Church of the Heavenly Rest, New York

Church of the Heavenly Rest, Manhattan, New York City, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Church of the Heavenly Rest
Location: Manhattan, New York City, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 February 2013, 10:30am

The building

The church was built on a fairly long and narrow plot of land directly across the street from Gilded Age industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie's enormous townhouse, now the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper Hewitt Museum of American Design. The site was purchased by Carnegie in 1917 to prevent construction of a tall apartment building that would have cast a shadow over his mansions gardens. The land was sold to the church by Carnegie's widow in 1924, with the restriction that through 1975 the land would only be used as the site of an Episcopal church no higher than 75 feet, inclusive of steeples. What was built is a fascinating synthesis of early 20th century Gothic Revival and the then very new Art Deco styles. One enters through the severe facade and finds oneself in a massive, austere interior that is essentially a series of geometric, cubist planes. Since the building uses steel supports, there was no need for structural pillars in the vaulting. As a result, the nave offers uninterrupted sight lines, something quite rare in New York City churches. The building was also constructed with many of the latest modern conveniences, such as indirect lighting and a sound system, a first for the city. A devastating fire in 1998 destroyed the organ and choir stalls and, if not for the fast thinking of the first firemen on the scene, could have blown out all of the windows as well. But they were saved, and the new red oak choir stalls suggest the Art Nouveau, especially the rows of daffodil lamps that decorate them.

The church

Founded in 1865 by veterans of the Civil War, the parish was named in memory of their fallen comrades in arms. The community offers a variety of social and service opportunities, from monthly potlucks and men's and women's breakfasts to meals for indigent seniors and an overnight shelter for the homeless. More details can be found on their very comprehensive website.

The neighborhood

This is the Upper East Side district known as Carnegie Hill, one of New York's first historic districts. The area is peppered with the grand mansions and townhouses of the robber barons and mega-rich of an earlier age. Most have since been turned to institutional uses – schools and consulates – but there is a growing (and disturbing) trend to return them to single homes. The area hosts some of the most elite schools in the city: Dalton, Spence, Nightingale Bamford, Sacred Heart.

The cast

The Rt Revd Michael Marshall, formerly the Bishop of Woolrich and now interim rector of Church of the Heavenly Rest, was the officiant. He was assisted by the Revd Thomas Synan and the Revd Deacon Caroline Boynton. The Revd Elizabeth Garnsey, assistant, preached.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist.

How full was the building?

Upward of 200 humans – and a dog. (No mere service animal; someone brought their purse-sized pooch with them.) Most people appeared to be in their mid-50s.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

An usher offered us bulletins and a smile, but nobody spoke to us.

Was your pew comfortable?

Nice wide pews with very comfy padded seat cushions, as well as red velvet hassocks. My friend and I both felt very well situated.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Fairly quiet overall, but there was some catching up among folks as they arrived, especially with the ushers. We couldn't help but notice how toasty warm it was, since it was so cold outside. Both my friend and I remarked how very out of the ordinary heating is, as most churches here are meat lockers in the winter.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Bless the Lord, who forgives all our sins."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

All but the hymns were included in the very comprehensive service bulletin. It also included a very well-done insert with a weekly meditation on the Sunday readings as well as the announcements. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal 1982 were in the pews.

What musical instruments were played?

Just the organ was played, a nice-sounding Austin organ that has been rebuilt over the years, most recently after the fire in the mid-90s. There was a medium-sized choir of both men and women, and several of the men had really stand-out voices. Overall the music was excellent. The anthem, Hide Not Thou Thy Face by the Elizabethan choirmaster Richard Farrant, was very well done and a real pleasure to hear.

Did anything distract you?

The bishop sounded so much like the late Sir Ralph Richardson that I sort of half-expected him at any moment to launch into Falstaff's honor speech. Deacon Boynton, on the other hand, read the gospel in a slightly Southern accent that was equally pleasant to listen to. Additionally, there was a man dressed in leather who arrived late and found a seat near the front, but who left during the peace, shaking hands with one and all.

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

Pretty starchy middle-of-the-road Rite II. No smells or bells, but full robes and communion received kneeling at the altar. The service bulletin made directions for kneeling, standing and sitting during the service optional, and it seemed lots of folks took it up on that, as many sat when others were kneeling or standing. At the start of the service, children processed to the children's chapel for a simple service of their own, then returned (quite noisily) to the main church at the peace.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

5 – I was reminded of someone reading a college paper. The Revd Mrs Garnsey's delivery was pretty low-key with little affect. I found it a bit hard going, although I did feel that the message was worthy and certainly suitable for the season.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus wasnt above the fray. Rather, he got involved in messy, human activities. But he wasn't reactionary; he searched out a small, still space from which to reflect. The season of Lent asks us to find that same small, still space in which to examine our lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Without a doubt the wonderful windows, which featured a spectacular use of blue and red, with small, jewel-like panes. It was worth the visit just to see them on a bright, sunny morning.

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

Pity that Bishop Marshall wasn't preaching also – I reckoned he could have let rip with a real rafter-raiser in that Ralph Richardson voice of his.

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

Both my friend and I heard during the announcements that the coffee hour would be held in the narthex. We looked lost and nobody approached us, so we slowly made our way out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

We found no coffee (or people for that matter) in the narthex. We both checked with each other to see that that we'd heard the same thing, and we looked around to see if there was anyone to ask, but there wasn't, so we left.

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

3 – Nope. It was a nice service in lovely surroundings with great music, but not my neighborhood, and it all seemed a bit chilly despite the abundance of heat.

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

Of course. I was quite content to sit beneath those windows on a bright, wintry day.

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

Surprisingly, it was the deacon's voice. She read the gospel in her delightful accent with such feeling.

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