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1883: Mare de Déu del Miracle, Balaguer, Catalonia, Spain
Mare de Déu del Miracle, Balaguer, Catalonia, Spain
Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut.
The church: Mare de Déu del Miracle (Mother of God of the Miracle), Balaguer, Catalonia, Spain.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Urgell (the bishop is also co-prince of Andorra, along with the President of France).
The building: Dating largely from the 12th century, it appears to have been rebuilt most recently in the 18th century. Any baroque retablo was recently removed and replaced by a modern altarpiece.
The church: It is a former synagogue. It's not clear when it was converted to its current use. There was terrible repression of the Jews in the kingdom of Aragon in the 1390s and, after the Council of Tortosa in 1413, many Jews agreed to baptism, surrendering their synagogues to be made into churches. The synagogue in Saragossa became the Church of the Miracle and we might guess that this dedication was emulated here in Balaguer. In any case, the remaining Jews of Catalonia were given the options of baptism or removal by the 1491 decree of Isabel the Catholic (whose cause for canonization is currently in the doldrums). The church appears to be used for concerts and lectures as well as for religious services.
The neighbourhood: This is a thinly populated part of Catalonia, with substantial Castilian and Aragonese-speaking minorities. Balaguer was conquered from the Moors by Ermengol VI, Count of Urgell, in 1106; he made it his new capital, and it remained so for subsequent counts of Urgell. The town was Franco's entry point into Catalonia during the civil war, and there are still a few bullet holes around. This church is in the old town, more precisely in the old Juderia (Jewish quarter) toward the southwest. The district is poor and there is little luxury evident: it is down the street from the local museum, and about 200m from the Plaša Mercanal.
The cast: No idea. Looking at the Balaguer parish list (several churches seem to be organized in a team ministry), it might well be Juan Pablo Esteban Osma, given his relatively youthful age.
The date & time: Thursday, 11 September 2009, 8.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Evening Mass.

How full was the building?
There were about 10 in a nave which could hold 100. Almost all of them were older women from this working-class area.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was certainly noticed as I came in, as I was the only male there, and likely the first new face they had seen at a weekday mass.

Was your pew comfortable?
The bench was a bit narrow, but it was nothing I couldn't handle. The angle of the seat was not helpful, but as I did not expect to be there for more than half an hour, I determined to deal with it with a combination of fidgeting and sacrificial meditation.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
This was a very quiet church, and parishioners were not making a lot of noise.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"En el nom del Pare, del Fill i de l'Esperit Sant."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No service books, as is the Spanish practice.

What musical instruments were played?
None.

Mare de Déu del Miracle, Balaguer, Catalonia, Spain

Did anything distract you?
Nothing in particular, but I was conscious that this was a former synagogue, and its worshippers had been ethnically cleansed out of their home a half-millennium ago.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The youngish priest took us through the novus ordo mass at a comfortable clip.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – I mark for voice modulation and eye contact, as my Catalan is not good.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I couldn't understand a word. He was using an appalling sound system.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The close attention of the parishioners to the service.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I could not ignore that I was in a building that had been stolen. Even after six centuries, there was still an odd feeling about the place.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Not too much. Everyone scattered out of the church, and I barely had a chance to snap a photograph or two.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None available here, so I wandered out into the main plaza and took a seat at a restaurant table. Halfway through my grilled rabbit, a brass band set up on some benches, and about 60-80 people spontaneously entered the square from all directions and began to perform the traditional Catalan dance, the sardana.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – While the congregation would likely get to be warmer as they saw the stranger resurface a few times, I was really quite spooked by the knowledge that it was a stolen temple.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not particularly, given the circumstances. Still, the renovation job was not that bad; the workers had taken care.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Perhaps I was a bit prurient, attending a service there while knowing the church's provenance, and wondering how the experience might feel. Now I know.


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