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2823: St Augustine, Phoenix, Arizona, USA
St Augustine, Phoenix, AZ (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Old Rackensack.
The church: St Augustine, Phoenix, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Phoenix.
The building: Dating from 1972, it is a plain but tidy looking brick building on a lot with some trees. The inside is large and mostly windowless, but bright thanks to plenty of chandeliers. The walls are beige, the floor white tile. A large crucifix hangs over the altar, on either side of which are statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin attended by angels. Angels also guard the tabernacle. There is a shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, obligatory in Mexican-American parishes.
The church: They are a bilingual congregation who appear to emphasize Spanish over English (they celebrate five masses in Spanish each Sunday but only one in English, with Saturday vigil masses in each language). They sponsor a Bible school based on a program developed at the Bible Institute of Guadalajara, Mexico, which (paraphrasing from their website) explores where, when and under what circumstances the Word of God was written, with exegesis and interpretation of texts according to the Magisterium of the Church. They also sponsor a care ministry, a charismatic prayer group, a prayer and life workshop, and the Guadalupanos, who promote devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The neighborhood: They are located on 71st Avenue just south of Indian School Road in the Maryvale neighborhood of Phoenix – a predominantly Hispanic area with a reputation for street crime and drugs, although a concerted effort by the police to improve the area has had quite a bit of success. Working-class private homes and apartment communities are the church’s immediate neighbors.
The cast: The Revd Carlos Gomez-Rivera, pastor, assisted by a server. Two other priests and a nun came out to help with the distribution of communion and the imposition of ashes. Father Gomez-Rivera was vested in an elegant purple chasuble but no alb – he wore the chasuble over his cassock! The server was in cassock and surplice; the assisting priests in alb and purple stole, and the nun in street clothes plus a pectoral cross.
The date & time: Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015, 12.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
It was billed on their website as Liturgy of the Word with Imposition of Ashes, but it was actually a mass.

How full was the building?
Completely full, with people standing out on the porch. A goodly mix of all ages, men and women.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – padded (rare in a Catholic church, in my experience).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A buzzy undertone of quiet visiting. Just before mass began, a gentleman came out to take his place at the piano and rehearse us in the psalm versicle and other songs.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Muy bueno. Gracias por venir” (Very good. Thanks for coming) – this by the pianist before he began his rehearsal.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None.

What musical instruments were played?
A digital piano in the shape of a baby grand. I thought the piano stop sounded rather electric, and at one point the pianist drew a string stop. He played very well, though.

Did anything distract you?
There was the usual chorus of crying babies, which eventually got so loud that I had trouble concentrating on the words of the liturgy – which was hard enough to begin with, as everything was in Spanish and I am still struggling to learn the language.

St Augustine, Phoenix, AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A mass in Spanish, with all the usual sung bits. Everything took place in a highly dignified manner. The music was not the typical “Singing Nun Goes South of the Border” stuff you generally hear in Mexican-American congregations, but rather of the easy-listening variety similar to the St Louis Jesuit school, but all in Spanish – rather nice, actually. The pianist sang in a beautiful tenor voice, but congregational singing was non-existent for the most part – perhaps it would have been better had music sheets been supplied.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Gomez-Rivera spoke clearly and without undue emotion. His Spanish was a little fast for me, but I think I got the gist of it.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Today we begin the season of Lent, which culminates in the feast of Easter, the most important feast of the church year. Lent is repeated every year. It is a time to examine our conscience, for our heart to make a confession. We must not simply go through the motions or make a show of our devotion, but we should let it be a personal experience, a conversation between ourself and God. If we change our ways, we can become a better person.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Just before the exchange of peace, Father looked up and told us that because of the widespread flu and measles that are going around, we should limit ourselves to shaking hands at the peace – no kissing! But if we must kiss, then not on the lips.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
During communion, one man stood in the aisle looking obviously confused. Father motioned for him to come forward to receive the Host, but he hesitated and finally stood aside to let others pass. He continued to stand in the aisle not knowing what to do. I mention this not because it was hellish in and of itself – the poor man was clearly challenged in some way – but because no one thought to help him.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The ashes were blessed and imposed and people left. There was no post-service visiting or conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. I hadn't expected a mass and so hadn't had lunch, thinking I'd stop for some after getting my ashes. And so my stomach was growling by the time I got home.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I am not Hispanic, nor do I live in the Maryvale neighborhood. But I see lots of potential in this parish. Everything was done with dignity and without excess, and I got the feeling that this congregation would welcome the opportunity to take someone like myself under their wing – maybe not on Ash Wednesday, though.

St Augustine, Phoenix, AZ (Consecration)

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
First, no kissing, please, we’re Catholic. Second, that Father didn’t wear an alb.
 
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