Established in 1894, the parish first celebrated mass in a firehouse, then an American Legion hall, then a private home, finally being able to afford a church building that was dedicated in 1896. By 1952 they had outgrown that structure and acquired the Loew's Woodside Theater, an old movie house constructed in 1926 that had just closed. They demolished the original Greek Revival facade and entrance while retaining the interior. The exterior today has sort of a boxy yellow brick Romanesque appearance and features a bell tower. There is a small outside area separated from the sidewalk by a short fence. Inside, with the exception of a small side area, there are no windows, including none in the sanctuary. The auditorium slopes downward, as one would expect from a former cinema. There were statues in the front altar area, as well as Stations of the Cross made of statues lining the side walls. The interior was restored in 1998 to what it must have been in the glory days of the Woodside Theater (minus the seats see below); however, to be frank, I found both the interior and exterior to be rather homely in appearance. The statues struck me as tacky. Off to the side is a chapel that they call Our Lady of Woodside, although I wasn't previously aware that the Blessed Mother included Woodside among her busy schedule of apparitions. (There was a woman from the Queens neighborhood of Bayside who claimed to have seen one, but she was generally regarded as, erm, eccentric.)
St Sebastian is a big parish with an extremely loyal congregation who often come there for mass even when there are other RC churches that are closer to their homes. Historically it has served (and continues to serve) a large Irish population, but nowadays they have sizable contingents of immigrants from Latin America, Korea, the Philippines and many other nations. They have several prayer groups in a variety of languages, fellowship groups and spiritual formation groups all listed on their website. The weekly parish newsletter has pages in Spanish, Tagalog and Korean. The parish sponsors a school and a large athletic center with a large pool. The athletic center is open to everyone for a reasonable fee. Novenas to St Anne, St Anthony, St Jude, St Pelegrine and St Sebastian, plus the Miraculous Medal and the Sacred Heart, are held during the week. There are Saturday vigil masses in English and Spanish, as well as Sunday masses in English and Spanish with an American Sign Language interpreter.
About 25 minutes from Manhattan via the legendary No. 7 elevated subway line (dubbed the Orient Express for the many Asian communities who rely upon it), Woodside is located in the western part of the borough of Queens. Historically blue-collar and working class, the area in recent years has seen a huge influx of both immigrants and middle-class persons who have been priced out of Manhattan as well as the more gentrified sections of Queens and Brooklyn. Across from the church is a tiny park, one of two that lie at the busy intersection of Roosevelt and Woodside Avenues. The No. 7 train's constant rumble from above makes conversation or simple relaxation difficult. There are many Irish pubs in the vicinity, including Donovan's, which boasts the best hamburgers in New York City (they are very good!), although Ottomanelli's (a few blocks further away) is giving them a run for their money. I prefer Donovan's, since I can get a good Guinness there with my burger.
No names were given. There was a priest, whose accent led me to believe that he is from the Subcontinent; an organist; and a music minister who led the singing.
What was the name of the service?Saturday Vigil Mass.
How full was the building?
About 60 to 70 per cent full. And this is a big church! The old Woodside Theater had a seating capacity of 2000, although the original theater seats have been replaced with pews.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. But we arrived just as things were beginning.
Was your pew comfortable?
A standard wooden pew with kneelers. Not very comfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
What were the exact opening words of the service?
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A paperback missal containing the readings, prayers and some hymns. There was also a separate hard-cover hymnal, the first I have ever seen in a Catholic church.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ, a digital instrument by Rodgers Instruments LLC of Hillsboro, Oregon. It sounded very good.
Did anything distract you?
The priest's microphone was set so loud that it was almost painful (and I've been to many a rock concert!). The pew was giving me a backache. The Gal from Queens, who accompanied me, was a bit perturbed by a statement inside of the missal's front cover saying that Protestants should not receive communion in this church.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Fairly typical for a Catholic church in this diocese, which means reverent but informal. It was a hot summer evening, so people were dressed casually. There was no choir, and few people sang along with the music minister, despite the familiarity of the hymns: "A Mighty Fortress is our God," "Be Not Afraid," and "On Eagle's Wings."
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – There seemed to be two sermons. In the first half, the priest tried engaging the congregation by asking them questions, which few answered. The second was louder, more formal, and the closest thing I've heard to firebrand teaching in a Catholic church in many years.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Part 1: A reflection on the readings, especially on the idea of Jesus coming to "set the world on fire." (Not literally, of course.) Part 2: How we must be committed to our faith, even to the point of death (yes, he said that). Then we were told about how the Catholic Church is belittled in America because it is the only denomination to stand up against abortion and gay marriage. (The only denomination? Two blocks from here are Baptist and Seventh Day Adventist churches, whose teaching on the matter are the same.)
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Seeing such an "international" crowd of worshippers in one space. Also, some of the hymns, which evoked strong memories.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The "warning" against Protestants taking communion. My wife is a better Christian than I will ever be. It reminded me of why we had an Episcopal wedding. Also the deafening level of the PA system and rant about gay marriage.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. But the church had to prepare for a Spanish language mass that would soon follow.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No coffee. No lemonade. No goodies.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
3 – The parish has a rich history and many activities, but the teaching was too conservative for me. I also like churches with windows. Finally, I really want to receive communion along with my wife.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The deafening volume of the sermon.