Mystery Worshipper: Religulous
Church: Our Lady of Perpetual Help
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 October 2008, 11:00am
Built in the early 20th century, OLPH (as it is frequently called) is an attractive neo-Romanesque stone building, with rounded windows and arches and a red metal roof reminiscent of Italian churches. There is a semi-circular portico with six stone pillars at the front entrance, and a square tower with a curious squat, curved pyramidal roof. Inside, the church is beautiful. The walls are sky blue, the barrel ceiling white. The congregation sits in pews on either side of a central aisle with side aisles. There is a choir gallery and organ in the back, two transept chapels (one for the Blessed Sacrament, the other a baptistery). The altar, which has a large brown marble front with a bold symmetrical white pattern, is placed at the front of a half-dome apse supported by six massive pillars with gilded Corinthian capitals. Behind the apse is an ambulatory, curtained off with drapes in the appropriate liturgical colour. The excellent artwork is mostly 20th century, except for a large Byzantine icon medallion of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which hangs from the front of the apse ceiling. The whole effect is tasteful and restrained. The nave lights, however, are bizarrely incongruous. They looked to me like flying saucers from the 50s; my friend thought they were more like hanging truck tire rims.
This may be one of Toronto's most prosperous congregations. Their many ministries and devotional activities are well documented on their website. Noteworthy is a series of "luncheon talks" on a variety of religious topics hosted by one of the parish priests following the weekday mass at noon. They also sponsor Living with Separation and Divorce, a group counseling session; numerous musical events; and a canned food drive. The parish supports the St Vincent de Paul Society. There are also lay pastoral visitors. Sunday masses begin with an anticipated mass on Saturdays at 5.00pm, and on Sundays at 9.30am (children’s liturgy), 11.00am and 4.00pm. There is a mass each weekday at 12.10pm preceded by the Rosary at 11.50am. On holidays, mass is celebrated at 9.30am.
OLPH is near the intersection of two very busy streets in midtown Toronto, at the northeast corner of Rosedale, one of Toronto's toniest neighbourhoods. It is just south of the 200 acre Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
The Revd James Hannah, pastor, presided. The homily was given by the Revd Daniel Donovan, a retired theology professor who regularly assists at weekend masses.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass
How full was the building?
Five minutes before the service I counted 50 people, including the choir, in a building that seats several hundred. When I returned from communion, I realized that another 50 to 75 people had come in after my initial count. Even so, the church was still less than half full. Perhaps the 9.30 family mass draws a larger crowd. I noticed people from all age groups, and most were generally well dresed. Most men wore sports jackets and ties (unusual for Roman Catholics in Toronto), though I did see several pairs of jeans as people walked up for communion. There was a larger proportion of Western European types than usual in my experience of Catholic churches in Toronto, although there were a few people of Asian and South Asian background as well.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We arrived about 15 minutes early, and there was no one to welcome us. Two gentlemen in the narthex were looking for something in a cupboard. I asked one of them where I could find a bathroom, and was directed to a small washroom at the west end of the narthex. I'll have more to say in a moment about this and its sister washroom at the east end.
Was your pew comfortable?
Though I have recently had surgery, I found the unpadded wooden pew quite comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As we entered the church, the choir were rehearsing a beautiful anthem in the gallery, and a few people were scattered around the church in silence.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The cantor said, "Good morning. Today we are celebrating the 29th Sunday of ordinary time. Please join in singing our first hymn, 'All who hunger,' number 589 in the red hymn book."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The second edition of the hymnal Gather Comprehensive and The Catholic Book of Worship II.
What musical instruments were played?
The gallery pipe organ (briskly, as will be seen).
Did anything distract you?
In the west washroom, I was surprised to find a stained glass window depicting Eve offering Adam a plump apple (the fruit was actually a sizable chunk of red glass). Under the image was the inscription "TEMPTATION." It did give me pause to wonder why that particular image had been chosen for a narthex washroom. After mass, I was curious to see the window in the east washroom. There, depicted in stained glass, were Popes Leo XIII, Pius X and Pius XI with the inscription "Rerum Novarum. Gloria." I assume the text is a reference to the encyclical of Leo XIII, promulgated May 15, 1891, remarkable for its vivid depiction of the plight of the 19th century urban poor and for its condemnation of unrestricted capitalism. Along with Leo, Pius X and Pius XI were also great advocates of social justice, among other things. But why in a washroom? At least the window fit the theme of the homily.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The worship was formal without being stuffy – a relatively liberal Catholic mass with simple ceremonial, excellent preaching, and a good choice of hymns. The congregation seems to have grasped well the liturgical advances of Vatican II. It therefore struck me as somewhat inappropriate to see the presider sitting alone, high above everyone else, while the preacher and three young servers sat far away at the side of the apse, with the cantor opposite.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Donovan was very clear and extraordinarily articulate. While admitting he was no expert on financial matters, he spoke with the authority of a teacher and the humility of a good pastor.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The homily was about Jesus saying, "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's and give to God what is God's." In light of the recent world financial crisis, we should consider our priorities. What's really important, ultimately, is not what we have but who we are – and we are God's.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The sermon was wonderfully expressed and thought-provoking. I have been to many Roman Catholic churches in Toronto and the preaching has been almost universally abysmal, poorly prepared and even more poorly presented. So Father Donovan's homily was truly extraordinary. Also, the building itself is really lovely in its simple, uncluttered beauty.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was sad to see the church so empty. I live in one of Toronto's lowest income suburbs, and the Catholic church at the end of my street (which seats about the same number as OLPH) is packed at three masses every Sunday. And I found the organ playing increasingly annoying. The hymns began at a good clip, but always got progressively faster. Even the cantor (an excellent baritone) had difficulty keeping up at times. By the end of the mass I was convinced that the organist was in a hurry to get somewhere else! As well, no one in the congregation seemed to be singing at all. The only voices I could hear were from the cantor, who was miked, and the choir in the back gallery. Also, all but one hymn ended abruptly, before we had finished all the verses.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A very few people briefly stood in small groups on the front lawn, but for the most part the congregation left immediately. There was no coffee.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – As a fourth generation Canadian of British descent, I found the mass at OLPH unusually comfortable. Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, and yet it is sometimes hard for the ear accustomed to hearing North American or British English to understand English as spoken elsewhere in the world, even if as a native tongue. OLPH is among the few Roman Catholic churches I've visited where the clergy speak English with a North American accent. I'm not quite sure why this is the case – perhaps Westerners are not answering the call to vocations as they once did.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did indeed. I was very happy to share in the celebration of the eucharist.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The one thing I will remember in seven days time are the TEMPTATION and Rerum Novarum windows in the washrooms.