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34: St Mary's Cathedral, Fargo, North Dakota
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St Mary's Fargo
Mystery Worshipper: Bodeca.
The church: St Mary's Cathedral, Fargo, North Dakota.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: Victoria Gothic and Romanesque style. See this site for information about the church restoration project (the building itself is quite beautiful).
The neighbourhood: The church is in the historic downtown of old Fargo. Many older store buildings are in this area, as well as an Art Deco style 1920s movie palace called the Fargo Theatre, which is currently being restored. The world premiere of the film 'Fargo' was held in this theatre, only a block away from St. Mary's.
The cast: The main minister is Father Hughes, who is from Ireland.
What was the name of the service?
Midnight Christmas Mass.

How full was the building?
It was packed! I estimate the capacity at around 1,000, and the building was full, with some standing.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes and No. The service was very solemn and there was no talking. At the door were several Knights of Columbus (a Catholic fraternal organization) who were in ceremonial dress – three-cornered hats with plumes, uniforms with sashes, etc. A layman approached to help me find a seat.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was alright – very plain, no cushioning, just solid hardwood with handcarved spines and endwork. Behind each pew were hymnal racks, and below were kneeling platforms that swung up out of the way when not in use.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet and reverential. I think the Catholics assembled either viewed this service as truly holy, or felt that they needed to act holy to make up for the rest of the year when they were not in attendence (sorry about that, but it did come off as rather stuffy!). It was definitely different from other churches I have attended in the past, which have respectful but chatty pre-service discussions, and are more upbeat.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Good Morning! Welcome to St. Marys. Please stand and turn to hymn number 149, "O Come all Ye Faithful", found in the seasonal missalette...' We all stood to sing, as the introduction was played by a wonderful brass band in the balcony behind us. However, when they finished the intro, there was a hesitation, and the organ started playing something that was definitely not 'O Come all Ye Faithful' – and then silence. Then a voice said: 'Please be seated', with no word of explanation. There was an obvious delay. Ten minutes or so passed, and then we were asked once again to stand and sing the same song. This time it came off without a hitch, and all the priests and altar boys filed in during the first two verses.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Seasonal Missalette.

What musical instruments were played?
The organ, and also a brass band, led by a brother.

Did anything distract you?
Sort of – I was distracted by the awesome architecture, recently restored from the turn of the century. And by the statues of the stations of the cross on either side, the vaulted ceilings and pillars, the beautiful tapestry of Mary and the large stained glass windows of the saints (one per window).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very traditional, very formal – typical for a large Catholic church at Christmas.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3. God bless him, he tried and was awfully sincere, but had no real charisma or impact.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The meaning of Christmas: Christ is real, Christ is the truth. Our preacher kept stressing that Christ did come, and he is our hope for the future.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
At the end of the sermon, we were encouraged to greet all those around us and express our hope that they would have a good new year and a blessed Christmas. I felt a lot of sincerity from those I interacted with, which was uplifting at a time when there is so much cynicism.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Listening to the sermon... sorry, Father, but it just wasn't it.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone was in a great hurry to leave (but then it was 2.00am)! Each priest stood by a different door, and took the time to greet people as they left. I was greeted by the older priest, with a beard like a Greek Orthodox, who was very pleasant, wishing me a blessed Christmas.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 or 4 – mostly because of the inspiring building, rather than the service itself.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Coming to this as a Protestant, I would say that despite the differences in how we approach worship, I found a common kinship in the central and most important thing: our desire for communion with the Creator of all, and for this night, honoring his humility in coming to us.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The alien feeling I had. I saw the same faith I knew in this service, but it was presented in a different manner, which made it feel more mystical. Some would say it was less personal, more removed, but I can see, upon reflection, that this is just another style of worship, different to my own, but just as valid. It enriched me to experience it.
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