St Paul’s Mission, Staatsburg, New York, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul’s Mission
Location: Staatsburg, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 27 August 2017, 9:00am

The building

St Paul’s is a chapel of ease in the parish of Regina Coeli in Hyde Park, about five miles down the road from Staatsburg. The cornerstone of this lovely little clapboard church topped by a steeple, typical Americana, was laid in 1887. The west door is reached via rather steep steps. Inside, the eye is drawn to a stained glass window on the east wall depicting Christ as a young man. The story goes that one of the original parishioners, who worked as a domestic for a wealthy area family, persuaded her employer to donate the window. The window survived reordering of the interior after Vatican II, but the altar and altar rail, statues, and beautiful tapestries that hung behind the altar were discarded. Today the interior is rather plain, with cream colored walls and blue-gray carpeting, a plain versus populum altar, and simple wooden lectern and pulpit. The baptismal font stands to the left of the altar; I believe it is the original. Stations of the Cross also look original, as do the pews.

The church

This is the church of Miss Amanda's childhood. Her mother played the organ here, and Miss Amanda was baptized at that very font and received her first holy communion and the sacrament of confirmation here. Her first cousin twice removed was a proud member of the Altar Guild, which still flourishes today. However, parishioners living in Staatsburg who wish to participate in other church activities must travel to Hyde Park to do so at the mother church of the parish. There is one mass at St Paul's each Sunday.

The neighborhood

Staatsburg is a sleepy little hamlet on the east bank of the Hudson River just north of Hyde Park, about 85 miles north of New York City. Several of the wealthiest families of America's Gilded Age, drawn by spectacular river views that include the Catskill Mountains beyond, built their mansions here. Many of the more humble abodes were once owned by people (such as my aforementioned cousin twice removed) who worked as domestics for those families, as well as by veterans (such as my father) returning from duty in World War II. Today, many of the old mansions have become national historic sites, and much of Staatsburg's original housing stock has been lovingly restored by its present owners. These include my cousin's house as well as my great-grandmother's house, which was a boarding house when she owned it but is now an upscale Italian restaurant. The church is on Mulford Avenue, really little more than a tree-lined country lane with some fine old houses.

The cast

No one was identified. The priest was in full eucharistic vesture; two acolytes wore albs and wooden pectoral crosses; the lector, keyboardist and leader of song were in street clothes.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

I counted room for about 130 and there were about 40 people there, of all ages, several families.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

One lady said hello as she walked by me in the aisle; otherwise, no.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was OK as old wooden pews go. I believe the kneelers were original too, as some rips in the leather had been mended with tape.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The keyboardist played some tinkly bits and he and the leader of song rehearsed a bit. There was some quiet visiting among the people.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

'Good morning.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Heritage Missal 2017.

What musical instruments were played?

Digital piano, a Roland, very nice and very competently played. When my mother was organist here, she had at her command an old foot-pumped harmonium up in the choir loft.

Did anything distract you?

Memories distracted me. Otherwise, one particularly loud crying toddler who turned out to belong to the lector. Read on for an interesting development.

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

A nicely done typical Catholic mass. The collect, sursum corda and preface, Sanctus, Lord's Prayer and Agnus Dei were all chanted. No incense, but bells at the consecration. The eucharistic prayer was the long Roman canon version; nice to hear it. The hymns began well, with "The Church's One Foundation" to the tune of Aurelia, but they went downhill from there into "Singing Nun takes a retreat at the St Louis Jesuit house" stuff. See below for an additional comment about the music. To their credit, though, the congregation sang lustily.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

5 minutes.

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

7 – The priest seemed to have good rapport with the congregation but spoke rather rapidly.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was the day's gospel reading, Matthew 16:13-20 ('You are Peter, and upon this rock...' ). When Jesus asked Peter who he thought he was, Peter didn't repeat what others had said; he spoke his mind. Jesus knew Peter's personality and that he would deny him, and yet he called him to lead the Church. The Lord himself called Peter blessed! And we need look no further than this passage to refute those who say that sacramental penance is not biblical. What great grace the sacrament of reconciliation bestows! It is always available to us, not just on Saturday afternoons, and it brings us back to our baptismal purity.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The lector's little toddler made her displeasure known clearly when her mother got up to give the readings, even though she left her in care of other family in the pew. And so when it came time to read the intercessions, she took her in her arms and brought her up to the lectern with her. I thought that was very sweet and very heavenly.

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

But let's talk about the music, shall we? We sang only one verse of everything, giving credence to the notion that Catholics use music as a filler for the quiet parts of the mass, stopping when the priest is ready to get on with it. I would rather like to believe that the text of the hymns is an integral part of the worship, and worthy of being heard and sung in its entirety.

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

I told the keyboardist about how my mother had played the harmonium in the choir loft all those years ago. I also had a brief conversation with the priest about my memories of first communion and confirmation, and how the church looked in those days. Others who heard us talking seemed interested.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

10 — I don't live here anymore, but what a pleasure it was to be back and to relive those memories of so long ago.

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


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

The lector bringing her toddler up to the lectern with her.

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