Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: St Thomas the Apostle
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Saturday, 12 October 2013, 5:00pm
Ground was broken in January 1951 and the building was completed in October of that year. It is in the Spanish Colonial style, with a fountain in front of the entrance and a bell tower in which (alas) a loudspeaker is prominently visible. The interior is spacious but plain, with a classical style baldacchino over the marble altar. Behind the altar is a large mural depicting a typical Arizona landscape, in front of which hangs a large crucifix.
They sponsor a men's Bible study group, a mothers' group, and a youth ministry. There are three Sunday masses as well as a weekday mass and the Saturday vigil mass. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is held each day.
The church is located on 24th Street, a busy thoroughfare, at Campbell Avenue, a rather plebeian residential street, on Phoenix's east side. Nearby are the ultra-posh Arizona Biltmore resort and the upscale Biltmore Fashion Park shopping center.
The Revd Oliver Vietor, parochial vicar. He was assisted by a crucifer and three acolytes (five, counting the two who came out with torches at gospel time). I'm hoping that the organist and cantor was not Greg Hebert, director of music ministry, for reasons that will become clear.
What was the name of the service?Mass.
How full was the building?
I counted room for about 600 and it was two-thirds to three-quarters full, with people evenly spread throughout.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A lady was having a conversation with two parishioners. She handed me a bulletin without making eye contact or breaking her conversation.
Was your pew comfortable?
Standard uncushioned wooden pew - it was OK.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet. Two acolytes, properly vested in cassock and wearing black trousers, socks and shoes, prepared the altar with dignity and solemnity, and showing proper reverence to the altar and Blessed Sacrament. The church bell (electronic, from the loudspeaker in the tower) was rung.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The bulletin contained the hymns for the day and the text of the Gloria and Nicene Creed, but nothing else other than ads and some announcements. In the pew was a laminated card entitled "St Thomas the Apostle Mass Prayers" but it contained only some miscellaneous devotions, not the text of the responses.
What musical instruments were played?
In the gallery was what appeared to be a large swell chamber (no visible organ pipes) and a large organ console that remained shut and unoccupied. I resigned myself to having no music when suddenly an organ began playing. I looked up in the gallery again to see a gentleman sitting at an electronic keyboard that I hadn't noticed before. He used the organ stop for two hymns and a very synthetic sounding electric piano stop for the rest of the music. He also served as cantor; no choir was present. Few in the congregation sang.
Did anything distract you?
The music. According to their website: "Pride of place is always given to the original music of the church: chant and traditional hymnody." But oh, Lordy, that's not what we got! See below.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The liturgy itself (with the exception of the music) was reverential and dignified. There were bells at the consecration but no incense. The eucharistic prayer was the Roman Canon. The Great Amen was chanted to the melody of the Sanctus from the Gregorian Chant Missa de Angelis - would that the whole mass had been! The Prayer to St Michael the Archangel was recited at the end of mass.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Vietor made good eye contact with the congregation, varied his tone appropriately, and made good use of gestures.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
All we have is from God, and all must return to God. To realize this is to live in tune with reality. We can return to God by giving thanks - we mustn't take his gifts for granted. He's given us everything we need, including the greatest gift of all, his only begotten Son. God's gifts come to us through Jesus. God is not "my" God or "our" God, but the God of all. The community of faith is a gift from God, an example to all the world.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It was heavenly to worship at a dignified, reverential liturgy in which all participants were well trained and properly vested, and carried out their duties with dignity. And Miss Amanda knows that all altar servers in heaven will be wearing proper haberdashery, as they were here.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But oh, that music! We had "Praise to the Lord" as the entrance hymn, played on the keyboard's organ stop with a technique that can most charitably be described as rudimentary. We had "Amazing Grace" done more like a Country & Western song than a hymn, with some blabbering doggerel thrown in after the second verse instead of the proper third and fourth verses. We had "How great thou art" at the recessional, again done on the piano as a Country & Western number how I missed hearing it done on the organ with proper registration and technique! The bulletin included "There's a wideness in Gods mercy" (to the tune of In Babilone) but we didn't have that one at all - rather, we had the same old Singing Nun jingles that we hear all too often in Catholic churches. So much for "pride of place" - nothing to be proud of! That's why I said earlier that I hoped the organist wasn't Greg Hebert, director of music ministry, for surely Mr Hebert's style is more in keeping with what the church's website would lead us to expect of their musical program.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We all went in peace to love and serve the Lord, I suppose. There was some visiting among the regulars, but no one took any notice of me.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – I am tempted to return on a Sunday morning to see if the music with a full choir with Mr Hebert at the helm is any better (the bulletin also mentioned John Rutter's "Out of the deep", from his Requiem, as an anthem, but we didn't have that either), but I have a feeling I would be disappointed.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Lets call it a draw.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
What a letdown the music was!