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362: The Sign of the Theotokos, Montreal, Canada
Other reports | Comment on this report
The Sign of the Theotokos, Montreal, Canada
Mystery Worshipper: The Waiter.
The church: The Sign of the Theotokos, Montreal, Canada.
Denomination: Orthodox Church in America, Archdiocese of Ottawa and Canada.
The building: On the outside it is a somewhat shabby brick building. The fierce Montreal winters force the occupants to keep an ugly aluminum vestibule outside the front doors. This building was formerly the home of the Syriac Orthodox parish of St James who rebuilt the church after it was gutted by fire. Before that it was some random Protestant church. The interior, however, is bright and immaculately clean. Oddly there are a few pews placed in the middle of the nave. There is no iconostasis screening the sanctuary from the nave. The facade pipes of the organ remain on the north and south walls of the sanctuary, but the unused organ console is draped and hidden with a rug. A modest-sized icon of The Sign of the Theotokos is positioned in the customary place on the east wall behind the altar. Two icons – the icon of Christ and the icon of the Theotokos – flank and stand slightly west of the altar.
The church: The Sign is an Anglophone Orthodox Church in Francophone Montreal. They are apparently an offshoot of the Russian-speaking cathedral in Montreal. Their answering machine talks to you in English, French, Russian, and Greek.
The neighbourhood: Mixed commercial/residential, typical of Montreal. It is a block from the Laurier metro stop.
The cast: The Very Reverend John Tkachuk, rector.
Comment: We have received a comment on this report.
What was the name of the service?
Great Vespers.

How full was the building?
We were about 20, including the four in the choir, the choir director, the priest, and one woman religious. Not bad for Saturday evening at 6.00pm. We could have accommodated about 150 more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one greeted me, but the Orthodox sensibly assume you're there to meet with God and so tend to not try to intercept incoming worshipers.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was odd that there were pews at all. Not being accustomed to them when I'm in Orthodox churches, I stood the entire time and didn't try them out for comfort. I had been tramping around Mont Royal and the shopping district along Rue St Denis for several hours beforehand, so I was sweaty and my feet ached before the service started. The industrial carpeting in the aisles was pretty thin, so my feet ached even more by the time the service was over, a quick 45 minutes later.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived and was reverencing the icons, a recording of bells was played. There was no conversation. The church was completely silent, except when the front door slammed shut following someone's entry. After a family came in, there was a continuous commotion from the small children, but hardly to notice.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Blessed is our God, always, now and ever and unto the ages of ages! Amen!"

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The choir sung the service from loose-leaf binders. The congregation neither used nor needed any books.

What musical instruments were played?
Of course the organ left behind by the Syrians was silent. The priest and the thin choir of five voices sang the entire service.

Did anything distract you?
The congregation has an unobstructed view of the sanctuary. It was a novelty to see the priest put on and take off his vestments, fuss with the censer and gather up the book for the next part of the service. Really the only distraction was the way the priest was constrained to leave and enter the sanctuary. There being no iconastasis, there are of course no Royal Doors in the center and no Deacon Door to either side. Nevertheless, the priest left the sanctuary to the north, hard by the organ console, as through the north deacon door, and returned to the sanctuary as through the south door. The congregation has been in this building for only a year, so they are still conforming it to their needs.

The Sign of the Theotokos, Montreal, Canada

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service was beautiful, deliberate, and entirely focused toward God.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Worship in parishes of the Orthodox Church in America is the best liturgy this side of heaven. Beautiful, dignified, comfortable with itself and with very few concessions to the countervailing culture, always oriented toward the Trinity. This vespers service was all these things. Father did seem fatigued, though. Strangely, though the vast majority of the service was in English, the Lord's Prayer, one of the few speaking parts for the congregation, was hijacked into Russian.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The worst part of this service came at the end when I was interrogated by the priest. Where was I from, was I Orthodox, what was my name, what was I doing in Montreal. Father asked his questions with all the graciousness of a United States immigration official. He was so police-like in his questioning that I found myself carefully spelling my name for him. I was happy to declare my heterodoxy, for had I been Orthodox, I felt sure he would have moved on to more particular questions to prove an assertion of Orthodox credentials. Perhaps he has had a traumatic experience with unruly Anglicans rushing the chalice to wrongly partake of the holy mysteries.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Once I was released from Father's grip, I was approached and chatted up by a very pleasant member of the choir who politely asked the same questions. He seemed disappointed I wouldn't be back in the morning for the Liturgy. When I told him I needed to make my communion and would be going to St John the Evangelist, he allowed that his daughter was a member there.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no reception afterwards.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Were I Orthodox and living in Montreal this would be my church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Orthodox services always make me glad to be Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Being grilled by the priest. I'm happy to be identified as a goat to be kept separated from the sheep, but in guarding the integrity of communion, Father should lighten up.

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