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Christi, New York City
Worshipper: Acton Bell.
Christi, New York City.
of New York.
A rather plain brick Georgian Revival, not unlike dozens of
banks or post offices built in the 1930s, both compact and multipurpose.
It houses a chapel, convent and elementary school. The nondescript,
unremarkable exterior belies quite an extraordinary chapel.
Evoking the 18th century without becoming a pastiche, it features
black and white marble floors, crystal chandeliers, white painted
woodwork, and an elaborate reredos with an oversized structure
on the ceiling suggestive of a baldacchino. There are a couple
of strange architectural quirks, which I imagine are work-arounds
for the tight quarters. The choir is a small, separate room
to the right of the central altar, and the pulpit is accessed
through this room up a flight of stairs with a door opening
out to the congregation.
While working on a master's thesis on William Blake at Columbia
University, the noted writer and mystic Thomas Merton began
attending Corpus Christi, where he was baptized November 16,
1938. Corpus Christi hosts a chapter of the International Thomas
Merton Society, and many, influenced by his teachings, come
here to be baptized. To accommodate the many Spanish-speaking
congregants, they have masses in Spanish every day and on Sunday,
as well as prayer groups, social organizations and book clubs.
For the English speakers there is a centering prayer group,
the Legion of Mary, and various classes. There is also a school
operated by the Dominican
Sisters of Sinsinawa.
This is Morningside Heights, the highest point on Manhattan
Island, and the scene of much fighting during the Revolutionary
War. Largely farmland until the end of the 19th century, the
area was developed in the early 20th to serve as the city's
Acropolis: it is home to St Luke's Hospital, the Cathedral of
St John the Divine, and a large number of educational institutions,
e.g. Columbia University, Barnard College, Bank Street College
of Education, Union Theological Seminary, St Hilda's & St Hugh's
School, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and the
Manhattan School of Music, to name only a few. No wonder the
area is sometimes called College Town! Morningside Heights was
particularly hard hit by urban decline in the postwar years,
but Columbia University has steadily been buying up property
and is now the largest landowner in the neighborhood, not without
some controversy. Yet, despite gentrification, the area remains
an odd mix of college students and faculty and the working-class,
many of whom are Spanish speakers.
The Revd Raymond M. Rafferty, pastor. There were four acolytes
two boys and two girls, and two readers, all unnamed.
The date & time:
November 12, 2011, 11.15am.
What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass (Commemoration of 73rd Anniversary of the Baptism
of Thomas Merton).
How full was the building?
About 80. It was a veritable sea of gray hair, tweed, and twin
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The person handing out service bulletins and Liber Cantualis
said a perfunctory hello.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews are a bit unusual, as the backs and sides are very
high, giving the illusion of 18th century box pews, but they
were very comfortable.
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
Pretty busy there was lots of quiet catching up going
What were the exact opening
words of the service?
The introit of the day, in Latin: Dicit Dominus: Ego cogito
cogitationes pacis, et non afflictionis (Thus says the
Lord: I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction).
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
Liber Cantualis, published by the monks of the Abbaye
Saint-Pierre de Solesmes in France, and long the standard for
parishes wishing to incorporate Latin chant into their liturgical
celebrations; The Catholic Hymnal 1966; and a one-page
order of the service. Seasonal Missalette and Flor
y Canto (A Spanish hymnal) were in the pews but weren't
What musical instruments
A very nice sounding Holtkamp organ, opus 1692, the first Holtkamp
installed in Manhattan. There was also a professional choir
of eight singers. The Kyrie and Agnus Dei were from Byrd's Mass
for Five Voices and sung by the choir. The introit, Gloria,
responsorial psalm, creed, Sanctus and communion antiphon were
chanted in Latin.
Did anything distract
The interior is so unusual it was hard not to get distracted
trying to spot the next bit of "ye olde". There were dedications
and graphic elements painted on the windows in 18th century
script. The paten and chalice were pewter and looked vintage
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
My friend, a cradle Catholic, turned to me at one point and
whispered, "Are they Presbyterian?" And while they weren't quite
the "frozen chosen," there was a decided Protestant chill, as
it was definitely more like attending an Anglo-Catholic service
than a Roman one. They even did Purcell's Funeral Sentences
for Queen Mary as one of the anthems. It was definitely
a liturgical hybrid, with the only nod to the novus ordo
being the priest facing the congregation. There was incense,
the gospel was censed on the pulpit, and there was a sanctus
bell. The Lord's Prayer was chanted and many in the congregation
used the orans posture, a charismatic touch that seemed unconnected
to the rest of the liturgy. Communion was in both kinds, also
unusual in Catholic churches in New York City.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Father Rafferty is a quite engaging, speaking with
energy and conviction. Given the length of his sermon, I was
definitely left wanting a bit more.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
He was unpacking the day's lesson, Matthew 25:14-30, the parable
of the talents, and relating that to the life of Thomas Merton.
He argued that Merton was one of the lucky few to receive five
talents, risking much at his baptism, becoming a Catholic when
it wasn't necessarily the thing to do, yet he worked hard to
multiply his gifts, often in the face of extraordinary rejection.
Which part of the service was like being in
The Purcell Thou Knowest, Lord, the Secrets of our Heart
is always pretty moving to me, and it was sung very well.
And which part was like
being in... er... the other place?
There were a couple of folks who were jumping the gun and using
the responses from the new Roman Missal, while everyone else
was using the old ones. There was one gentleman who was particularly
aggressive (loud!) about it. It also took a minute for it register
exactly what was what. My first thought was that they were using
the Rite 1 responses in the Book of Common Prayer.
Also, there was a notice in the bulletin calling on the congregation
to write to the community board to block renaming West 121st
Street in honor of the outspoken stand-up comedian George Carlin
because of his "anti-religious rants, advocacy of substance
abuse, and other misanthropic tirades." Carlin apparently
grew up on the block and attended the church and parish school,
and credited the school for giving him the tools to reject his
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. Nada. Not a thing. I read on their website that there
was a coffee hour after mass, but no mention was made in the
service bulletin or during the announcements, so I had no idea
where that would be. Nobody approached us, so we left.
How would you describe the after-service
My friend and I both had a craving for a gin and tonic (go figure),
which we satisfied elsewhere.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 It really is a lovely church and lovingly cared for,
but somehow its just not very me.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. I always marvel at the wide variety of liturgies that make
up the mosaic of worship.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The arrangement of the pulpit, accessed via a door from the
side room. Father Rafferty popping out of the door into the
pulpit just seemed so theatrical!
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