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993: St Peter's, Albany, New York, USA
Other reports | Comment on this report
St Peter's, Albany, New York, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Ralegh.
The church: St Peter's, Albany, New York, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: Built in 1859, St Peter's is a large stone church in the French Gothic style. It is the third church the parish has had, the original having been built in 1715. There are numerous stained glass windows; those behind the altar depict events in St Peter's life. Lord Augustus Howe, a British general who died in 1758, is buried under the vestibule. The majestic marble altar depicts two angels praying at the foot of the cross and was sculpted by Louis St Gaudens in 1885. A replica of the silver communion set given by Queen Anne is on display. Apparently there was a dispute over ownership of this set, as Queen Anne had given it to a missionary for "her Chappell of the Mohawks."  (The Mohawks were one of the Native American tribes who originally occupied the area.)  When the Mohawks died out, the silver ended up in the hands of the Onondaga Indians.  The Crown's colonial representatives relieved the Onondagas of the communion set and gave it to the new chapel in 1715.
The church: St Peter's is very conscious of its history in the region.  Its stated mission includes preserving its heritage as well as providing Christian education and meeting the spiritual needs of the parish. The church maintains a thrift shop that donates its profits to community service agencies.
The neighborhood: Albany is the capital of New York State. St Peter's is located in downtown Albany, just down the block from the Capitol and Empire Plaza (the site of many government offices), the State Museum, a performing arts center, and a collection of modern art.  The area is not at all residential.
The cast: The Rev. Paul J. Hartt, rector, Mr Neil K. Keen, organist, and an unidentified middle-aged server.
What was the name of the service?
Holy Communion.

How full was the building?
Mostly empty, about 30 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A man handing out leaflets wished me good morning, as did a woman waiting at the back of the church.

Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pews with red cushions and individual leather kneelers. Not bad for sitting, but space was tight for kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet and reverential. Some people were kneeling in prayer; others were waiting quietly for the service to begin.

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 Book of Common Prayer and the 1940 Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which has been superseded by the 1982 Hymnal in other churches I have attended. The older hymnal uses a very ornate typeface and the wording seems dated.

What musical instruments were played?
A large pipe organ.

Did anything distract you?
It was chilly in the church (and very cold outside), so I spent the first moments of the service more concerned about warming my hands than following the liturgy.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very stiff upper lip. The rector was very formal and exact in his pronunciation as he intoned the liturgy. This appears to be an old-fashioned church and proud of it.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Hartt, so stiff and formal in his recitation of the liturgy, became quite relaxed and warm in his delivery of the sermon. He has been rector for less than six months, but seems to have developed a solid connection with the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The history of confirmation and its relation to taking communion. Confirmation became separate from baptism when the candidates became too numerous for bishops to baptize all at once. And as the age for confirmation has generally gotten older over time, the question of how old one should be to take communion has also arisen. Father Hartt suggested that when a child should first take communion is a decision the parents may be entrusted to make, as they know best when a child is ready to understand the significance of the sacrament. There certainly is no requirement that one be confirmed before taking communion, and Father Hartt would not recommend waiting until that time to do so.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Going up to take communion surrounded by all the beautiful stained glass, the ornate white altar, and the half-domed ceiling painted to look like the sky above – all this made me feel as if I were entering heaven.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Having to kneel throughout the communion service in the aforementioned tight quarters produced a dull ache in my legs that was not helpful in maintaining a prayerful attitude.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Father Hartt noticed me loitering by the pamphlet rack and called out a greeting. He then promptly invited me to coffee and showed me how to find where it was being served.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was served in an elegant room appointed with period furniture, paintings, and a large tapestry. Regular coffee, decaf, and tea were served in paper cups, along with a single fruit Danish cut up into small pieces. I was immediately hailed and taken in hand by several parishioners, whom I would have to rank among the friendliest people I have ever met at church.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I definitely would make this my church if I lived in the area.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I thought long and hard during the service about this question, and felt that although I appreciated the service, it did not make me feel glad to be a Christian. Perhaps this was because I was sitting up front and wasn't able to see the other parishioners without turning my head. It was almost like attending an empty church. Once I got to the coffee hour, however, I felt just the opposite, because I was in community with these wonderful people.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The warm farewells I received as I left the coffee hour.
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