|532: St Mary Magdalene, Toronto, Ontario, Canada|
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Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut.
The church: St Mary Magdalene, Ulster and Manning Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Denomination: Anglican Church of Canada.
The building: A combination of Edwardian redbrick Gothic parish church with a basilica-style sanctuary, a huge rood cross hanging in the middle of the apse, and a fascinating collection of art.
The church: This is one of the flagship churches of catholicism in Anglican Canada, and a rare example of a church under this saint's patronage.
The neighbourhood: A residential inner-city neighbourhood, built around the turn of the last century and once one of the centres of European Judaism in Canada; now an Asian and African shtetl. Only one of the old synagogues still operates, and a neighbouring Anglican church features services in Spanish and French. St Mary Magdalene's offers a ministry in Italian.
The cast: Celebrant: Fr. Jonathan Eayrs, the associate priest (I think) and a dignified older acolyte/reader/subdeacon.
What was the name of the service?
Said Mass, Third Sunday in Advent.
How full was the building?
I was attending 8.00am low mass in St Joseph's chapel, in the north apse, and there were about a dozen in the space, which might have fit about 60. There were two women, one about 35, and the other in her late 50s, and the other worshippers were males in the 55-65 range. Including the acolyte/reader, two were black; the rest of us melanin-challenged.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Given the joys of moving around Toronto on public transport early on a Sunday morning, I was fortunate not to be more than a few minutes late, and so missed out on any chance at being welcomed.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pew was fine; the kneeler, however, was so well varnished and polished (and penitentially lacking any upholstery), that a sneeze almost sent me shooting into a bank of votive candles at the side. I counsel visitors against denim, satin or slippery fabrics.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
I refer you to my chronic lateness...
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Good question. I was probably sprinting up Manning Street from the Carlton streetcar at the time of the comfortable words.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Copies of the Book of Common Prayer were available, but everyone in the congregation seemed to be following the liturgy from memory, participating fully and without hesitation.
What musical instruments were played?
As it was a low mass, there was no music. However, St Mary Magdalene's has a reputation for an excellent choir, and was the home of the late Healy Willan, one of Canada's finest church musicians, after whom a local park is named.
Did anything distract you?
Everything was smooth and efficient, but I do refer you to my comments under The Other Place.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The Holy Mysteries took the form of a modern/traditional anglo-catholic low mass. The priest was properly vested and the acolyte/reader, an older man, gave a competently relaxed but no-nonsense performance. Those present were clearly used to the approach, and crossed themselves as one. Instead of the prayers for our sovereign, he prayed for the government of Afghanistan (arguably, they could use all of the divine assistance available). The Sacrament was received standing, and the priest communicated one of the parishioners in Italian.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 Sensible and down to earth, but requiring a bit too much focus for me that early in the morning.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He was about halfway through before I realized that I needed to listen more carefully. He made some interesting references to St John the Baptist in prison, and how, for all of us, our prison time could be a period of waiting patiently and faithfully. Not all waiting time was naturally like this, and we had to use our "prison time" as an opportunity to train our eyes and our hearts.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The tranquillity and stillness of a fresh morning, with a small group of people gathered about the altar. It reminded me of my university days, of the Mysteries in a small side-chapel
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
To my left, there was a six- or seven-foot painting of Our Lord as a young adolescent, with bunnies and small beasts at his feet, smiling into the sun. It brought to mind a children's book illustration by the sort of artist whom one would not have trusted around one's own children, and it made me shudder. While not a whitewashing iconoclast, I hope some generous soul will fork out for a tapestry of some edifying subject to cover it up. I have since learned that the fresco was by the noted artist Sylvia Hahn (whose frieze at the Royal Ontario Museum entranced me as a child, and still does) and I hasten to add that her character is beyond reproach. But the painting still gave me the chills.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The celebrant clearly recognized me as a visitor and chatted with me about the neighbourhood's history. I expressed interest in the statue of St Joseph by the chapel altar, and he took time to show me the woodcarving on the altar, which featured Jewish immigrant figures from the neighbourhood at the time of the altar's construction after World War II. As he saw that I was interested in the artwork around the building, he found me a leaflet on the topic, and showed me the startling but somehow effective statue of Mary Magdalene at the side entrance, which had been made by a student in 1969. The saint appeared as a street person of her period, poor, troubled, and now being transformed. One began to think about looking differently at our own street people, walking about Toronto, and wondering which of them were also saints.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None, as folk were beginning to zoom about the place, prepping for the 9.30 sung mass, and at Mary Magdalene's they pull out all the stops. Refreshments in the form of Mexican hot chocolate were to be found at the nearby kitchen of a modern dance friend, recuperating from a bike accident, and we whispered over our chocolate, reluctant to wake her resting companion in the next room.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 Although I think I would have to live nearby to compensate for early-morning transit challenges. I have a feeling that this church could grow on me. Since I attended, I found out that my late grandmother went to services here for a few years after World War II.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, I left calmer than when I arrived, and enjoyed stepping through the snow (so rare in semi-tropical Toronto!) and the morning stillness.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Taking a great deal of trouble to direct my eyes away from the horrid painting on my left, and finding that they were always drawn to the great medivalish rood cross hanging in the centre of the church.