Mystery Worshipper: Brother Juniper
Church: St Anthony
Location: Silver Lake, Belleville, New Jersey, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 11 June 2006, 5:30pm
The building is a study in contrasts: the plain brick edifice and interior in largely plain lines and neutral shades being overshadowed by what I term devotional excess. There are varied statues of just about every Italian saint I'd ever heard of, and a few I never had, in every niche of the church, and such attention grabbers as a pattern of leaves and grapes outlining the sanctuary and an altar flanked by statues of angels (think Roman cemetery) holding candelabra. The excessive floral arrangements, including a huge display of geraniums near the paschal candle and baptismal font, and craft show wreaths over each of the stations of the cross, made it seem understandable that even the faces on the stained glass windows looked a bit weary.
The Silver Lake section of Belleville is one of the few remaining areas that shows a strong presence of the Italian-American community. The current building was erected in 1937, and the parish clearly has kept the traditional Italian devotions and culture alive.
This is mostly a modest residential area, dotted with groceries, small stores, and the sort of Italian restaurants that specialize in sandwiches and pizza. St Anthony's Feast was in progress when I visited, and there was a strong holiday atmosphere, with food stands, rides, and games lining the streets. The rides were identical to those which one would have seen in 1965 (and may even have been the same ones!). The stands contained the tackiest religious articles on the planet, worse even than those offered by street vendors in Vatican City, if that is possible. Food items such as sausage sandwiches, zeppole, and ice cream were on sale, and quite good, but there was not much variety. And no espresso, pastries, or wine, which was a disappointment. Though the feast was nothing to rival Little Italy's celebration for San Gennaro, or even Newark's feast of St Gerard, the general sense of casualness and festive commotion was very pleasant.
Three priests are on staff at the parish, according to the outside sign, but a whispered conversation behind me led me to think that the priest celebrating this particular liturgy was a guest, and I do not know his name.
What was the name of the service?Mass plus Feast of St Anthony
How full was the building?
It was very crowded, with pews filled and people standing in the vestibule. I would estimate that a few hundred people were outside the church participating in the feast.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but I entered the church a bit early. Many people were already inside, queueing at the statue of St Anthony to place their intentions and dollar bills before and on the statue, and they were enthusiastically greeting one another.
Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, it was comfortably spacious.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Indoors, extremely friendly. Outside, noisy and festive. One characteristic of churches where Italian immigrants and their children are the majority is very appealing to me: It is their Father's house (and they are especially friendly with his mother), and they are as casual at services as they would be at their own mama's table. People were waving, laughing, kissing, calling out greetings, and the like.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening, everyone, and welcome to this evening's celebration of the feast of the Holy Trinity. Considering the noise from the feast outside, we expect everyone to sing at double volume today."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Today's Missal, which contained both the propers for the day and the hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. Though the music was mediocre (typical for Roman Catholic churches in the area), the congregation were exceptionally enthusiastic in their singing. They all seemed to join in everything.
Did anything distract you?
The noise from the feast, and particularly loud contemporary music to which seven young girls were performing dances, was distracting, but somehow pleasant for being festive. I was rather amused when one man in attendance kept going to the window to take pictures, presumably of at least one of the dancers.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was simple, casual, run of the mill RC novus ordo, distinguished by how the congregation sang all of the mass parts.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – The priest's essential points were solid if unoriginal. However, he sought to illustrate the points with references to personal relationships, psychology, and how commercialism can distract one, which had the effect of being distracting rather than enriching.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Trinity is a mystery revealed by God. As Thomas Edison said about light and electricity, our ignorance of them does not prevent our using them. There is no aloneness in God, and the Trinity is itself a relationship of love and self-giving. The heart of living is loving, and we can experience the love of the Trinity in worship without understanding its mystery.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Referring not only to the service but to the feast as a whole, it was a great joy to see people enjoying themselves, and also bringing their petitions to St Anthony (sausage sandwich in hand, in many cases) with the warmth and trust one might show to a well-loved family member. The sense of warmth in family and friends (earthly or heavenly) was delightful.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I was to find, suddenly and quite painfully, that although I loved rides in my youth, I apparently am past the expiration date for enjoying them now, especially after sampling sausage and peppers. I don't know whether rides are more intense these days, or whether my stomach is weaker than it was 40 years ago.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It was so crowded and hectic, and I so resembled many of the others there, that no one noticed me. In a church where an Infant of Prague is displayed under the feet of Mary's statue, where there are sufficient tacky floral arrangements for a gangster's wake, and where St Anthony appears in two statues (one above the altar) plus a rose window above the sanctuary, no one would be conspicuous unless, perhaps, he were dressed as Punchinello.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
To my dismay, such coffee as was available was just plain, uninteresting American – no espresso or cappucino. The sausage was nicely grilled, and the pork shish kebab (how did they sneak that in, I wonder?) was delicious. I thought they charged too much, though.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – It seems like a pleasant community, but the liturgy was boring for my taste.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
It did indeed. At the risk of excessively repeating myself (forgivable in a church of excess), when I see people comfortable in their Father's house, it makes Him seem very near.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Not to go on rides anymore! But I'll also remember the warm devotion to St Anthony underlying the lovely notion that saints are extended family.