant Gothic Revival building dating from 1839, the work of Augustus W.N. Pugin, who had only recently become a Catholic. It is a major landmark of Derby. Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, first archbishop of Westminster, called it "the most magnificent thing that Catholics have done in modern times in this country." It holds its own aesthetically against the nearby cathedral, but had to undergo some serious restoration in the late 1920s and in 1986-89. The inside of the church is just as elegant. The church is high and narrow, with a lovely girded ceiling. The stained glass windows were not visible at this time of night but are reputed to be very impressive. Circular paintings (and indented carvings) mark the stations of the cross on the walls. The screen is flanked by nice statues of the Madonna with Child and John the Baptist. Above the screen is a large crucifix. The altar is slightly behind the screen, and the area behind the altar is a glorious white, gold and stone affair. The font is situated at the back of the church and was gated off.

The church

They are affiliated with St Mary's Nursery & Primary School as well as St Benedict Secondary School & Sixth Form Centre. Among their youth groups is one called MADCOW ("Make A Difference, Change Our World"). They also sponsor a program called Journey in Faith, adult education talks for non-Catholics leading to reception into the Church for those who so choose. Among their community-based activities are prayer groups and counselling sessions. They concentrate much of their charity work with Catholic Agency For Overseas Development and Project Arusha, which sponsors local students to train as teachers in Tanzania.

The neighborhood

Derby, while having ancient roots, came into its own during the Industrial Revolution. Rolls Royce are still an employer in the area. The modern city has a new(ish) arts centre and is renowned for its shopping centre and real ale pubs. The church is in the city centre, about a minute's walk away from Derby Cathedral and St Martin's Chapel.

The cast

The Revd Peter Ingman, assistant priest, was the celebrant. The Revd Canon Timothy O'Sullivan, VF, parish priest, preached. Father O'Sullivan is a canon of the cathedral chapter and vicar forane of the district.

What was the name of the service?

Midnight Mass.

How full was the building?

Full, but not bursting. There were a good 300 people there at least.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A gentleman said hello to me, but I was unsure if he was an official welcomer or just a congregant being friendly. There was a box full of hymn books and orders of service.

Was your pew comfortable?

The pews were traditional style pews. They were comfortable at first but did not seem to be designed for this length of service. I had a sciatica attack near the end but I did not know whether this was caused by other factors.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

There was quiet mumbling as people entered but this quieted down. Then there was quite a long period where the choir sang a series of carols, but the congregation were reluctant to join in with this.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a green hymn book with words and music for the hymns and a generic order of service for the mass.

What musical instruments were played?

A nice big organ. With choir. The choir were unrobed and sat on the left side of the church.

Did anything distract you?

If the service had taken place in the open air it would not have been colder or draftier! The sheer length of the service (nearly two hours) at this time of night made me start to wilt by the end. The celebrant was inaudible during the consecration. My lack of Catholic etiquette seemed to go noticed by some people, which made me feel self-conscious.

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

Very stiff upper lip, to the point of grimness. I know this is a solemn service, but it felt more like a Good Friday service, not Christmas, and the reluctance of anyone to sing the carols did not help. Give the congregation their due, but they were probably cold and tired as well. There was a procession and incense and bells (which went jingle rather than bong). There were altar servers, torches, a thurifer, and a lector. The order of service appeared rather generic to this admitted non-Catholic, but I presume this is the standard Catholic mass. Communion was given out by eucharistic ministers stationed at four different locations around the church.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

7 – Compared to the stiffness of the rest of the service, the sermon was a welcome relief. Father O'Sullivan was quite sentimental and almost quaint, but this was Christmas after all.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He talked about how letting Jesus into our lives would bring profound change.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The beautiful church. The choir sang well.

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

I know it isn't supposed to be cold in "the other place," but the church was hellishly cold! Was it supposed to be a mortification? If so, it worked! Had the church been warmer, perhaps the length of the service wouldn't have been such an issue.

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

Everyone left by a side door into the car park. I shook the priests' hands and then left by the side door and walked home.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was nothing on offer so far as I know.

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

5 – I am not a Catholic, but if I were, they would have to heat the church first to make me join.

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

No, but being a Christian is pretty serious business sometimes, and I think I paid a suitable penance.

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

The sheer beauty of the building.

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