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2510: St Jean Baptiste, New York City
St Jean Baptiste, New York (Exterior)
Photo: Daniel Case
Mystery Worshipper: Acton Bell.
The church: St Jean Baptiste, New York City.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of New York. The parish is administered by priests of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, more commonly called Blessed Sacrament Fathers.
The building: In 1900, the robber baron tobacco and transportation magnate John Fortune Ryan, who lived nearby, financed the building of this structure to replace an earlier one on the same site. It combines elements of the Italian Renaissance Revival and Baroque, and features two cupola-topped towers that flank an enormous dome. The interior is barrel vaulted with Gustavino structural tiles that, unusually, feature a Florentine-style decorative high relief pattern. All of the column capitals are gilded and there are several dozen stained glass windows, including a row that encircles the entire dome. The high altar is topped by a half dome mosaic and features a six-foot high representation of a monstrance. The pews, confessionals and choir stalls are elaborately carved and feature clusters of grapes as a design motif. On the south wall there is also the national shrine to St Anne, about which more below.
The church: The parish was originally established to serve the French Canadian immigrant population and remained their national parish until well into the 20th century. The exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is central to the rule of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers. There are prayer groups devoted to this mission that involve both clergy and the laity. As a church community they offer programs for the homeless and the hungry as well as the addicted. There is also a variety of social groups that are detailed on their website. The shrine to St Anne was established quite by accident. In 1892 a French-Canadian priest traveling through New York stopped overnight at the rectory. When the pastor learned that he was carrying a relic of St Anne with him, he asked the visitor if he would extend his stay for a few weeks so that the relic might be exposed for veneration. He did, and it was, and crowds gathered as the news spread. A man afflicted with epilepsy touched the relic and never again experienced a seizure. The visiting priest eventually went on his way, but sent back a fragment of the relic for permanent display. Soon thereafter he arranged for a new relic from the shrine of St Anne in France to be sent to the church. In 1970 an elderly woman was murdered by intruders as she knelt before the relic, thus causing the shrine's deconsecration. The present shrine was set up and consecrated shortly thereafter.
The neighborhood: This is the Upper East Side of Manhattan, an area that stretches east of Fifth Avenue from 59th Street on the south to 96th Street on the north. The church is smack in the middle of the so-called silk stocking district, which boasts some of the priciest property in the USA and, given the population density and high per capita income, is touted as home to the country's greatest concentration of wealth. Famously safe, charmingly green, the area tends to be the sleepiest neighborhood in "the city that never sleeps." Historically, the East Side of Manhattan has been notoriously under-served by the city's subway system, and a new line is currently being dug along Second Avenue to Grand Central Station. The construction has been a major inconvenience to many, but it could be worse – at least they aren't using dynamite to blast tunnels out of the bedrock as they did for earlier subway tunnels, often with deadly results.
The cast: I don't know. The officiant was an elderly priest. His name wasn't mentioned anywhere, and I didn't see a picture on their website to match with a name. He was assisted by two acolytes, one of whom did double duty as the thurifer, and a lay reader.
The date & time: Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2013, 12.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Celebrating the Liturgy.

How full was the building?
I counted precisely 105. The building could have held many, many more.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I arrived shortly after the previous mass had ended, and the only people there were several obviously homeless souls with all of their worldly goods arranged around them.

Was your pew comfortable?
Unremarkable. It was the standard issue pew: hard back and seat, unrelieved by a cushion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet. One of the homeless ladies was praying before the shrine to St Anne, and there were several others sitting with their eyes closed. More people arrived closer to the published start time, but it remained hushed.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A hard bound Gather Comprehensive hymnal was in the pews but remained unopened. A very well-done service leaflet with the mass order, music and announcements was available at the entrance.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, choir, and cantor to lead songs (whose efforts were fruitless, as nobody in the congregation sang).

Did anything distract you?
The interior is just a riot of ornament and color: pale blue and green, ochre, ombre, yellow, gold, red, just to name a few, with colors I wouldn't ordinarily think of putting next to one another all jumbled together. It is all so over-the-top that it kind of works. I also found myself lost in the Gustavino vaulting and the ceiling frescoes of various types of clouds. I thought it very unusual to have both stormy and calm varieties depicted.

St Jean Baptiste, New York (Interior) height=

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Restrained novus ordo with a twist at the end, I'd say. There was a nod to tradition with incense, the sanctus bell, and eucharistic prayers that were chanted. The priest also wore a very traditional vestment of rose and purple damask that was quite pretty. The memorial acclamation, great amen and sanctus were set to something modern and bland, and nobody but the choir sang them. None of the congregation sang any of the hymns either, not even that most hummable tune, "Amazing Grace", which was sung at the offertory. (Go figure!) The post communion hymn was supposed to be a meditation to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit during the period of discernment for the election of the Pope. What was chosen was some Taizé community toe-tapper, at which I could barely restrain my eyes from rolling back into my head. The concluding rite, however, was as moving at the Taizé-thing was groan-inducing. At the end of the service, an enormous monstrance was brought out for the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Adoramus Te was sung by all, kneeling. It was very solemn. And I did note that people didn't rush out after receiving communion, but stayed through to the very end.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
5 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – While the preacher was obviously skillful, he did leave me wishing for more. It is very hard to say or do much in five minutes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He attempted to unpack the reading of the day, the parable of the prodigal son. He asserted that we live with such a culture of revenge today that the idea of a prodigal returning seems a remote one. The parable asks for a type of forgiveness that mirrors divine forgiveness. Few exhibit this, but it is possible. John Paul II, for example, was able to forgive his would-be assassin and pray for his conversion.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I suppose it was how contemplative this mass was, which is something I don't really associate with the novus ordo at all.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The cantor was in obvious vocal distress, largely flat throughout, but the responsorial psalm was a real trial for her (and us too).

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing quite so Protestant as a coffee hour on offer. The priest did make an effort to wish us a good day on our way out.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
We managed to get a table at a nearby bistro.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 – Not really my 'hood, and a bit far to travel.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Homeless in the pews, and how the church remembered these forgotten people. I hadn't expected an Upper East side church to be so kind to the homeless, by providing a safe and warm place to sit unmolested during the day.
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