Santa Susana, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Santa Susana
Location: Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain
Date of visit: Sunday, 30 June 2019, 10:00am

The building

The original church was consecrated in 1102 as a shrine for the relics of Santa Susana, co-patron of the city along with St James – which had previously rested in Braga, Portugal. (See below for a brief hagiography of the saint.) The present day building is a 17th century reconstruction. It is located in the Alameda, a large park in the heart of Santiago de Compostela that resembles the grounds of a country estate. Only the doorway, some corbels and a window remain from the original Romanesque building. The present-day church is rectangular, with granite masonry walls and a slate roof. In the façade is a doorway with arches supported by columns, topped by a window instead of the usual tympanum. A 19th century bell tower and sacristy complete the west side. The original church was the site chosen by Queen Urraca to set up camp when she besieged Santiago in 1116. As you look down the steps, you can see how well it would be located for such an exercise.

The church

Santa Susana, a relative of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, was nevertheless a devout Christian who led a life of chastity and devotion. She refused Diocletian’s offer of Galerius Maximianus, who would become emperor when Diocletian abdicated in 305, as a husband. Galerius paid Susana a visit with the goal of changing her mind, but fled when he saw her kneeling at prayer while an angel sat perched on her head. Diocletian, upon hearing the story, had her tortured and cut up with a sword. Her relics were ‘piously relocated’ (although the citizens of Braga preferred ‘stolen’) and were enshrined at the Church of Santa Susana until the late 20th century, when the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, Julián Barrio, ordered them returned to Portugal. Archbishop Barrio has also offered the church as a station for Anglican pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago during the summer months of this year, and has permitted the Anglican Chaplaincy to celebrate the eucharist along with other Anglican services. Previously, Anglican pilgrims had been allowed to use the Chapel of San Andrea, in the cathedral, provided that they were led by a male priest or bishop.

The neighborhood

Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the autonomous province of Galicia, is the final station for pilgrims traveling the Way of St James. Originally the site of a Roman cemetery, legend has it that a shepherd watching his flock by night was astounded by the sudden appearance of a field of stars, compostela in the Latin of the day. (Winds blowing in from the sea will often clear away cloud cover quite suddenly.) Exploring the site, the shepherd discovered a tomb. He reported his find to the bishop, who declared the tomb to be that of the Apostle James, and notified the king, who had a cathedral built on the spot. The inevitable miracles that ensued established the place as a destination for pilgrims, which it has been ever since. The medieval city, with its winding streets and historic buildings, is very well preserved, although the surrounding modern city is less interesting. Parque Alameda is the main city park and is made up of three different areas – the Paseo da Alameda, the Oak Grove of Santa Susana, and Paseo da Ferradura. Fountains, ponds, flower gardens, and regal statues abound. The park also features a traditional bandstand, sports areas, and a playground. It’s a great place to go for a jog or an afternoon stroll, or just to escape from the carnival of a pilgrimage town. To its northeast is the cathedral square; to the west the university; and to the south, apartment buildings and shops.

The cast

A (woman) priest of the Diocese of Norwich celebrated.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Eucharist.

How full was the building?

The church might have fit 100 to 120 in the nave. There were twelve pilgrims: two from Germany; two from the Untied States; four from England, one Czech, and your Canadian Mystery Worshipper – plus another couple whose nationality I could not identify. Pretty well everyone there was a pilgrim, and happily everyone seemed to have showered and done their laundry since arriving in Santiago.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The Chaplaincy coordinator and the English priest welcomed us as we came in to sit down.

Was your pew comfortable?

The bench was narrower than I like, but perhaps 19th century Galician bottoms were less generously proportioned.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I arrived shortly before the service and, after greeting the coordinator, tried to find a comfortable pew not too far from the front, on the epistle side as seems to be my preference. There was some quiet greeting as worshippers arrived.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Welcome to Santa Susana and the Chaplaincy.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

I think we had texts to follow, as well as a hymnal, but did not make note.

What musical instruments were played?

None, but the sound system had played some music as we arrived. It provided the background for the hymns.

Did anything distract you?

Not really. I was not accustomed to the Taizé rite, but I survived. I enjoyed the carved figures on the retablo.

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

Given the small numbers, and the fact that we had all just experienced a lengthy pilgrimage, it was a different flavour than most services we had attended. It was a Taizé rite. Most, but not all, stood during the consecration. The peace was passed with little fuss, the priest exchanging the peace with each of us one by one.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

We were addressed for about 8-10 minutes.

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

8 — The priest spoke clearly (while she had a mild regional accent, it was easily comprehensible), with a structured presentation, but still with a mind to the intimacy and the singular nature of the gathering.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Given that she spoke well, I wish I had taken notes afterward so that I could answer this question properly.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

An informal and relaxed group who had all shared the same experience, but in very different ways. We all managed to make it to our destination after weeks (or months!) of tough walking, even if we were not really certain why we had done this.

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

As always, a comfortable kneeler would have been nice. I am always thrown off balance at the end of a Camino and am very much aware of the anticlimactic nature of a finish to a pilgrimage. My pack was sitting on the floor at the end of the pew, and I was ready to move on.

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

After the service, we trooped down the steps toward the park entrance, where there was a modernistic café, and they were not surprised to see us. The Anglicans were here again!

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee was delightfully Spanish and I had my customary cortado (equal parts of espresso and steamed milk – sort of like a caffé e latte without the froth). I also enjoyed a small pastry. The waitress brought us a tray of nibbles on the house, which included bits of tortilla and chorizo. If it had not been for the presence of two evangelicals from England, I would have ordered a brandy to celebrate the end of my 600+ kilometer trek along the northern coast.

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

9 — It’s a seasonal chaplaincy, not a year-round congregation, but I would happily round off a pilgrimage here. It was a little unnatural, I reflected, to hear a service in one’s own language after a month of worship in Castilian.

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

Sitting in my pew before the service, admiring the retablo (we need more carving and painted statues in Anglicanism, I think) and wondering what on earth my friend Nicole, in whose place I had been walking and who was not a church-goer (I’m not even sure if she had been baptized), would have thought of this.

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

The retablo, of course, and how the builders of this church to Santa Susana likely would not have thought that its carved statues would ever grace an Anglican mass with a woman priest. But it all seemed to fit in together. I think Susana might have liked it!

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