|969: St Alban's, Staten Island, New York, USA|
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Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: St Alban's Episcopal, Staten Island, New York.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Located in the Eltingville neighborhood of New York City's borough of Staten Island, St Alban's is an immaculately preserved wooden American Civil War vintage country church that dates from 1865 and was moved to its present location in 1873. The interior features cream-colored walls with very dark dusty rose beams and ribbing. The apse is painted the same dusty rose, with stained glass windows in which the dominant color is blue. There is no high altar, but a communion table sits in the center of the sanctuary, with sediliae and credence table arranged about the apse. To the left of the sanctuary is a small tracker organ with ornately painted diapason pipes at the front of its case. The nave windows are of plain stained glass. The church is illuminated by chandeliers and wall sconces that resemble gas lamps. The pervasive theme is of an old-fashioned 19th century church. Walt Whitman would have been quite at home worshiping here. If President Lincoln's funeral train had passed through Staten Island, I'm sure that St Alban's with its tracker organ would have been one of the "dim-lit churches, the shuddering organs" that Whitman described in his poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed."
The church: The church sponsors a Music at St Alban's concert series and provides meeting space for many community groups, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous, and several adult social clubs.
The neighbourhood: I have written at length about Staten Island in my report on St John's Episcopal Church. The Eltingville neighborhood is in the southern part of the island and is an unremarkable mixture of strip malls and working class residential streets.
The cast: The Rev. Frederick W. Schraplau, rector, was the celebrant. Assisting Father Schraplau were Thom Solieri, verger, and Jeffrey Hoffman, organist. The names of the acolytes, servers, and lectors were not given.
What was the name of the service?
Holy Eucharist, 17th Sunday after Pentecost.
How full was the building?
The church holds about 150 people and was about three-quarters full. The congregation was mostly young to middle aged, with some old folk. It was refreshing to see a congregation of this mix so many churches are tilted toward the old folk.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. But I was a bit on the early side, and after I had settled in I realized that the altar party had assembled in the rear of the church and were greeting worshipers as they arrived.
Was your pew comfortable?
No, it was not deep enough. However, the kneelers were the long plank-style and were not attached to the pews in front of them, and so could easily be positioned for maximum kneeling comfort.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The usual quiet visiting. For his prelude, the organist, Mr Hoffman, improvised on Abbot's Leigh, which was to be the opening hymn.
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, service leaflet.
What musical instruments were played?
The tracker organ. Mr Hoffman is a young man and a skilled organist. His registrations coaxed much beautiful sound out of the small tracker organ, especially during his solos, although I thought the congregational singing could have used a bit more support.
Did anything distract you?
Father Schraplau resembled an old friend, now deceased, God rest his soul. An infant whined and babbled throughout the entire service. The choir's robes were of a color that exactly matched the dusty rose of the apse, and when Father mentioned during his sermon the "fine linen and purple robes worn by the wealthy," I couldn't help but wonder if the choir caught the reference.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Typical dignified Episcopalian Rite II. There was a strong sense of community worship.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 Father Schraplau was obviously preaching from notes, but he did his best to make it sound extemporaneous. His premise was clear and his argument well developed. I thought his remarks bordered on hell and brimstone, but we complacent Christians (myself included) need a little shaking up sometimes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father preached on the Gospel of the day (Luke 16:19-31, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man). Today's readings evoke sympathy for the poor. It is not a sin to be rich, any more than it is true that being poor ensures one's salvation. But to be poor in spirit is to know where you stand in relation to God. The rich cannot neglect charity, lest their riches possess them instead of the other way around. The rich man in the Gospel lesson did not think he was doing anything wrong but then again he wasn't doing much of anything good either. We see Lazarus every day on the streets of our cities, and we must heed God's commandment to do charity or else!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sanctus was the familiar Schubert setting, taken at a reasonable tempo and with a proper range of dynamics. It's really quite pretty done this way not the jump-rope jingle many organists make it sound like.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The choir consisted of four brave souls. They tried their best, the dears, to do an anthem, but just couldn't project any sound, especially with their noses buried in their music folders.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I stood in my pew looking confused, and then moved to the back where I studied the baptismal font and rustled some leaflets in the pamphlet rack, and now and then looked up and smiled at the others as they filed out, but no one made eye contact or said a word to me except, that is, one old lady who grabbed my arm (as old ladies do) and told me she hoped I'd come back.
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 If I lived in that neighborhood I probably would. I could thrive in a quaint, old-fashioned church like that. The choir could go places if it had a few more members. The liturgy was most dignified and respectful. I'm of a mind to go back once or twice and remain aloof from the congregation, as they remained aloof from me, and let them begin to wonder just who that "mystery worshipper" is. But alas, it's too much of a trip for me from Brooklyn, especially with winter on the way.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The service? Yes. The congregation? They certainly didn't help, but I didn't let them faze me.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How lovely the Schubert sanctus sounded at the proper tempo.