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1900: Our Lady of the Skies, JFK International Airport, New York
Our Lady of the Skies, JFK International Airport, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Our Lady of the Skies, John F Kennedy International Airport, New York. (Please note: Their website may not display in versions of Internet Explorer below version 8.)
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens.
The building: A small room with white walls and a light wood floor. Wooden stations of the cross line the walls. There is a large crucifix behind the altar, flanked by stained glass panels, one of which is actually a door into the sacristy. A tabernacle to the right holds the reserved Sacrament. To the left is a wooden statute of Our Lady standing on an airplane propeller; in front of the statue is a rack of votive candles – the electric kind that flicker artificially. There are four chapels at JFK: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and interfaith; the interfaith chapel is for all intents and purposes a mosque. They were built in 1966 as standalone structures outside the terminals, a location that proved inconvenient. In 2001 they were moved inside the newly opened Terminal 4 and the original standalone chapels were demolished. The four chapels occupy tiny rooms in a corner of a balcony above the food court and shopping concourse at Terminal 4.
The church: Our Lady of the Skies is open from 6.00am to 10.00pm every day for prayer and meditation. Masses are celebrated on Saturday evening and Sunday morning as well as on holy days of obligation. The sacraments of reconciliation and holy matrimony are administered by appointment. Their website has links to devotional readings as well as prayers for travelers, pilots and flight attendants.
The neighborhood: JFK Airport is located in the far southeast corner of New York City, in the borough of Queens. Construction began on the airport in 1943 and the first commercial flight took place on July 1, 1948. Originally called Idlewild Airport, it was renamed Anderson Field in the 1940s but retained its original name in popular parlance. After the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the airport was again renamed in honor of the late president. It has undergone several major redesigns over the years, but it still shows its age compared to its more modern cousins. It's never been fun getting to JFK. One must endure a long and expensive taxi ride from Manhattan – and the traffic is abominable! Once you finally arrive at the airport, the various terminals seem as distant from one another as do many cities and towns – and again, the traffic! The recent opening of Airlink, a monorail train that loops around all the terminals and then connects with the Long Island Rail Road station at Jamaica, has made things a little better – but taking the Long Island Rail Road to Jamaica is no pleasure trip either!
The cast: A priest who did not introduce himself but said he was "filling in." I thought he resembled the film critic Rex Reed in his prime, so I'll call him Father Rex.
The date & time: Sunday, January 24, 2010, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?
I counted 30 chairs. There were five people present.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was the only one there at first. At length Father Rex came in and began setting the altar. He asked me where I was traveling to, and explained that when there was only a single person in the congregation they did not celebrate mass, but instead just gave that person communion. I replied, "In that case I should warn you; I'm Episcopalian." That seemed to fluster the good padre. I said I was hoping at least to hear mass, but he remained adamant, saying it was the "chaplain's rule" that mass not be said for only one person. Just then more people arrived, though, and our dilemma was solved.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. The chairs were of wood, with green upholstered cushions and backs, and were quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
As he vested for mass, Father Rex chatted with the new arrivals, who were all airport employees and all of whom he apparently knew.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Okie dokie, I guess we can get started."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The paperback Seasonal Missalette.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
I was worried about taking notes; I was sure I would be noticed in that small a space and among so few people. Would I be able to remember everything I wanted to report on? But Father Rex did not make good eye contact with the congregation, and I think I got away with it without being observed.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Minimalist. Before mass, Father Rex spread a corporal upon the altar, which was barren of other linen. On the corporal he placed a chalice without purificator, pall, veil or burse, and a glass dish to hold the priest's communion wafer. He also placed two candles on the altar and lit them. There was no crucifix. He continued chatting with the regulars as he donned his vestments: alb without amice or cincture, and green stole without chasuble. During mass he omitted the Gloria (although it was ordinary time) and creed (although it was Sunday). At the consecration he did not hold the sacred bread, but rather elevated it on the glass dish. Needless to say, there were no bells or incense. The congregation received communion from the reserved Sacrament.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
4 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Father Rex said he'd tell us a story "that will appeal to you customs agents in the congregation" (forgetting the visiting Piskie) but did not make good eye contact. I thought his point was good, but he used an odd illustration to drive it home.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He told us about the time he brought back a religious artifact he had found on one of his travels abroad, and the trouble he had getting it through baggage security check at the airport. "You can't bring fruit into the United States," said the security agent, pointing to round objects on the x-ray screen that looked like grapefruit. "Oh, no, those are heads!" Father Rex told the agent. A thorough search of his bags ensued, revealing that the object was a statue of Christ with the Apostles' heads protruding from his body. He used this story to illustrate how we are members of the Body of Christ. As such, it is important that we pray and care for others, to reach out. We suffer when others suffer. We are made in God's image, which is a mystery and a profound gift from God.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
No one visits airports for pleasure. They are cold and intimidating places at best, where one can expect to be treated as a misbehaved child: Stand here, don't go there, take off your shoes, what do you have in your pockets, stop asking so many questions, behave yourself or else! But it was wonderful to be in an oasis of warmth and calm amid so much – paranoia!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I'm having trouble imagining how a statue of Christ with the Apostles' heads protruding from it can resemble anything other than something out of the film Aliens. And I don't think the Blessed Mother's role as protectress of the skies is enhanced by having her stand on a propeller. Such a pose would hinder air traffic, I should think, rather than promote it.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Father Rex reminded us that there was an offering basket at the back of the chapel. Then he disappeared into the sacristy and everyone left to go back to their airport jobs.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Although I guess I admire the fact that the chapel seems to promote a sense of community, such as it is, for airport employees who would otherwise have to miss Sunday mass, I am not a part of that community.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I really can't say that this service did. No.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The "chaplain's rule" that mass is not said for a congregation of one. That's taking a little too literally Christ's word that "whenever two or more of you are gathered…"
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