St Philip’s in the Hills, Tucson, Arizona

St Philip's in the Hills, Tucson, Arizona, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Philip's in the Hills
Location: Tucson, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 2 September 2007, 11:15am

The building

A complex of buildings resembling a cloistered monastery, including the church, a music building, school, social center, gift shop and offices, all connected by a series of plazas, courtyards, and an outdoor columbarium. The work of the architect Josiah Joesler, who specialized in homes and commercial buildings in a distinctive Spanish colonial and mission revival style, the St Philip's campus is considered Joesler's masterpiece. The interior of the church features a red tiled floor, intricately carved wooden beams in the ceiling, and carved sediliae in the chancel. The altar is large and backed by a clear glass window overlooking the Santa Catalina mountains. One of the side chapels contains a crucifix presented to the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico by Pope Pius IX and obtained by one of St Philip's parishioners – by exactly what route is unclear.

The church

They claim to be one of the largest Episcopal churches in the USA. I could find no statistic pointing to how large the membership is, but they certainly do have plenty of staff: a rector, associate rector, six affiliated clergy and four deacons. They sponsor all the usual parish organizations plus a number of social and spiritual development groups. The church's music program appears to be outstanding – there are three children's and youth choirs, three adult choirs, and junior and senior handbell choirs.

The neighborhood

Tucson (pronounced TOO-sahn) sits in the Sonoran Desert about 120 miles southeast of Phoenix. When a Jesuit missionary from Spain visited the area in 1692, he found it occupied by the O'Odham tribe of Native Americans, who called the place chuk shon, meaning "spring at the foot of a black mountain," a reference to the volcanic outcroppings that dominate the landscape. The city does not resemble Phoenix in the least – it is more varied in its architecture and much more scenic, thanks to the Santa Catalina mountains dominating the northern horizon. In the early 20th century a veterans hospital was opened in Tucson, the dry, hot climate of the area proving to be ideal for soldiers suffering respiratory damage from gas during World War I. Today, the University of Arizona and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, as well as a thriving tourist industry, are Tucson's principal economic mainstays. St Philip's in the Hills is located in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains, in a very well-to-do residential area.

The cast

The Revd Gail Melin Carlsen, parish administrator, was the celebrant. She was assisted by the Revd John Kitagawa, rector, and the Revd Deacon Beverly Edminster. The Revd Megan Traquair, associate rector, preached. Jeffrey Campbell, associate music director, presided at the organ. A woodwind trio featuring Cindy Behmer, Kevin Justus and Cassandra Bendickson played several selections.

What was the name of the service?

Holy Eucharist Rite II with Hymns.

How full was the building?

It was pretty full. I estimated that it could hold about 300.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A gentleman said hello and handed me a service booklet. I told him I was visiting from Phoenix, whereupon he asked me my name and introduced me to a lady who was standing nearby. The lady said she was glad I had chosen St Philip's and that I might be interested in seeing something in the chapel (the emperor's crucifix that a parishioner had somehow obtained).

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. The pews were intricately carved in the Spanish style, as was all the church's woodwork, and were very comfortable despite not having cushions. The fold-down kneelers were also comfortable and positioned just right for kneeling.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered quietly and reverently with very little if any visiting. The woodwind trio warmed up their instruments with scales and exercises. Just before mass began, the announcements were given and the church bells were rung (electronic, I suspect, as I saw no proper bells that could have pealed as those we heard).

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The Hymnal 1982 and one of the most thorough and informative service booklets I've ever seen. The Prayer Book 1979 was in the pews but was not needed, as the service booklet contained everything.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ. The gallery was filled with pipes but a Rodgers electronic console sat in the middle of the nave, the pipe organ's console having been shoved aside. The organist, Jeffrey Campbell, told me afterward that the Rodgers was only temporary while repairs were being made to the pipe organ – which would be back in service the following week. A woodwind trio of oboe, clarinet and bassoon played some Mozart selections before mass, at communion, and as a recessional. St Philip's renowned choirs were still on summer recess.

Did anything distract you?

The woodwind players warming up their instruments before mass – couldn't they have done that in a side room out of hearing of the congregation? And the crucifer and acolytes were vested in red cassocks, which clashed with the black cassocks of the eucharistic ministers, and surplices that were clearly too small for them. Someone needs to get the Almy catalog out and place an order – and send the crucifer out shopping for black shoes, while they're at it! Grey Nike joggers and a red cassock do not blend.

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

A by-the-book Rite II low mass. No bells, no smells. The hymns were all traditional; there was no chanting. In lieu of the Gloria we sang the hymn "Tell out my soul" to the tune of Woodlands. The psalm was sung to Land of Rest, one of my favorite hymn tunes. There was a gospel procession, and the peace ceremony was heartfelt but not overdone.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

10 minutes.

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

8 – The Revd Megan Traquair stood at the chancel gate and walked back and forth a bit, sometimes sallying forth a few steps into the congregation. She is a young woman and spoke pleasantly, bordering on the casual; the overall effect was that of one's kid sister telling a story to the family (albeit in alb and stole).

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

She began by saying that when she sees people hold out their hands for communion, she can often tell much about their lives from the appearance of their hands. But before she could lapse into a dissertation on palmistry, she turned the topic toward the working man (it was the Labor Day holiday) and the importance of keeping the sabbath as a day of rest. We need not celebrate the sabbath as the Puritans did, or as the orthodox Jews do, but God nevertheless does call us to rest from our labor. That is something that present-day Americans have trouble doing. We fear that "someone may tell on us" if we stop work. We are creatures of habit, and so we should make a habit of the sabbath, choosing rituals that give us pleasure – a family meal, a walk in the woods, an hour or two of meditation. Prayer is always involved. Imagine what it is like to rest in the hands of God – safe, strong and free. We do not have to strive harder; the Holy Spirit will open the way for us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

Words or photographs cannot describe the calm beauty of the St Philip's campus: the cloistered buildings, the plazas, the gardens, the outdoor columbarium, the landscaping. It was all very peaceful and very lovely.

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

But getting back inside – there was no set directive as to when to stand or when to kneel and, as might be expected, people did a little of both. I knelt for the confession of sin, but the lady next to me remained standing. As I lowered the kneeler, I realized that one of its supports was going to hit her directly in the middle of her left foot. I lowered it as slowly and gently as I could, but hit her it did!

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

A lady sitting in front of me turned and said it was nice to hear someone behind her singing the bass line of the hymns. The lady next to me whose foot I had hit with the kneeler also complimented me on my singing. I chatted a bit with the organist concerning the Rodgers vs the unused pipe organ. Otherwise people left fairly quickly without paying me much attention. I had to ask one of the eucharistic ministers for directions to the place where coffee was being served.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Coffee was available continuously the entire morning. Fair trade coffee from Mexico was on offer; it was served in styrofoam cups and was hot and strong. Muffins and cookies had been pretty well picked over by the time mass let out, but I managed to take a cookie nonetheless. Not very many people lingered for coffee, and those who did were apparently not of a mind to greet newcomers.

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

8 – I will overlook the abominable shortcomings in the acolytes' haberdashery to say that the liturgy was carried out well and the congregation seemed active and caring. I will return another time when the choirs are back from summer recess. If I were to move to Tucson, however, I would want to consider the handful of Anglo-Catholic parishes in the area before deciding on St Philip's.

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

Yes. The loveliness of the campus setting blended well with the remarks made in the sermon about keeping the sabbath as a day of rest.

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

How beautiful the St Philip's campus is.

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