Ship of Fools
  Bulletin Boards
  Mystery Worshipper
  Caption Competition
  Gadgets for God
  The Fruitcake Zone
  Signs & Blunders
  Born Twice
  About Ship of Fools
  Support us!
  Contact us!
497: St Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine, Washington Heights, New York
Other reports | Comment on this report
St Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine, Washington Heights, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
The church: St Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine, Washington Heights, New York.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The chapel where the mass was held is part of a property which also contains a school and small gift shop. Modern brick, and quite nondescript, the chapel resembled a converted auditorium, despite there being several statues, a huge crucifix before which various people prayed, many electric vigil lights, and (this undoubtedly being the shrine's main attraction), the preserved body of Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini (first US citizen canonised, and patron of immigrants) in a glass case directly under the altar. There were murals depicting Mother Cabrini on the upper wall, and a very large, modern stained glass window of her in the rear.
The church: The bulletin (for the Church of St Elizabeth, for which I assume this chapel is a mission) seemed to have a variety of groups, including twelve step programmes for addicts and alcoholics. Mother Cabrini's sisters have an interesting history in themselves. Frances herself had intended to be a missionary Sister for India, and was sent to the United States by a bishop at a time when she and her companions could not even speak English. Their establishing orphanages, caring for the sick, and the like was amazing, considering how bishops in the States had to be persuaded to have this new work in their dioceses. At that time, Italian immigrants were the poorest of the urban poor, and the sisters had quite a task ahead.
The neighbourhood: It appeared to be a "standard" residential neighbourhood for people of moderate income. The surroundings, however, are quite spectacular. Fort Tryon park, a lovely spot for a Sunday walk, is directly next to the shrine, and one of its treasures is the Cloisters Museum of the Metropolitan Museum of art, which contains medieval religious art and gardens, and may be the most peaceful spot in New York City. The view of the Hudson River, clearly visible from beside the grounds, is quite beautiful.
The cast: Rev. Henry Mills was celebrant and homilist.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?
The chapel was half full at 11.10am, packed within a few minutes of the service's beginning at 11.15. Nearly everyone was a late arrival.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
An elderly man handed me the missalette and bulletin, and a lady seated beside him asked me if I'd care to be on the shrine's mailing list.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, standard.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Most people were exchanging greetings and chatting a bit. It was generally a friendly atmosphere, in stark contrast to the congregation's demeanour during the service. The latter was largely stone-faced, very quiet, prayers and singing barely audible... I was tempted to check pulses for signs of life.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, and doesn't the altar look beautiful?" (There were various types of flowers, clearly individual donations, near the altar.) The names of those serving in any capacity – server, eucharistic minister, and so forth, were then announced.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
World Library Seasonal Missalette, which contained the mass ordinaries, readings, and what have to be some of the worst hymn selections in the history of the church.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and piano – both of which needed tuning badly. The music was definitely poor. The song leader, a contralto who probably had six voice lessons 30 years ago in preparation for the lead in a junior class play, had a horrible sense of pitch. The way she sang "off key," especially towards the ends of each verse, was painful. The hymns were mostly abysmal settings of psalms, and all the worse because the texts had no clear connection to the liturgy. For example, and for reasons unknown, the congregation sang a setting of "Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble" several times through during communion.

Did anything distract you?
The preserved body of Mother Cabrini under the very modern altar table seemed a bit eerie after awhile. Oddly enough, had the church been traditional in design, the preserved remains may have fit in well, but, amidst the stark middle-century chapel (in which aesthetic sense was totally lacking), they seemed out of place and verging on the macabre.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was as boring a service as I've ever seen in my life – lifeless, tedious, and giving a sense that everyone there was strictly fulfilling a Sunday obligation.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The sermon was clearly well-prepared, including various literary references and examples to illustrate points. The problem was that there was no solid connection between the examples and points and the day's Gospel, which was about Christ's Transfiguration.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Transfiguration was intended to give the apostles hope during the days between Jesus's death and resurrection. Most of the references were to how faith sustains us in hard times, and how we need to be truly alive. One quotation, from George Bernard Shaw, was about how excellence attracts jealousy.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Poor though they were artistically, the murals of Mother Cabrini reminded me of how very much one can accomplish in spreading the gospel and serving the poor, whatever obstacles exist.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The congregation appeared comatose. I would have felt encouraged had others even joined me in wincing when the song leader hit the many sour notes.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. It was very crowded, and I somehow ended up next to two young women who were having a conversation on the topic of (shudder), "This place really pisses me off." All I could think of, was that I should like to present them with an unabridged dictionary, so that they could express their ire without references to the excretory system.

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)?
1 – It is difficult to describe how terribly boring this service was, with no sense of the holy, no awe, not even the warmth and charm I'd mistakenly expected at a shrine to the patroness of immigrants. Were I a Roman Catholic who lived nearby (I am neither), I would be glad there was a bus stop on the corner which would give me access to many other churches.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I suppose I'm always glad to be a Christian, but this was a rare service where I felt nothing at all.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The relaxing walk and peaceful time at the museum which I enjoyed afterwards.
The Mystery Worshipper is sponsored by, the internet service provider from Christian Aid. By offering email services, special offers with companies such as and, surefish raises more than £300,000 a year for Christian Aid's work around the world.

Click here to find out how to become a Mystery Worshipper. And click here if you would like to reproduce this report in your church magazine or website.

Top | Other Reports | Become a Mystery Worshipper!

© Ship of Fools 2002
Surefish logo