Mystery Worshipper: The Newbie
Church: St Agnes Cathedral
Location: Rockville Centre, New York, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 June 2006, 5:00pm
St Agnes Cathedral was built as a parish church in 1935 and is the third church building on the site. It is a Normanesque Gothic structure of buff brick and limestone that stands out quite nicely amongst the smaller houses and shops of the surrounding neighborhood. The interior, having been renovated in 1981, is typical of post-Vatican II Catholic church architecture a vast white room devoid of most of the elaborate ornamentation and devotional statues one would typically find in a pre-Vatican II church. The nave is dominated by large stained glass windows, a bit plain but still pretty to look at, and a reredos that combines elements of the old church with a postmodern-conceptualist-gothic screen that made more sense the longer I looked at it. The cathedral's website maintains a worthwhile photographic tour of the cathedral and its surrounding grounds.
In 1957, Pope Pius XII announced the formation of the diocese of Rockville Centre, and St Agnes was set to be the bishop's seat. The diocese of Rockville Centre encompasses all of Nassau and Suffolk Counties i.e., all of Long Island except Brooklyn and Queens. Before 1957 Nassau and Suffolk were part of the diocese of Brooklyn, which at the time included all of Long Island.
Rockville Centre is an incorporated village in Nassau County, Long Island, New York, consisting of private homes, shops, and small office buildings. The village is probably best known for its "scores of restaurants" (as the village's website puts it), and claims to have the highest number of restaurants per capita in the United States. This is probably true, as pretty much every other building in the town is a restaurant, and in walking three blocks one may choose to dine Indian, Thai, Italian, Continental, Chinese, Greek, Mexican, Vegan, Japanese, and, of course, the omnipresent Starbucks.
Neither the church bulletin nor the small yellow pamphlet provided for the mass listed the name of the celebrant for this service. After looking through the staff photographs on the cathedral's website, however, I can say with fair certainty that it was the Rev. Msgr Robert J. Brennan, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass
How full was the building?
When the service started, the building was about half full. People continued to walk in until around the middle of the sermon, and by that time the cathedral was close to becoming filled to capacity.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I was left to take from a stack of bulletins and yellow pamphlets which were on a table near the last pew.
Was your pew comfortable?
A standard Catholic church pew, hard and cold but comfortable enough. I have yet to figure out why Catholic churches (at least all of the ones that I've been to) seem to consider it heresy to pad their pews as most Anglican and Lutheran churches do.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A bit annoying. There was much tinkering up front on the piano and guitar that would be used during the service. A few people were kneeling and silently praying. Others were sitting arms crossed with a look on their face that suggested they had a much better place to be. A woman in the pew in front of mine was heavily doused in perfume that smelled of sour apple bubblegum. Luckily for my allergies, she proceeded to find a new pew when a rowdy young girl took a seat next to hers.
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?
A hymnal entitled Voices as One and a yellow pamphlet with the order of the mass.
What musical instruments were played?
A piano, an acoustic guitar, and a noisy drum that unfortunately sounded very much like an overturned plastic wastebasket. I was a bit disappointed at this, as the cathedral has two splendid organs, and I was hoping that one would be played at some point during the service.
Did anything distract you?
I think this was a family mass, as most of the people at the service came with their young children, and there were children and teenagers (from the parish school, I suppose) who were participating in the service. Most of the children present were fidgeting in their pews and scurrying about in the aisle. The young girl in the pew in front of mine (the one who had previously scared off the sour apple bubble gum smelling lady) seemed very intent on getting away from the older woman who was with her (I assume it was her grandmother) and climbing over into my pew. When climbing over didn't work, she went down on the floor and attempted to roll under. When this too didn't work, she managed to scurry past her grandmother and took a seat in the empty pew that was in front of her own.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A typical novus ordo mass, though it seemed a bit rushed and disjointed. The service left me with an overall lukewarm feeling.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Monsignor Brennan spoke clearly, was easy to follow, and didn't appear to be reading from notes. The sermon itself, however, seemed to lack insight and gusto.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Monsignor Brennan commented on the Gospel reading for the day, the passage in Mark where Jesus calms the stormy seas which are unfortunately about to sink the small fishing boat that he and his followers are sailing on. Monsignor noted that Christ is always present with us today, as he was with his followers back in the boat. Therefore, as his followers did, we ought to have common sense enough to turn to him for guidance when life's problems get out of hand.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The interior of the nave was peaceful and the twinkling candles in the sanctuary made for a heavenly setting. As someone who was raised and schooled Catholic and who hasn't attended a Catholic mass in some time, it was also nice to return to the familiar liturgy of my childhood.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The aforementioned garbage can drum really killed the music of this service for me. The obtrusive banging penetrated every hymn and every prayer that was set to music in the service, from the alleluia to the sanctus to the agnus Dei. The lack of welcome and inclusion in this service struck the wrong chord with me as well. Even an insincere "good evening" from an aloof greeter wouldn't have been as bad as being greeted by a stack of bulletins on a table. The passing of the peace was a bit awkward out of the seven or so people standing directly around me, only one woman reluctantly decided to turn around and whisper "Peace by with you." Another woman behind me looked me head to toe while she was shaking the hands of the other congregants as though she were trying to determine if I was worth her greeting. Ultimately, it seems she decided I wasn't.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Before the procession was even over, the majority of the parishioners stampeded out of the back door. I suspect that this is common practice, as my yellow pamphlet included a note asking the parishioners to "Please respect the custom of remaining in place and joining in the singing of the final hymn." Staying a couple of minutes after the mass, I found myself in the company of a few older parishioners who spoke among themselves and said nothing to me, so I decided to leave.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – I wasn't particularly happy with this rather abbreviated evening service. However, I don't think that I got the full feel of the cathedral community and would like to return for what I hope will be a more traditional and engaging morning service.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Some of it did; some of it didn't.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
One of the children assigned to carry a collection basket through the center aisle thought it would be appropriate to wear it upside down on her head. I thought so too.