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925: St Margaret's, Staatsburg, New York, USA
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St Margaret's, Staatsburg, New York, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: St Margaret's, Staatsburg, New York, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Built in 1892, St Margaret's is a small church set in a lush green shady park. The building is of grey fieldstone, with sandstone trim. The interior features a great deal of stained glass, with dark wood arches and ribbing in the ceiling. The high altar is of white marble, in front of which sits an oak communion table. To the left of the sanctuary is a small tracker organ with faux pipes on its case front. Choir stalls face the congregation. The nave is lit by ceiling chandeliers and tastefully recessed modern track lighting. Memorial plaques can be found almost everywhere, and read like the Who's Who of the Monied Class of late 19th century America.
The church: I could not determine very much about the active life of the church, except that it administers several programs to aid the homeless.
The neighbourhood: The tiny hamlet of Staatsburg lies in beautiful Dutchess County, New York, on the east bank of the Hudson River, about 85 miles north of New York City. In 1609, the English seaman Henry Hudson, exploring on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, found a broad, deep channel of water at what is now New York Bay. In 1623, the Dutch purchased the land surrounding "Hudson's River" from the Native Americans and quickly settled the area, calling it New Netherland. In 1664, King Charles of England granted his brother, James, Duke of York, vast American territories that included all of New Netherland. The Dutch, lacking adequate defenses, were forced to surrender the colony to the English, who promptly renamed it New York. In 1683, New York established its first 12 counties, including Dutchess, named in honor of the Duchess of York (with an alteration in spelling). By 1697, lawful patents had been granted for every foot of Hudson River shoreline in the County. Thus was established Staatsburg, which even today boasts only about 900 residents. The Hudson River valley is an area of great natural splendor, and as such quickly became a haven for the wealthy. Prominent families such as Vanderbilt, Astor, Mills, Roosevelt, Hoyt and Dinsmore all built lavish estates there, many of which are now national parks. There is no doubt that a significant portion of this wealth ended up in endowments to St Margaret's Church.
The cast: Rev. Frank Alagna, rector, celebrant; Rev. Carolyn Verbeck-Brindle, deacon. The crucifer, whose name was not given, was the oldest person I have ever seen occupy this office; he reminded me of the little old asylum inmate who took on the role of acolyte in the cult classic film King of Hearts.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday eucharist.

How full was the building?
There were about 25 people present. I would estimate that the church can comfortably hold about 100 people, or about 150 if they packed them in.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Father Alagna and Deacon Verbeck-Brindle were puttering about the sanctuary before mass, and both came down and introduced themselves to me when they saw me enter and settle into a pew. They both asked where I was vacationing from and what the name of my home parish church was. I lived in Staatsburg for the first seven years of my life, and I conveyed that fact to them. Other than that, members of the congregation nodded and smiled as they entered, but offered me no greeting.

Was your pew comfortable?
The angle of the back was a little severe, but not excessively so. Small cushions served as kneelers; I always find it difficult to position these just right for comfortable kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The congregation stood about in small groups, visiting loudly with each other without acknowledging the stranger in their midst. The organist doodled at the keyboard – I expected that at any moment he would find Sir Arthur Sullivan's Lost Chord.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed be God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
1979 Prayer Book; 1982 Hymnal. There was no service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?
The tracker organ – a small instrument, in good tune, competently played.

Did anything distract you?
Staatsburg was a whistle stop on the old New York Central Railroad, and Amtrak trains still speed through town, their whistles howling. Several trains passed through during the service. The natives are quite used to this, but it did bring back a childhood memory.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was typical Episcopalian Rite 2, with deviations as noted below. The congregation was very much attuned to the service, and the overall atmosphere was one of intense personal involvement.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
22 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Alagna did not preach from the pulpit, but rather set a lectern up in front of the sanctuary. He spoke with an intensely personal tone, as if he were a loving father holding his children on his knee in front of the fire.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
"You'll never see a hearse towing a U-Haul." Our lifetime material accomplishments (on which we base self-worth) will all vanish. Exactly what do we value in life – and before we answer that question, we should examine our checkbooks and social calendars for the past month. What have we spent money and time on? Do we want to share our good fortune with the poor, or do we subscribe to the belief that the poor could better themselves if they worked harder? St Ambrose said that one cannot give charity to the poor – one can only return to the poor what is theirs by right. St Paul reminds us that what we should value are compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, etc.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was inspired by the overall tone of intense personal involvement that the congregation seemed to exhibit. I also enjoyed Father Alagna's preaching style as well as the subject of his sermon.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I mentioned that the service was essentially Rite 2 with deviations. Odd parts were chanted – e.g. the collect but not the gloria. Oddest of all, Father Alagna chanted the words of the consecration, which were echoed by the congregation, to a tune that sounded every bit like that marching ditty military troops sing during exercises ("I don't know but I've been told," etc.) The sanctus and agnus Dei were sung to some modern jingles that were not available on a handout – the congregation knew them from memory. I do not begrudge the congregation this, as they were clearly worshipping with intense feeling, but casting aside the perfectly adequate and varied service music in the hymnal for the notebook scribblings of some amateur just doesn't work for me.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Father Alagna made his announcements after the final blessing and dismissal. He introduced me as a visitor, mentioning that I had been born and raised in Staatsburg but had moved away at the age of seven. This sparked several members of the congregation to come up to me afterwards to inquire about who my family was and what house we had lived in.

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)?
7 – I am essentially an old-fashioned soul, and the liturgy was just a tad too experimental for my comfort level. But the congregation seemed to be a very tight-knit group of people, and they clearly think the world of the leadership their clergy is offering them.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Going to church generally does, regardless of the details.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The words of the consecration chanted to "I don't know but I've been told."
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