Designed by the noted neo-Gothic ecclesiastical architect Bertrand Grosvenor Goodhue in the style of 14th century French Gothic with echoes of Norman Romanesque. The front entrance of the church is dominated by a stone high relief depiction of the crucifixion, framed by Saints Francis of Assisi, Vincent Ferrer, and Dominic, with over 30 other saints, popes, and doctors of the Church. The interior is dominated by the high altar, the centerpiece of which is the tabernacle covered in gold and precious metals. The monks' choir and chapel is to the right of the altar, and has a gorgeous polished stone floor.
As this is a priory church of the Dominican order, the canonical hours are sung daily, using Dominican chant. There are four masses on Sundays, three during the week, and one on Saturdays. The parish is also quite active in the community, with co-sponsorship of a soup kitchen, a women's shelter, and free classes in English as a second language.
St Vincent Ferrer is located on the Upper East Side, which has been Manhattan's most prestigious residential district for well over a century. Nearby is the chic boutique scene on Madison Avenue that has dominated the city's luxury market since at least the 1940s. According to census data, the neighborhood's median family income is more than five times that of the rest of New York City.
The Revd Austin Dominic Litke, O.P., celebrant. He was assisted by four acolytes whose names weren't listed in the bulletin. The Revd James Dominic Brent, O.P. delivered the homily.
What was the name of the service?Missa Cantata. This was the first celebration of mass in the Dominican rite on the East Coast in more than 40 years.
How full was the building?
Approaching 300, which was quite good turnout, I thought.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. I was handed an order of the service by one of the friars, and directed to a pew.
Was your pew comfortable?
The pews have very straight backs, so they are quite resistant to any sort of slouching.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Fairly silent, with folks quietly coming in and others at prayer. Few, if any, were chatting. It also smelled overwhelmingly like artichokes cooking, which struck me as odd.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The introit of the day: In medio ecclesiae aperuit os eius, et implevit eum Dominus spiritu sapientiae... ("In the midst of the assembly he opened his mouth, and the Lord filled him with the spirit of wisdom...")
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everyone used the very complete service bulletin, which offered the text of the Latin service and translation into English. I noticed a few brought their own Latin missals, but I'm not sure how useful those would have been, since this was a Dominican Rite mass and not Tridentine. Celebrating the Eucharist (Classic Edition) was in the pew, but remained unopened.
What musical instruments were played?
None. There was an organ prelude and postlude listed in the bulletin, but neither was played. Perhaps the organist couldn't make it?
Did anything distract you?
Distractions abounded, but I suppose the biggest was looking for points where the Dominican rite differs from the Latin rite that I know. I also noticed the lovely ironwork on the chapels, with one set off with a decorative grill topped with angels and candles that must look really pretty when lit.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was positively medieval. In the 13th century each Catholic diocese had their own variant of the liturgy. Because Dominicans traveled frequently from diocese to diocese, it became increasingly more difficult to recall the local customs. In 1267 they received permission to codify their own rite so that all of the Dominican houses, regardless of location or diocese, would celebrate the same rite. At tonight's mass, the processional had the cross facing backwards, away from the altar. The celebrant walked with his head covered with the amice, which he lowered to his shoulders as the mass began. The most striking difference between the two rites is that in the Dominican rite, the priest makes his chalice immediately upon arrival at the altar, not at the offertory. The Dominican Confiteor differs somewhat from the Roman, and other prayers and gestures differ as well. The chant is somewhat different from what one usually hears. Mass ended with Salve Regina using the Dominican melody.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – You could tell that Father Brent was an incredibly well-trained public speaker; it was such a polished presentation. He had to have been working from notes, but you really wouldn't have known it, as he rarely looked down. He knew when to pause, how to pitch his voice to emphasize important points, and definitely made it all look so easy. It's not for nothing that St Dominic named his community the Order of Preachers!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Father Brent began by asking how, as the psalm entreats us to do, we may come humbly before the Lord with gratitude. Aquinas had argued that humans are by nature religious, which is part of the natural order, and are searching for the appropriate sacrifice. Our secular age is abnormal and unnatural because it is rooted in a forgetfulness that God has ordered all things. We are secular because we have been told that enlightenment science answers questions better and progressive education argues that morality is a myth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Definitely all the chant! Dominican chant is similar to Gregorian chant, but also has its differences. It was fascinating to hear how a different chant tradition preserves in different forms what are essentially the same melodies.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Despite the preacher's expertise, the sermon seemed more than a little out of touch and approaching anti-intellectual, which is odd considering what an important figure Aquinas is in the intellectual history of the Church.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing really. Nobody approached, so we walked around and took pictures. But on our way out, there was a group of Dominican fathers waiting and we were invited to a reception in the undercroft.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Very lively and quite the spread, with wine, cheese, crudités and gourmet pizzas.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Not really my neck of the woods, but it is always a treat to visit.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, without a doubt.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Hearing a 13th century service in the 21st.