|813: St Ann's, Bronx, New York City, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Ralegh.
The church: St Ann's, Bronx, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: St Ann's is a small stone church built around 1841. It is a National Historic site and the second-oldest church in the Bronx. It was built by Gouvernor Morris II in honor of his mother Ann Cary Randolph Morris, who is buried with her husband, Gouvernor (the penman of the US Constitution), in a crypt in the churchyard. The nave holds perhaps 250 people and is simple in structure and decoration. There are many beautiful 19th century stained glass windows.
The church: The church is located in the poorest congressional district in the United States. Mother Overall is a neighborhood activist and the church runs an afterschool program, a drug rehabilitation program and a food pantry. There is a playground with swings (the only swings in the neighborhood) on the church property. Mother Overall and other workers at the church have been featured in a couple of books about the South Bronx by Jonathan Kozol.
The neighbourhood: There are numerous subsidized housing complexes of tall apartment towers, some single-family homes built in the 1980s with fenced in driveways, a long commercial strip of bodegas, fast-food restaurants, and small independent stores selling all sorts of clothing, kitchen products, and CDs. The population is almost exclusively Hispanic and/or black.
The cast: Mother Martha Overall, two nuns in habits, three young (under 10 years old) acolytes carrying candles and the cross, and one older acolyte acting as thurifer who is apparently Mother Overall's adopted son.
What was the name of the service?
10.00am Holy Eucharist in English. (There's a Spanish Eucharist at 12:00).
How full was the building?
Pretty empty: 25 to 30 people.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
A gentleman sat outside the church and when I asked him where the main entrance was he pointed to the front of the church which had a cross over the entryway. "Follow the cross," he said. "Follow the cross to salvation."
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden benches with worn red cushions. I could have used a bit more cushioning. However, the kneelers were individual cushions covered in some sort of leather-like material and were very pleasant to kneel upon.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The nuns were leading those people in the church in a runthrough of the hymns we would be singing in the service. People came in and took their seats with a friendly wave to neighbors.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning and welcome to St Ann's Church on this fifth Sunday of Lent."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Although the hymnal and Book of Common Prayer were available in racks behind the seats, the entire service was in the pamphlet, except for a few blessings and prayers, which the congregants seemed to have memorized.
What musical instruments were played?
A piano and a trumpet. As people entered, the nuns distributed drums, bells, and rattles which the congregants played as they sang the hymns. A man stood at the piano and sang, not solo, but helping set the tempo for the congregation.
Did anything distract you?
During communion, a baby near me started crying. Eventually one of the nuns came over and entertained the child with a set of keys. Then as the mother took communion, the nun held the baby at the piano during the singing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Generally a formal service, but with spirited hymn singing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
To be honest, I was so caught up that I forgot to check my watch at the end. I would estimate about 15 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 Although Mother Overall read her entire sermon, she was very expressive, using the full range of her voice and spirited gestures.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The parable of the orchard owner and the ungrateful tenants (Luke 20:9-19). Mother Martha pointed out that this obviously is just a story, because who in their right mind would send their beloved son to see the tenants after the previous tax collectors had been treated so badly? Only God. By killing the owner's son, the tenants hoped to steal the orchards, just as by killing Jesus, the people tried to ignore God's commands and make the world their own. We have to go through the passion to get to the salvation of the resurrection.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
During the peace and the offering, the man leading the singing was joined by two women and together they produced exceptionally heavenly music.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Although the singing was spirited, and there was a lot of effort by the nuns to get everyone to join in, the accompaniment was hard to follow. It looks like they could do with a new piano (probably low on their budget priorities), and the placement of the musicians could probably be better acoustically. These are not professional musicians, although I am sure the church is glad to have their help.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the service, I was actually lost. Half the people seemed to go one way and half the other, so I wasn't sure where the "back" of the church was. I hung about for awhile and suddenly everyone was gone.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't think there was any. I didn't see any indication of after-service coffee. I believe the food pantry opens after the Spanish service, but I don't think you could call that "coffee."
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 The only problem is the long commute. If I wasn't already so attached to my present church, I'd definitely consider driving to this one. I do intend to return.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Absolutely, yes. This church is a safe place that provides its people with a feeling of self-worth, nutritious food, and a loving community; things which are in short supply in this neighborhood. This church exemplifies Christ's teaching.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
At the announcements at the end of the service, Mother Overall stood with her hands on the shoulders of a young acolyte, Paula, who was celebrating her birthday this week. She spoke of how bright and good Paula was and asked us to pray that Paula would have the opportunity to use her talents to achieve all she deserves and desires. Paula looked shyly at her feet the whole time. I'll remember this for weeks to come.