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396: St Mary of the Lake, New Buffalo, Michigan, USA
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St Mary of the Lake, New Buffalo, Michigan, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Emerson.
The church: St Mary of the Lake, New Buffalo, Michigan, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The church and rectory sit on the front half of an entire block with the church school being on the block just behind. Built in the mid 1930s, the church is maintained in excellent shape, the post-Vatican 2 changes being made in good taste. It is relatively small. Grounds surrounding the church and rectory are nicely landscaped. Situated on the highway leading directly into the village, the church makes an important welcoming statement.
The church: The church seems to see itself in a positive role, being involved in many activities in the community. The school has an excellent reputation and is well known throughout the area. The church and rectory occupy a prominent position right on the highway leading into the village and are impossible to miss. The pastor clearly recognizes the importance of his "summer parishioners" and makes them feel welcomed.
The neighbourhood: New Buffalo is a pleasant resort community situated on Lake Michigan and about 80 miles from Chicago. The village has numerous shops and restaurants, typical of this type of community. While there are permanent residents, the population doubles or triples during the summer and on many winter weekends with people coming over to second homes, hotels, or bed and breakfasts in the area.
The cast: Fr. Tom Devita, priest and celebrant.
What was the name of the service?
The 12.00pm service of summer eucharist.

How full was the building?
The church was probably 85 percent full, maybe 300 or so people. I understand that the 10.00am service is usually packed during the summer.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. Three different ushers greeted us as we walked in. And a deacon who was sitting in the narthex also extended a hearty "hello."

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were very conventional, with kneelers. But they were too close together. Kneeling was difficult to do, and I can imagine that someone with a bit of girth would have had a very difficult time. One would hope that this parish, like some airlines, would remove two or three rows of pews to space things out a bit more comfortably.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was respectful but very much on the busy side. The organist and two soloists were going over the music; young altar servers were carrying the crucifix and torches back to the back; someone was lighting candles in the sanctuary. People were seated and would then see friends and get up and change pews.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Sorry, I missed this. An usher was seating a family in the row in front of us as the service began. I was impressed moments later when the priest went slowly up and down the aisles for the asperges. It had been years since I had seen this part of the service in a Roman Catholic church. And I gather it was not common here either since the priest had to explain what he was doing and what should be the response from the congregation.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
I did not find any handout with the lessons for the day as I entered the church; bulletins were not made available until after dismissal. Hymns were from the Gather Hymnal.

What musical instruments were played?
The same man moved rather effortlessly back and forth between piano and organ. Two women sang together and were joined by the man for the opening song.

Did anything distract you?
I was distracted by the numbers of people who arrived and were seated well into the service. The priest was preaching and people were still straggling in. Since the church was getting somewhat filled, people were urged to move in and make room. Once people were seated, they tended to be quiet and reverential, but the late arrivals were definitely a distraction, especially so many of them and so very late.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Even in spite of the late arrivals, mentioned above, this was one of the most reverent and dignified Roman Catholic services I've attended in several years. Nothing was rushed. The priest allowed time for reflection and thought between the parts of the service. Everything was done in a dignified, respectful manner. The young boys serving at the altar obviously needed more training, but they were trying. Mass here is easily the best liturgy of any of the half dozen or so Roman Catholic churches serving this general area.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon lasted 13 minutes and was preached, quite largely, from text.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Fr. Tom, as he likes to be called by his parishioners, preaches slowly and with feeling. He came to this parish from New York, and I heard him shortly after he arrived in the area several years ago. His New York accent seems even stronger now than it was then.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Gospel reading was that famous one where Jesus explains that he has come to create division, to light a fire under people. Fr Tom argued that one must often make hard choices to follow Jesus, that the road is not always gentle and kind. He then moved to social gospel issues and talked about things in El Salvador and Cuba. I kept hoping he would make all of this relevant to those moderately wealthy people in his pews, to explain some of their difficult choices and sacrifices, but he never did.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The general solemnity of the service was quite delightful. Although there were many, many children in the congregation, they were quiet. The peace was exchanged with meaning and honest respect for one another. It was clear that these people, for the most part, were participating in the service and not just going through the motions.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The music was totally out of sync with this type of service. Songs, (they are not really hymns) from the Gather Hymnal are all of the happy-clappy variety, and they just do not fit with the much more solemn service in this parish. They may be good by themselves (there is a happy-clappy parish a few miles away where they fit nicely with the tone of the service), but this place needs some of the grander music of the church to match its tone of worship.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Mass lasted almost an hour and 12 minutes. Everyone seemed to dart for the nearest door after the dismissal. Bulletins were stacked beside the door (not even an usher to hand them out) so there was no contact at all. There were three exits to use, and none had an usher present. The priest exited by the main doorway but was several feet away engaged in conversation with someone when I walked out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I were Roman Catholic, this would most likely be the parish where I would worship on weekends when I was in southwestern Michigan.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, most definitely. It really felt like going to church, and it was easy to tell that the people there were not just doing Sunday obligations but were there to worship and be a community.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The dignified service.
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