First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA

First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, Erie, Pennsylvania, USA

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Mystery Worshipper: Eagle Eye
Church: First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant
Location: Erie, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 June 2010, 10:00am

The building

The building is a spectacular Gothic masterpiece, a true architectural gem, featuring a spacious nave, several side chapels, and some magnificent stained glass. It was begun in 1929 after the merger of two congregations. Cornerstones from the old churches of both congregations were included in the foundation. A massive $2 million renovation has just been completed, including repairs to the stonework, restoration of the interior appointments, newly protected and cleaned stained glass, significantly enhanced lighting, acoustical improvements, and a major overhaul of the sound system. The renovations are the subject of a book, Let There Be Light, by James R. Steadman, a local attorney, history buff and amateur photographer. Seemingly every detail was attended to in both the original construction and the renovation.

The church

Church of the Covenant was formed in the 1920s by the merger of two downtown Presbyterian churches. In the 1970s, the First Presbyterian Church merged with Covenant, hence the long name. The membership is divided into several parishes based on postal ZIP code, each served by its own staff of deacons. They sponsor a number of group ministries aimed at young people, adults, individuals, couples, men, women, people with common interests, and people with great diversity of interests. They maintain two libraries, one for young children and the other for teenagers and adults. They boast an excellent music program and publish a choir newsletter, Lofty Thoughts, that lists the anthems for the month as well as choir members' prayer requests and matters of general interest.

The neighborhood

Erie is an old industrial city in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, on the shore of one of the Great Lakes that gave the city its name. Said location makes the city prone to the weather phenomenon known as the lake effect – cold winter winds blowing over the Great Lakes pick up moisture which is then dropped as heavy snow upon lakeshore cities. Once a major industrial center, Erie today is home to General Electric's railroad locomotive manufacturing division. Downtown Erie features some old commercial buildings and theaters, lovingly restored, as well as Millionaires Row, a collection of 19th century Victorian mansions, many of which have been converted into law offices and accounting firms. The church's main entrance is on Millionaires Row, but the church grounds (including educational buildings and parking facilities) extend a full block deep.

The cast

The Revd Dale E. Southorn, pastor and head of staff, and Brian Lasher, a lay assistant. The organist was Shirley Wilson, music associate. Steven Skinner, minister of music, directed the choir.

What was the name of the service?

Morning Worship

How full was the building?

The central part of the nave was comfortably full. I would guess there were 350 to 400 there.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Yes. An usher bid us welcome as he handed us the service leaflet.

Was your pew comfortable?

Standard issue pew with a seat cushion. There was a comfortable amount of space between pews.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quietly chatty. The organist played some "gathering music" and the service began right on time.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Presbyterian Hymnal and pew Bibles.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and, for one of the anthems, piano. The original EM Skinner organ has been refurbished and augmented over the years by several firms. The chancel, antiphonal and chapel organs, plus the trompette en chamade at the rear of the church, are all controlled from the same console.

Did anything distract you?

Well, the architecture, appointments and stained glass are really over the top, but it was not a distraction.

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

Standard, solid, Protestant worship, but without attempting to be all things to all people. It felt like a church service, not a performance. The congregation were engaged, not merely witnessing as an audience. The music and especially the hymns were, as Mrs Eagle Eye put it, just wonderful. The hymns were the sort everyone loves to sing: "The Church's One Foundation", "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling", etc. The organist, Mrs Wilson, played with sensitivity to the text and freely indulged in the practice all good organist seem fond of – going all out on the last verse. And did they ever sing! All undergirded (but not overpowered) by that thundering organ. It made what little hair I have left stand on end.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

16 minutes.

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

10 – Dr Southorn has the ability to deliver a sermon with a smile. It was a genuine, pleasant smile and it made you feel good to be there. His clear and direct delivery was refreshing and conversational, no doubt enhanced by the revamped acoustics and the nearly invisible microphone he wore.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His text was Acts 20:17-24 (Paul's farewell to the church at Ephesus). Dr Southorn spoke of the conclusion of the church's renovation project, deftly weaving his comments into a number of beginnings in the congregation just now: babies being born, a new associate for missions, newly graduated high schoolers, etc. He called to mind a visit to Westminster Abbey and the various worthies buried or memorialized there, and then mentioned the great cloud of witnesses who had given to the construction and renovation of the church.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The 30 plus voice choir sang a beautiful arrangement of "Kumbaya" with piano accompaniment, but for me that last verse of "Love Divine" was really heavenly.

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

None. No squealing babies, hearing aids or microphones. No cell phones went off. No ambulances roared by.

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

Impossible. We were immediately asked to join the congregation at the coffee hour.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

On this particular Sunday it was a full-blown brunch in honor of the high school graduates. There was egg strata, salads, sweet rolls, and all the rest.

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

9 – I'd want to visit again just to make sure the quality of the preaching and music is consistent. I am heavily involved in my own church and not even a Presbyterian, but if I were new in town, I'd be there again next week.

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

Absolutely. The solid program is a refreshing change from the usual slap-dash worship we seem to expect these days.

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

The total experience. It was about as good as worship gets: authentic, genuine and well done.

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