Notre Dame, New York City

Notre Dame, Morningside Heights, New York City


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Mystery Worshipper: Pax Romana
Church: Notre Dame
Location: Morningside Heights, New York City
Date of visit: Wednesday, 20 May 2009, 5:30pm

The building

This is a little gem of a church. It has a Greek-style exterior, with columns at the main entrance. The interior has white tiled walls, statues, an old fashioned marble communion rail and a raised pulpit. Behind the altar there is a chapel area, with a floor-to-ceiling replica of the grotto at Lourdes, including statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Bernadette Soubirous. This is completely visible from the nave, and is very impressive. Behind the church there is a small garden, and a very nice portico that curves around the back wall.

The church

Notre Dame serves the Catholic Ministry of Columbia University, which is located nearby. It also serves as a parish church for the local community of Morningside Heights. There are three masses each Sunday and two each weekday. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is held Monday evenings, followed by compline. Matins and the Rosary are prayed daily. A novena to Our Lady of Lourdes is held each Tuesday. The church is authorized to distribute Lourdes Water, which flows from a spring in the grotto at Lourdes and is said to bring about spiritual and physical healing to those who drink or bathe in it.

The neighborhood

Morningside Heights, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, is New York's academic quarter and one of the most desirable residential districts in the city. Columbia University, Union Theological Seminary, Barnard College, Jewish Theological Seminary and the Manhattan School of Music are some of the better-known institutions of higher learning that make their home there. The Cathedral of St John the Divine, the Riverside Church, and the General Grant National Memorial (better known as Grant's Tomb) can also be found nearby. The church is across the street from Morningside Park, a narrow but dramatic and beautiful stretch of playgrounds, waterfalls, winding paths and steep cliffs. Columbia University's plan to build a gymnasium in the park was one of the sparks that set off the infamous Columbia riots of 1968, during which students occupied administration and classroom buildings, forced the university's president to resign, and shut down the school for several weeks.

The cast

The names of the celebrant and the lector were not provided.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Including myself and the lector, I counted about 20 people. The church was almost empty.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Nobody welcomed me, but this was not expected. Roman Catholic congregations in New York City are very large and there is no way to know who is new and who isn't.

Was your pew comfortable?

It was a standard wooden pew, comfortable enough.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived only a couple of minutes before the service started. I had taken what I hoped would be a shortcut to the church, which turned out to be a big mistake. But the pre-service atmosphere seemed to be quiet, with people sitting quite far away from each other, absorbed in their own prayers or quiet activity.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

I did not see any books, either in the pews or on the tables in the back of the church.

What musical instruments were played?


Did anything distract you?

My eyes wandered continually to the Lourdes grotto replica behind the altar. As beautiful as it is, it is an attention-getter.

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

This was a typical Catholic mass. Because there was no music, there was no chance for anything "happy clappy." It was a very plain service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

7 – The celebrant had a strong accent, and the acoustics were full of echo, but I could understand most of what he said.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus ascends to heaven and we await the Holy Spirit. We are called to be disciples and witnesses. Our lives must be shaped by our mission. We transform ourselves by God's grace.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The lector read very well. She had a pleasant speaking voice and a good delivery. The celebrant treated us to a beautiful quiet few moments of meditation after communion. He was not in a hurry to end the mass. It has been a long time since I have seen this at mass, and it was wonderful.

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

The acoustics were terrible. The church has an echo, which tends to make words unintelligible.

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

There was no point in standing around looking lost. When the mass ended, almost everyone either left right away or stayed in their pews for a private prayer. I hung around the tables in the back of the church for a few minutes, poking around some of the literature that was there, but I really didn't expect anyone to talk to me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

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

5 – If I lived in the parish I would attend mass there, but I wouldn't go out of my way to seek out this church.

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

Yes. I especially liked the quiet meditation after communion, and the reminder in the homily that we need to live our faith every day.

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

The beauty of the church building itself.

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