Ascension, Chicago, Illinois

Ascension, Chicago, Illinois, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Ascension
Location: Chicago, Illinois, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 20 April 2008, 11:00am

The building

A smallish French Gothic structure of Lemont limestone, a harder, more finely grained variety of limestone quarried near the Chicago suburb of that name. The church dates from the 1880s and is described in great detail on Ascension's website. The sanctuary is proportionally quite large and is separated from the nave by a wrought-iron rood screen, but one that still allows the worshipper full visual participation in the liturgy.

The church

Ascension is probably the flagship of "biretta belt" Anglo-Catholicism in the Midwest. It embraced an Anglo-Catholic ethos early on in its history, leading to some conflict with other Anglicans in the diocese of Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ascension's website includes a link to a fascinating history of the parish. Among the ministries and devotional societies sponsored by Ascension are the Society of Mary, Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, St Anthony's Soup Kitchen, and Alcoholics Anonymous; as well as ushers, lectors, and lay readers of the daily office.

The neighborhood

Ascension is located north of downtown Chicago, south of the area known as Old Town. It is a mixed use area: lots of apartments and condominiums in the midst of some businesses. The Greek Orthodox cathedral is only a couple of blocks south of Ascension.

The cast

The Revd Gary P. Fertig, rector, was celebrant and preacher; the Revd Kurt Olson served as liturgical deacon. Thomas S. Wikman conducted the choir, and David D. Schrader presided at the organ.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn High Mass.

How full was the building?

The building was roughly 60 per cent full. At communion time, two nuns led in a group of young people who, I suppose, had been at church school. The congregation appeared multi-cultural and included worshippers of all ages.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Materfamilias and I had arrived about an hour early, as we were visiting from elsewhere and had not set our watches to the Central time zone. We stood outside the church gazing at the notice board when a priest passed us (who we later realized was Father Olson) and said joyfully, "It's less than an hour from now." When we entered the church, we were greeted warmly and handed a service leaflet. A ciborium and a plate of communion wafers sat on a small table; we were instructed to place two hosts in the ciborium if we wished to receive. I needed to use the facilities, and an usher conducted me to where they were. En route we passed through the coffee room, and the usher mentioned that we were welcome to join the others for coffee after mass.

Was your pew comfortable?

Typical wooden pew for an Anglican church, with kneelers under the pew in front of us that folded down.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent. The organist played a fairly long prelude by the contemporary French organist and composer Jehan Ariste Alain.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Alleluia. Christ is risen." "The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Hymnal 1982 and 1979 Book of Common Prayer were in the pews, but not used. The service leaflet contained every element of the service; it was, for the most part, very professionally done, and enabled us to follow easily every detail of an elaborate liturgy. Translations into traditional 16th century English were given for those Latin texts that were used in the mass.

What musical instruments were played?

Pipe organ. The organ accompanied a very fine professional-quality choir.

Did anything distract you?

During a very elaborate offertory antiphon, a cell phone rang. And rang. And rang again. Apparently no one was interested in silencing it. The choir sang several unaccompanied pieces for which the organist (presumably to give the pitches) played what seemed like overly long introductions. And, alas, the communion hymn in the service leaflet was missing a line.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Obviously, a service called "Solemn High Mass" will involve a very formal worship style. But "stiff-upper-lip" it was not – the congregational participation was genuinely exciting, and everyone shared the peace warmly. The service was bilingual – Latin and English, that is – and drew on multiple sources: the traditional Anglican texts for the Gloria, creed, and Lord's Prayer; the gospel chanted using the traditional tone; the propers (introit, offertory, communion verse) sung in Latin from the Graduale Romanum; "Pray, my brothers and sisters..." before the eucharistic prayer; "Behold the Lamb of God..." at communion.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

10 – The rector's sermon was low key but effective. I will never read John 14:1-14 (Jesus tells Thomas and the other apostles that he is the way to the Father) quite the same way again.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Father Fertig began by talking about reputations. The apostle Thomas has a reputation as "the doubting Thomas." But when Thomas asked Jesus how he could be with him when he didn't know where Jesus was going, he was simply using the reason God gave him. Thomas was not an unworthy disciple – indeed, he was an example of the best kind of disciple: one who is not afraid to say he doesn't understand. Thomas showed a real hunger to know God's will.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sanctus by the Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, a beautiful climax to the ceremonies surrounding the preparation of the gifts.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Hmmm..."the other place" – it's difficult to think of anything at Ascension being "hellish." But there was lots of chatter from the narthex as roughly half the congregation stayed in the church to listen to the postlude and the other half left to chat.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Unfortunately we couldn't stay, despite having been warmly invited to the coffee hour before the service. The mass had been very long, and we had tickets for another engagement.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The usher had described it as "coffee and crumpets."

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – Only a "7" for great preaching, wonderful music, and liturgy done with great care? Were Materfamilias and I to move to Chicago, we would definitely consider Ascension, but the Tridentine-like ceremonial at the 11.00 mass might be difficult for us to adapt to. I would probably try the 9.00 mass for a few weeks.

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

Yes, indeed.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The deacon's chanting of the gospel using the traditional tone. This was not just a bit of archaicism – it genuinely enhanced the understanding of the text.

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