St Michael's Chapel, New York City, New York

St Michael's Chapel, New York City


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Michael's Chapel
Location: New York City
Date of visit: Monday, 1 January 2007, 11:00am

The building

St Michael's is located on Mulberry Street, just south of Houston Street, next to (and dwarfed by) the church known as Old St Patrick's Cathedral. From the outside, the red brick building more closely resembles a tenement house than a church. To the left is a small graveyard. Inside, one enters a tiny room dominated by a colorful iconostasis. On the day of my visit, poinsettias had been arranged on the floor before the iconostasis, their color adding to the overall visual effect. Also standing before the iconostasis were three lectern-like tables, each holding an icon: one of Christ, one of the Blessed Virgin, and one representing the feast day. (They appear not to have an icon representing the Circumcision of Our Lord, and so instead used one representing Christ teaching in the temple.)

The church

The parish was established in 1935 to minister to Russian immigrants seeking to maintain their spiritual roots, as well as non-Russians attracted to the richness and beauty of Russian spirituality. The noted journalist and social worker Dorothy Day (1897-1980) frequently attended vespers and the divine liturgy here. The parish sponsors several spiritual discussion groups as well as Russian language classes.

The neighborhood

A few blocks south of here, Mulberry Street is the place where Little Italy meets Chinatown, and is awash with restaurants, greengrocers, butcher shops, fishmongers, and souvenir stands. The section of the street where St Michael's and Old St Patrick's sit, however, is a rather drab hodgepodge of old lofts and warehouses converted into living space.

The cast

The Rt Revd Economos Roman Russo, rector, assisted by the Revd Deacon Christopher LiGreci. There were also two servers whose names were not given. Everyone wore gold: the rector a gold phelonion (chasuble), the deacon a gold sticharion (dalmatic) and orarion (deacon's stole), and the servers gold robes that looked like tunicles but whose exact name I don't know. In addition, the rector and deacon wore purple and black kamilavki (caps), respectively.

What was the name of the service?

Divine Liturgy of St Basil.

How full was the building?

There were about 10 people altogether, leaving enough room for everyone to be comfortable without the altar party tripping over them.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A gentleman asked me why I had come. When I replied that I was there to attend the service, he shook my hand, gave me a service booklet, and said, "Don't worry about where to stand – you'll be in the way regardless." Another gentleman asked me if I was familiar with the order of service and said he'd be glad to answer any questions I might have.

Was your pew comfortable?

We stood for the entire service. A few metal folding chairs had been placed around the perimeter of the tiny room for those who needed to sit, but I managed not to use them.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet. As people entered, they crossed themselves and kissed each of the three icons on the lectern-like tables.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Divine Liturgy.

What musical instruments were played?

None. Music was provided by a sole woman cantor (for the pre-service office and post-service thanksgiving) and a choir of two elderly ladies, an elderly gent, two younger ladies, and a younger gentleman. The older choir members remained vested in their overcoats, as it was a raw day outside and rather chilly inside.

Did anything distract you?

At first glance, I thought that the inscription on the icon directly above the iconostasis curtain read, "The Mystical Slipper". I was racking my brain trying to remember the biblical reference. Then it dawned on me that it actually read, "The Mystical Supper". I had a hard time following the service, as the booklet was a different translation from what was actually being chanted. And the bowing, crossing and other gestures by the congregation were not what I was accustomed to seeing in the Western rite – there were times when everyone bent over at the waist calisthenic-like and touched the floor with their right hand.

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

Different from anything I had experienced before. The entire service was chanted, primarily in English but also in Greek and Slavonic. Incense was dispensed copiously and almost continuously (although, strangely, the gospel book was not censed). The communion bread was soaked in wine in the chalice and ministered via a spoon. The clergy remained hidden from view at times, chanting their parts from behind the closed iconostasis curtain – for example, the sacred elements were shown to the congregation and then brought to the altar behind the closed curtain, which did not open again until the chanting of the creed (minus, it is to be noted, the filioque). Also, the altar party took their communion with the curtain closed.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I cannot imagine a liturgy that showers more praise upon God than does the Divine Liturgy of St Basil. If God were not God, he would surely get a very swell head listening to all of this.

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

The choir tried their best, but they were not up to the effect that a Russian men's choir with voices reaching down to the second basement could achieve. The director kept giving them their pitches by singing "Bom, bom, bom" but they never quite picked them up and as a result sang painfully out of tune. One or two chants that they knew well (for example the Lord's Prayer), they were able to carry off quite nicely, but for the most part they were simply dismal!

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

After the final blessing, everyone kissed the icons once again plus a crucifix that the rector was holding, and then received the antidoron (unconsecrated bread) before filing out. The cantor who had sung the pre-service office started in on the after-service thanksgiving (with the clergy chanting their part from behind the closed iconostasis curtain). At one point she had to turn around and shush some people who were chatting a little too loudly out on the porch.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The two gentlemen who had spoken to me before the service mentioned that there was coffee upstairs, and would I like to join them (otherwise I wouldn't have known). Coffee was a well-known brand of instant, served in styrofoam cups. Herbal teas were also available, plus some cookies and freshly baked raisin bread with butter. Someone invited me to sit down and said that he'd be glad to serve me whatever I wanted (I took some tea and raisin bread). I had a lively conversation about Eastern and Western rites with the two gentlemen who had invited me, plus some of their friends. Almost everyone came over to where we were sitting, introduced themselves, and wished me a Happy New Year. The two gentlemen and I ended up locking the place after everyone else had left.

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

7 – I felt nervous and impatient during the liturgy itself, but the warmth and friendliness of the after-service crowd won me over. I do prefer a more participatory style of worship, though.

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

Yes. If only my own prayers of praise and thanksgiving were a fraction of what the Divine Liturgy of St Basil offers up to God.

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

How much of the liturgy was conducted from behind the curtain.

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