St Paul's, Oakland, California, USA


Info and corrections →

Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Paul's
Location: Oakland, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 February 2016, 10:00am

The building

The cornerstone of the present building was laid in 1912. It is a large building in the Gothic style and, somewhat unusual for the quake-prone San Francisco Bay Area, has a brick exterior and interior. Although it suffered only minor damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake (which had an enormous impact in downtown Oakland), it was extensively retrofitted to comply with code upgrades. The church property is also home to a well-regarded Episcopal day school.

The church

The parish is active in many community projects. They run a weekly food pantry, are active in ministries to seniors (St Pauls Towers, a residence for seniors run by Episcopal Senior Communities, is across the street), work with a local home for the developmentally disabled, and host numerous 12-step meetings.

The neighborhood

The church is located in a beautiful setting in downtown Oakland on the shores of Lake Merritt on the edge of a pleasant residential district. The downtown business district is close by, as is a popular city park, including a children's playground that was one of the inspirations for Disneyland.

The cast

Celebrant and preacher was the Revd D. Mauricio Wilson, rector.
The Revd Carolyn Bolton
served as liturgical deacon, and Mr Doug Jensen
as subdeacon. Also assisting were the Revd Annie Pierpont Mertz and the Revd Anne Jensen,
as well as numerous lay assistants (readers, acolytes) who were named in the bulletin.

What was the name of the service?

Choral Eucharist and Celebration of Marriage. The wedding was of two gentlemen who had been partners of long standing and are active members of the parish. Nuptial masses are, of course, common in the Roman Catholic church, but I had never before witnessed a marriage in the context of an Episcopalian eucharist, and a regularly scheduled Sunday eucharist at that

How full was the building?

People arrived somewhat gradually, but the church was a good two-thirds full by the time the wedding ceremony started.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A smile and Good morning from an usher, who handed me a bulletin. People did seem to make a point of passing the peace with me. Most parish members wore nametags, so it was noticeable that I didnt.

Was your pew comfortable?

Not padded, but reasonably okay.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Muted conversation and some socializing (it was probably chattier up front with the wedding guests).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

Blessed be the one, holy, and living God.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Hymnal 1982 and Lift Every Voice and Sing. The Prayer Book 1979 was in the pew racks, but the liturgy – spoken and sung – was all printed in the comprehensive service bulletin. Since I have never been part of a wedding at the principal Sunday service, I appreciated the heads up in the bulletin. I am sure they were expecting visitors for the wedding; they got a bonus Mystery Worshipper as well.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and handbells (bell choir).

Did anything distract you?

Sunshine coming through the stained glass, an adorable toddler walking very determinedly up and down the center aisle, a late-coming wedding guest changing seats multiple times, a lady in front of me who had magnificent hair and a very stylish chapeau. Also, there was a lot of photography going on for the wedding and guests did move around a lot trying to get good angles.

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

It was traditional in style, but definitely not stiff-upper-lip. Lots of heartfelt applause saluting the newlyweds. Some of the music was in the great African-American tradition, so there was definitely great energy and clapping on the beat. The readings were those prescribed for the day – not special readings as at a Roman Catholic nuptial mass. The wedding ceremony itself took place immediately after the sermon. The exchange of vows was not Prayer Book, but may have been one of the same-sex forms that have been circulating recently. There was no Creed and no separate prayers of the people – these were incorporated into the prayers for the married couple.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

8 – The Revd Dr Wilson preached from the chancel steps without notes and was completely comfortable doing so. Im not giving him full marks because my attention was wandering a bit, but that might just be me.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

What does it mean to see God face to face? It was a skillful hybrid of a sermon for the Transfiguration and a wedding sermon. I loved the conclusion: "When you look at each other, I hope you see God."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Finding myself in the middle of a community coming together for a wedding and wedding feast!

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

The organ was playing loud enough at points to drown out about 200 people singing! I will also admit to not much liking bell choirs.

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

A festive wedding reception was announced as taking place in the parish hall. Lots of finger food; lots of champagne! Someone circulating with a tray of deviled eggs offered me one, but no one came up to chat with me. I'll allow as most people were busy eating or serving themselves from the groaning board, and I was not a regular parish member nor did I know the wedding couple or anyone in their party. I will try again on a regular Sunday when I can stay longer.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Magnificent, complete with a pianist playing tinkly bits on a baby grand.

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

10 – I live in the general area and am looking for a new church home. I have promised myself to not make any immediate decisions but this parish definitely made a good impression. Mostly formal liturgy without being stuffy, and the congregation were a great Oakland mix of ages and colors.

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


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

Finding myself in the middle of a wedding! I wont soon forget the happy, happy looks of the wedding couple as they went up and down the aisle carrying their sweet and well-behaved Best Dog with them. It was a beautiful thing. Whom God has joined, let no one put asunder!

Our Mystery Worshippers are volunteers who warm church pews for us around the world. If you’d like to become a Mystery Worshipper, start here.

Find out how to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Comments and corrections

To comment, please scroll to the end of this report and add your thoughts there. To send us factual corrections, please contact us. We also discuss reports on our Ecclesiantics bulletin board.

© Ship of Fools