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||1196: St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Fishngrl.
The church: St Mary the Virgin, Times Square, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Episcopal Church in the USA.
The building: St Mary's dates from 1895 and was the first church
anywhere in the world to be constructed on a steel frame. Its elegant French
Gothic design is masked on the exterior by neighboring buildings but is
strikingly apparent on the inside. The interior was extensively cleaned
and restored in 1997. The ceiling is painted blue with golden stars, and
the sanctuary features an east-facing marble altar. The nave is a delight
to behold, with its many glorious frescoes and icons, an elegant baptistery,
and numerous side chapels. And the acoustics are perfect! This is a must-see
The church: Fondly but irreverently known as Smoky Mary's,
this church strives to be a witness to the Catholic Christian tradition
within the Anglican Church. Its music program includes the very best of
liturgical works throughout the centuries. The divine office is recited
each weekday in the morning, noon and evening, and mass is offered daily
at 12.10pm. Weekend services include a Saturday evening vigil mass, three
Sunday masses, and solemn evensong and benediction on Sunday evening.
The neighborhood: Snuggled in the middle of West 46th Street just
off Times Square, and within a thurible's swing of the theater district,
St Mary's is located in arguably one of the most bustling commercial and
tourist areas anywhere in the world.
The cast: The Rev. John Beddingfield, curate, was the celebrant,
assisted by the Rev. Matthew Mead, curate, and the Rev. James Ross Smith,
assisting priest. About 14 acolytes, including a crucifer and thurifer,
rounded out the altar party. Imagine the procession!
The date & time: March 1, 2006 (Ash Wednesday), 6.00pm.
What was the name of the service?
Ash Wednesday Solemn High Mass.
How full was the building?
Not quite one-half full. The church later posted on their website that 617 people attended the service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. An usher said, "If you're here for ashes, just go on up. Are you staying
for the mass? Good! The music will be wonderful." Whereupon he handed me
a service leaflet. After I had settled in, I noticed that this same usher
was checking on people who were already seated to ensure that they had bulletins.
A very friendly greeting, and the exchange of peace later on was friendly
Was your pew comfortable?
The unpadded pew was fairly comfortable and the angle of the pew back was
not overly severe. Kneelers were the old-style, barely-padded faux leather
type. Being short, I have difficulty kneeling in this kind of pew as the
backs of the pews are too tall.
How would you describe the pre-service
I arrived about 15 minutes before the service began, and dozens of people
were drifting in to pray at various side altars, light candles, or receive
ashes. The atmosphere was prayerful and reverent. Service participants, including
priests and acolytes, were busy making last-minute preparations, but they
took their roles seriously, reverencing the altar properly each time they
passed it. A young girl acolyte was being coached on where to stand at the
altar before the gospel procession; it turned out that she was the crucifer
as well as the bearer of the book.
What were the exact opening words of the
"The angel of the Lord announced unto Mary, and she conceived by the Holy Spirit," and into the Angelus we went.
What books did the congregation use during the
Everything, including service music and liturgical chant, was printed on
a well-prepared service leaflet. The liturgy came from the 1979 Book
of Common Prayer and hymns from the 1982 Hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
A grand Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, that company's opus 891.
Did anything distract you?
It was easy to be distracted, in the best way, by the reverence of both
the service participants and the congregation, the beauty of the worship
space, and the sound of the marvelous liturgy as sung by the choir. A baby
cried at times, which was hardly troublesome compared to the cell phone
that began to chirp as the celebrant said, "He stretched out his arms upon
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
Spikily Anglo-Catholic and as high up the candle as one can go (or at least
as this Episcopalian has experienced). The church is called Smoky Mary's
for good reason. Plumes of smoke wafted toward the ceiling and throughout
the nave. The priests faced the altar rather than the congregation, and
almost everyone kneeled for the eucharistic prayer. Wonderfully Anglo-Catholic
but not stuffy at all.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 Father Beddingfield preached a warm, concise, on-target sermon
completely without notes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
He spoke on the theme of ashes cleansing us of our sins, and used a story
from Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead to illustrate his point
about how there could be nothing cleaner than ashes to prepare us for God's
Which part of the service was like being in
Just about every bit of the service was heavenly. While some might think
of Anglo-Catholicism as being formal and stuffy, rather than approachable
liturgy, that's not how it is here. One moment especially stood out for
me: During the gospel procession, the young girl who bore the book opened
it up and placed the spine on her forehead, holding it steady at just the
right height and angle for Father Mead to chant the Word. It was a beautiful
gesture, and the warm look of approbation Father gave her for doing so well
was just priceless.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
This is a large, high-ceilinged gothic church, probably very expensive to
heat and impossible to keep adequately warm. I had visited before and had
been cold during the service, so this time I came prepared, wearing longjohns
and a sweater... And that cell phone going off during the eucharistic prayer
was inexcusable, although it was silenced pretty fast.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Father Beddingfield asked me my name and engaged me in small talk for a
moment or two. Several people nodded hello.
How would you describe the after-service
Coffee hour would not have been appropriate after an Ash Wednesday service, and there was none.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 I've visited here a couple of times in the past few months and
have been very warmly welcomed each time. The priests and congregation are
genuinely friendly, the congregation is diverse in terms of race, age, etc.
this could easily be my church home.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Very much so. I'm looking forward to visiting throughout Lent.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The girl holding the gospel book on her forehead and the priest's approving
smile. Every acolyte should be trained so well!
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