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3113: St Elias, Birmingham, Alabama, USA
St Elias, Birmingham, AL (exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: William Dewy.
The church: St Elias, Birmingham, Alabama, USA.
Denomination: Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch, Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. The Maronite Church is a Catholic church in the Antiochene tradition in full communion with the Vatican.
he building: The brick building has a rather spacious nave and a semicircular raised altar area with a panorama of stained glass windows. The worship space is a wonderful blend of color from the stained glass and white from the altar and tabernacle. There is a central tower over the entrance of the church with prominent windows shaped like the Star of David and clock faces above. There is also a stone worked into the porch that is engraved with “Saint Elias Maronite Church / Roman Catholic / This is Lebanese Stone.”
The church: There is much pride in the congregation’s Lebanese roots; cedars are part of a motif in other buildings on the church campus. The congregation seemed like a close community of several extended families, but that’s only a first impression of one who doesn’t know.
The neighborhood: The church is in the Glen Iris neighborhood in the South side of Birmingham, not far from the University of Alabama Birmingham. Interstate 65 is rather close to the church. I wondered if that tends to cut the church off from the neighborhood. There didn’t seem to be much activity apart from the parish.
The cast: Chorbishop Richard D. Saad, pastor, served as celebrant and preacher. Mark C. Ferris, O.D., was subdeacon.
The date & time: Saturday, February 4, 2017, 5.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Liturgy.

How full was the building?
I would guess 150 to 175 or more people were present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The closest was when the woman next to me showed me the service book opened to the right page.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pew and its fold-down kneeler were quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The congregation were quiet and reverent while happily recognizing one another. There were smiles and little waves all around. The people appeared very well dressed with more than a little “bling” in some of the ladies’ costumes. It felt as if I was at a ballroom dance waiting for the orchestra to commence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening. This is the Week of the Priests."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Offering According to the Rite of the Antiochene Syriac Maronite Church. Also in the pews was a hymnal entitled Cedars of Lebanon but it wasn’t used during the service.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ, rather nicely if unobtrusively played. There was also a choir of ten or twelve voices who sang hymns and canticles in Syriac.

Did anything distract you?
The parish was celebrating the Feast of St Maron, which is February 9. There seemed to be some secret knowledge about the evening. Certain remarks about “downstairs” after the service were made, but it seemed to be expected that everybody was already informed.

St Elias, Birmingham, AL (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was lovely, neither too fast to be reverent nor too slow to be ponderous, and used a lot of traditional chant in Middle-Eastern tones. Even though I am unfamiliar with these church modes of music, I felt richly blessed to hear them sung by the sacred ministers and the schola.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The chorbishop has a fatherly demeanor.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon talked about St Maron, priest and hermit. The two great ministries of any priest are to preach the faith and to care for the souls of the people.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The physical acts of reverence: manual blessings were done by the priest holding a crucifix or icon. I was particularly impressed by the passing of the peace radiating from the altar through the priest and to the servers and on to the congregation. When the person on the aisle received the peace from the subdeacon, he passed the peace on to the next person. I was reminded of lighting congregation candles at the Easter Vigil or Candlemas.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The thought that I was an outsider bereft of secret knowledge. Even though a practicing Catholic, I didn’t know the responses or the liturgical dance steps. The prevailing sentiment might be that everyone who wants to be a Maronite already is one.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not much. After the dismissal and the final blessing (done by the celebrant, who made the Sign of the Cross over the people with an icon of St Maron), people left for something. I overheard someone ask someone else, “Are you sitting with us?” I can honestly say it was one of the happiest lot of churchgoers I have seen.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I was not included in the post-liturgical activities, so I can’t say. I did look at the church’s on-line calendar later to learn that there was a Feast of St Maron banquet in the parish hall.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I really enjoyed the place, but between them and me there is a great cultural gulf.

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

St Elias, Birmingham, AL (Window)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The passing of the peace.

 
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