St Anne’s, Gilbert, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Anne’s
Location: Gilbert, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 October 2021, 11:00am

The building

The present building is their fourth, and is a large structure in the Spanish Mission Revival style, as are so many churches in this area. Inside, one finds a spacious, bright, airy room. One’s eye is drawn to the sanctuary, with its versus populum altar backed by a three-part shelf on which rests the tabernacle. Three large frescoes grace the east wall: the Baptism of Jesus, St Thérèse of Lisieux with St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Ávila, and the Transfiguration – all painted by local artists. Other artwork is scattered about, including a full-scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Choir seating, with grand piano and an electronic organ, is off to the right. There is no organ loft. Three communion stations had been set up with predieux and credence tables.

The church

The congregation began in 1936 as a mission, and gained parish status in 1943. With a membership of 4500 families, they claim to be one of the largest parishes in the United States. Their numerous ministries are well documented on their website. They are especially proud of their music program. Quoting from their website: ‘The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.’ There is a choir as well as a men’s schola cantorum. The men’s quartet called Floriani, (quoting from their website) ‘dedicated to serving the Church and saving the culture through the beauty of sacred music,’ is in residence. Included in their very full mass schedule is a Latin Tridentine mass on Sunday afternoons as well as on Wednesday and Friday mornings.

The neighborhood

Gilbert, one of Phoenix’s southeastern suburbs, was founded in 1902 as a whistle stop along the railroad. It was named in honor of William ‘Bobby’ Gilbert, a local landowner and something of a dandy, who provided land for the railroad’s right-of-way. Known for years as ‘the alfalfa capital of the world’ due to its extensive agricultural enterprises, Gilbert today is primarily a bedroom community for commuters into Phoenix. Gilbert Road, the main drag through town, is lined with restaurants of all sorts and attracts revelers of all kinds. The railroad tracks still bisect it at its southerly end. St Anne’s Church is on Elliot Road a few blocks east of Gilbert Road.

The cast

Celebrant and deacon; a full entourage of crucifer, acolytes, thurifer; lay reader.

What was the name of the service?

High Mass in English.

How full was the building?

I attended at home via live feed, as Gilbert is something of a drive from where I live, and road repairs on weekends make it an especially tedious drive. The camera shot did not include the entire nave, so I couldn’t tell how many were present. There was no on-line counter. In those pews that I could see, it did not appear that people were socially distancing, although it could have been that families were sitting together and strangers were keeping their distance.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was its usual comfortable self.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I clicked the Live Feed button on their website about 15 minutes before start time and was treated to a short promotional video about the parish. This faded into an actual live feed after about five minutes, featuring the organist playing some twiddly bits as people entered quietly. Altar boys in cassock and cotta did some last minute setting up.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

A woman came to the lectern and said: ‘Good morning. My name is [name] and I am the Outreach Manager of the Pregnancy Care Center.’ She then related a story about a young woman who had recently sought an abortion, followed by a plug for the services the Center offers. Her talk was applauded. The actual beginning of the mass occurred as the choir chanted the introit for the day in Latin to the Gregorian setting, and the altar party came up the aisle: crucifer, acolytes, thurifer, deacon, celebrant.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Clicking the button labeled Worship Aids on the live feed brought up an outline of the order of mass, the readings for the day, the prayer of spiritual communion, and other resources. It didn’t look like the congregation had any materials at their disposal. The text of the readings was projected onto the wall in large, easily readable letters. The psalm was projected in English and Spanish.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The camera did not pan to the mixed choir, but I would guess there were probably about two dozen or so singers.

Did anything distract you?

The sound system began to howl with feedback during the chanting of the psalm, but it was quickly corrected. The celebrant and deacon were not wearing matched vestments – the priest’s chasuble was several shades a darker green than the deacon’s dalmatic. The thurifer, and one of the acolytes, sported that haircut that looks like the barber was called away before he could finish the job.

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

A well-celebrated high mass featuring all the pomp and circumstance one would expect. The choir chanted the ordinary in Latin, to the Gregorian Missa de Angelis setting, with harmony added to the Kyrie by someone. However, the creed was recited, not sung, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist was celebrated ad orientem. No bells at the consecration, but the elements were censed. The Lord’s Prayer was chanted in Latin to the Gregorian setting. Communion was ministered under the species of bread only, and on the tongue.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

3 — The celebrant preached while seated, referring to a paper he held. His talk sounded more like a lecture than a sermon – hence the low score.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

His sermon was primarily based on the gospel reading, Mark 10:2-16 (Jesus’ teaching re the sanctity of marriage). What can a celibate priest say to a congregation of married men and women? In reality, more time is devoted in seminary to the sacrament of matrimony than to any other doctrine. The canons define marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, unbreakable until death. Marriage is for companionship as well as for having and raising children. Husband and wife make certain promises to each other – promises without conditions attached. Some marriages are happy; some can barely stay together; some contemplate parting. We must not judge – we must pray for families. The recipe for a good marriage consists of good preparation (and this begins with what children observe of their own parents); sacrifice; understanding; tolerance; patience; perseverance; and unconditional love. Marriage also requires good communication – your spouse should be the best person you can tell your story to. Husbands and wives must pray for each other. No marriage is without crises, but they can be an opportunity for growth.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The choir’s offertory hymn was sung a cappella to Tallis’ Third Tune. I couldn’t understand the words of the hymn, but the tune is one of the most beautiful ever written.

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

Gregorian chant stands very well by itself without anyone attempting to add harmony to it, thank you very much. At communion the choir sang the Ave Maria to a Renaissance setting I didn’t recognize – I don’t think they were always quite in tune, I’m afraid. And I was very surprised to see communion being ministered on the tongue, without benefit of the ministers cleaning their hands between communicants, in this time of pandemic.

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

The mass ended with the priest giving communion to ministers to take to the homebound. There followed the final blessing and dismissal, plus the Prayer to St Michael the Archangel. The final hymn was to the tune of Holst’s Jupiter but I had not encountered the text before (it was not ‘I vow to thee my country’). The camera remained on as the congregation were exiting and the altar was being cleared, but I stopped the video feed in order to have lunch.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

It was past my lunchtime, so I made myself a toasted cheese sandwich before finishing up and filing my report.

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

3 — I probably wouldn’t drive to Gilbert on a Sunday morning, but if I did I would like to explore other churches. I appreciate the careful attention given to liturgy and music, but the mixture of Latin and English, ad orientem and versus populum, and chant and speech, distracted somewhat. And communion on the tongue? I don’t think that God would spread disease via the Body and Blood of his Son, but I also don’t think he would protect us from the consequences of rash behavior.

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


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

Communion on the tongue in time of pandemic.

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