Mystery Worshipper: Secret Squirrel
Church: St Mary's
Location: Stanley, Falkland Islands
Date of visit: Thursday, 29 March 2018, 7:00pm
The church is the only Catholic church in the Falkland Islands. The information board outside the Town Hall told me that the original church had arrived in kit form in 1873, having been manufactured by Boulton and Paul in Norwich, UK. That building is now the church hall and the current building was put up in 1899. There is a fine painting of the Last Supper in the choir loft. Poor Judas is notable as he has no halo. Traditional stained glass of the Annunciation and a nice angel in the sanctuary. The side windows have coloured modern glass. As it was Holy Week, the statues were covered in purple cloth. There are concrete steps up to the church, though some of these can be avoided with a nearby slope. There was no information about toilets (though the city has plenty of public conveniences). I didn't see any information about loop systems. There was a microphone at the altar and it was used.
St Mary's is in the centre of the tiny city and was open every time we passed, which meant that as visitors to the city we felt welcome. It was hard to judge what activities the parish is involved in, as there wasn't any information in the porch area or on the newsletter. As it was Holy Week, maybe parish groups were taking a break. The bulletin mentioned that there were prayer books in Spanish and Tagalog available, and I saw them in the porch. Many of the workers in Stanley appeared to be from Chile or the Philippines and likely to be of Catholic heritage though I didn't see any at the mass. The church congregation featured in the book 74 Days by John Smith, a resident during the 1982 occupation of the islands by Argentina. He records that the parish was a source of community support at that time and that the situation of the church on the main street meant that worshippers could view the activities of the Argentinean troops from the church steps after mass.
Stanley is a tiny city of about 2,000 people and is the main settlement on the Falkland Islands. On days when two or more large cruise ships dock in the town, tourists frequently outnumber the local residents.
The celebrant didn't introduce himself, but from the parish newsletter I surmise that he was likely to be the Revd John Wisdom, O.Praem.
What was the name of the service?The Mass of the Lord's Supper.
How full was the building?
The church could easily fit 100 people. There were six of us in the congregation half the number at the original Last Supper. The other five people appeared to be elderly locals. To be fair to the rest of the Catholic population, a working Thursday evening is not an easy time for mass and this may not have represented the normal flock.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The church was empty so no one greeted me. Father John was busy preparing the altar and gave me a nod as I sat down.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a standard wooden pew and reasonably comfortable. We all kept our coats on though the church was reasonably warm.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I arrived 15 minutes early as I expected a bustle of preparation. The rest of the congregation arrived two minutes before mass started (really).
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Father John then told us that Abbot Hugh, who was visiting the parish, didn't feel well enough to concelebrate mass.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
People had brought their own missals.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Part of Father John's preparations for mass included setting up the thurible and lighting charcoal with a blow torch. He did this on top of what appeared to be a mobile gas heater. I was distracted from my prayers by the idea that the gas bottle might catch alight.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was very traditional. I've never seen a main parish mass where the priest celebrated mass with his back to the congregation. It meant that on the evening we celebrated the institution of the eucharist we didn't see the consecration. Most Maundy Thursday services include the washing of the feet but we didn't do that. I assume lack of numbers made it impractical we would all have needed to be washed twice. I'm used to this mass taking about 1.5 hours in an average UK parish. The whole service was over in 40 minutes. No lay person assisted with the mass, except for one lady who had been given the handbells, which she rang enthusiastically during the Gloria.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – A well thought out sermon, which he read from notes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel had focused on Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet. Our God is kneeling in front of us. That is the challenge for us: to follow his example of humility and service.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was good to be with other Christians celebrating this feast at the bottom of the world. I was grateful that Father John and his little congregation were there with me.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It was sad that although we could hear children playing and traffic passing, we were such a poor crowd. The first reading reminded us of the Passover and God's command to remember this feast for all time. Unfortunately, for some reason the Catholic community in Stanley werent bringing their families to share and remember this great feast. I reflected that without the next generations participation the Passover will be forgotten which may be a cause for rejoicing in the "other place."
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The mass concluded with the traditional procession of the Sacrament to the altar of repose and the stripping of the altar. Father John donned a humeral veil and carried the Sacrament to a tabernacle that he had lugged from the sacristy moments before mass. As no one was assisting him in this, the ceremony was muted. He then stripped the altar while half the congregation (three people) left church. I stayed for a few minutes and left at 7.50pm as I had a supper reservation. I did think the Lord would have said, "Were you not able to stay for one hour?" but I needed a meal and there's a limited choice in Stanley. A couple remained in church and smiled as I passed them but it was a prayer vigil and I didn't disturb them.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't expect refreshments.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – If I lived here this would have to be my regular church. I hope that the Catholic community is livelier than this mass suggested. I'm sure that as the city is so friendly, the parish is too when given the opportunity.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, very much so. The Lord was with us though sad that so few people were celebrating with him.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The challenge that our God is kneeling in front of us.