St Valentine’s, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Valentine’s
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 February 2021, 9:30am

The building

The parish was formed on St Valentine’s Day 1910 and the present building dates from 1927. The exterior is red brick. The interior overflows with candles, marble and statuary. A versus populum altar stands in front of the eastward facing high altar.

The church

The Polish National Catholic Church was formed in the late 19th century by Polish immigrants to the United States who were disenchanted with what they perceived to be Rome’s snubbing of Polish nationals in favor of Irish, German, and other ethnic groups. They were also instrumental in forming a sister church, the Polish Catholic Church of the Republic of Poland, back in the old country, although they have not remained in communion with it. Nor are they in communion with Rome, although the Vatican does recognize the validity of their sacraments and permits Roman Catholics to receive the sacraments of penance, the eucharist, and anointing of the sick from PNCC priests in times of grave necessity provided that the error of indifferentism (belief that no one religion is superior to any other) is avoided. More liberal in some ways than the Roman Church (e.g. priests can marry and are in fact encouraged to do so; divorced persons may participate fully in church life), they are more conservative in others (e.g. deacons may not officiate at weddings; communion is received only on the tongue). They do not permit the ordination of women and have broken off ecumenical negotiations with churches, including the Episcopal Church, that do allow it. I was not able to discover anything about the ministries, parish groups, or activities of St Valentine’s Church either from their website, their Facebook page, or their downloadable bulletin. Their website describes them as ‘a home for all believers, from all ethnic and national backgrounds.’ Sunday mass is celebrated bilingually, in English and Polish, in-person as well as live-streamed. Vespers is said in Polish on Sundays in addition to the mass, and there is also a bilingual mass every weekday.

The neighborhood

St Valentine’s Church is located in the Frankford neighborhood of northeast Philadelphia just off the Interstate 95 expressway and not far from the Delaware River. Once known as a major shopping and manufacturing district, Frankford still boasts several historic sites, some stately old houses, and a wide variety of churches, although in 2007 the Philadelphia Weekly newspaper declared it to be number six among Philadelphia’s top ten recreational drug markets. Even so, residents seem fiercely loyal to the neighborhood and committed to improving the quality of life.

The cast

The pastor, plus a concelebrating priest. Both were in pink vestments. There was also a lay reader. There were no servers.

What was the name of the service?

Quinquagesima Sunday; Feast of St Valentine, Patron Saint of our Parish: Holy Mass.

How full was the building?

The on-line counter registered 20 at its highest point. I counted three people in the congregation who came forward for communion, but the pastor also stepped out into the nave, ostensibly to distribute communion to others who did not come forward; the camera did not follow him.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Not really. I wouldn’t call the greeting personal.

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair suits me just fine.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

I tuned in about 15 minutes early to the YouTube feed, which was displaying announcements in a continuous loop with no soundtrack. There was a button to click if one wished to subscribe. Not sure of whether I had to do so in order to view the feed, I clicked on the button, only to have it change to Unsubscribe, which I promptly did. At the appointed hour a ‘Waiting …’ message appeared, and the assorted sounds of shuffling feet and squirming bottoms could be heard – no conversation, though. The service finally got underway nine minutes late with the clergy entering to the sound of a hideous modern soul music track.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Blessed be the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a bulletin available for download, but it contained only announcements. Texts were displayed on-screen. Interestingly, the bulletin advised parishioners attending mass in-person to sit in the back of the church and receive communion spiritually if they did not want to appear in the live-stream feed.

What musical instruments were played?

There was no music other than the hideous entrance ditty and an equally hideous recorded number that was played at the offertory, another at communion, and another at the dismissal. But there were also a sung Sanctus and Agnus Dei accompanied by what sounded like an electric organ.

Did anything distract you?

Both priests spoke English with a Polish accent, but I had no trouble understanding them. Much more distracting was the stream of animated hearts engraved with ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ and other such trivia that invaded the screen from time to time.

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

The liturgy was similar to what we’re accustomed to in the Roman Church, but was not exactly the same. No bells or incense. The pastor chanted the Kyrie, collect, alleluia verse, secret, sursum corda and preface, per Ipsum, post-communion prayer, and final blessing in a lovely baritone voice. Many of the readings and prayers were love-themed in keeping with Valentine’s Day. Some of the liturgy was in English; other parts were in Polish – there was no word-for-word bilingual translation. The sermon was in English. The Creed omitted the Filioque. The peace was exchanged via touch-free waving. At communion the pastor drank from the chalice, but the concelebrating priest intincted his host into it. The pastor donned a mask (black) to distribute communion to the congregation; the priests were otherwise unmasked. Mass ended with announcements and the customary blessing and dismissal

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

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

10 — I don’t think I’ve ever before heard a sermon preached on St Valentine and the meaning of love. I sat enraptured of the pastor’s every word. Wow, what a sermon!

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

St Valentine was a priest and martyr. He is the patron saint of beekeepers, epileptics, engaged couples, happy marriages, travelers and young people. Not very much is known about him, but legends abound. One such legend is that the Roman Emperor Claudius became angry when men did not volunteer for the army he was conscripting. Claudius concluded that married life dissuaded men from serving in the army, and so he forbade all marriages. Valentine, however, continued to perform marriages, and was arrested. While in jail he received many visitors who threw flowers and notes of good wishes at his cell window. One such visitor was the daughter of Claudius, who was blind and deaf. Valentine prayed that she be healed, and so it came to be. On the day of his martyrdom he sent her a note: ‘Love from your Valentine.’ Claudius is forgotten today. He had to learn that legislation against love is bound to fail. Being in love can be the most exciting time in one’s life. But many of us have suffered broken hearts. True romantic love always involves respect – for self and for the person loved. ‘Love thy neighbor as thy self’ is a commandment found in all religions. God never stops loving us, even when we ‘mess up.’ Scripture is full of examples of love. St John said that the essence of God is love. St Paul said that love is always kind, never jealous, never boastful. Love takes no pleasure in other people’s difficulty. When we do not love, we leave God out of the picture. Love is the essence of the kingdom of heaven. When you send Valentine’s cards to those you love, make sure you send one to God also. If the love in your relationship gets complicated, ask God for help. Give love a second chance – life is too short to do otherwise.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The sermon, without a doubt.

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

Someone desperately needs to take a music appreciation course and to study the history of Western sacred music.

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

After mass, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for adoration and would remain exposed until vespers. The congregation were asked to keep silence, and those watching from home were advised, ‘If you have anything to say to God, do so in silent adoration.’

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The pastor produced a basket of red Valentine’s cookies that his wife had baked, and said that they would be available for the taking in the back of the church. For my part, I contemplated the chocolate covered strawberries, washed down with ample draughts of Prosecco, that would be mine to enjoy later in the day.

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

9 — Should I find myself in Philadelphia after it is safe to travel again, I probably would not visit the Frankford neighborhood. But if I were to do so, I would love to attend mass here in person. Good preaching and careful attention to liturgical detail are what I like to see – but I would probably step out onto the porch during the musical bits.

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


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

‘Legislation against love is bound to fail.’

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