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281: Cathedral of St Patrick, New York City
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Cathedral of St Patrick, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
The church: Cathedral of Saint Patrick, New York City.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: Magnificent, elegant French Gothic, with all the richness of this style but nothing at all overdone. The interior, for which the focal point is the striking gold reredos above the marble altar, is lined at either side with small shrines to various saints, each consisting of a marble altar and statue. The Lady Chapel is especially exquisite. The building is the gift to New York City of Irish immigrants – labourers, bankers, contractors and the many bishops and priests who placed Roman Catholicism on the map here. The area was once the dwelling place of Vanderbilts and Astors, and, with the Anglican Saint Bart's and Saint Thomas's within a few blocks of Saint Pat's, I have always thought of the cathedral as the "so there!" church of the "Kennedy class."
The neighbourhood: This is the New York City that Hollywood depicts as the dwelling place of the wealthy (though, in truth, it is no longer a residential area, the old mansions having long been either demolished or converted to business properties). Exclusive shops such as Saks Fifth Avenue, and designer showcases such as Ferragamo and Gucci, are typical of the area. The main tourist spot, the Rockefeller Centre, is directly across the street.
The cast: The names were not given.
What was the name of the service?
Ash Wednesday Mass.

How full was the building?
Beyond packed! Crowds lined up "for ashes" extended out the door and around the corner for at least another block. I had this odd conviction that I was watching the General Judgment.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. It was very hectic and crowded, and the ushers and police keeping the crowds in line were quite occupied.

Was your pew comfortable?
I know from previous visits that the pews are standard, but I did not have a chance to sit down on this day.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Crowds of people, of every conceivable age, class and profession, were herding in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the Name of the Father..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The New English Hymnal, a high mass service leaflet and a readings leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
The crowds. The cathedral can seat over 2,000 people, yet there were crowds in all of the aisles, and all the way around the corner from the doors. There were barriers set up on the avenues, and two doors designated for the "ashes" crowd, all supervised by police.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Having been at St Patrick's in the past, I know that their worship is quite dignified. However, on this occasion I felt as if I were a herring in a tight tin in that crowd.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Quite frankly, I was being pushed about so much that I stepped out for air, and do not know this detail.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The marvellous, tasteful architecture would make one wish that heaven were not a purely spiritual state.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Seeing the ill and homeless begging at the corner.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Just about everyone there looked lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – perhaps 9 if I were a Roman.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, indeed. It especially impressed me that people of all ages were so obviously devout, even if I personally have much distaste towards the "going for ashes" approach.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
When I was walking about the church, I found myself deeply, unexpectedly moved when I reached the entrance to the crypt, particularly seeing the red hats of the deceased cardinals above. Much as I may joke about the political aspects and occasionally morbid spirituality which were exports from Catholic Ireland, the splendour of the building and the memorial of those who established the diocese powerfully combined to remind me of the devotion and courage of those who were Irish immigrants in the 19th century. They worked tirelessly to establish the thousands of Roman Catholic-run hospitals, schools, and social service agencies in their new land, at a time when such were not major concerns in general.
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