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3043: St Malachy’s, The Actors’ Chapel, New York City
St Malachy's, New York (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Dietrich Knickerbocker, accompanied by Tibi Omnes.
The church: St Malachy’s, The Actors’ Chapel, New York City.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of New York.
The building: Dating from 1903, it is the work of architect Thomas J. Duff, who primarily designed churches and other buildings for the Archdiocese of New York. A Gothic Revival miniature, with no tower, it is sandwiched in between its neighbors much as subway riders are at rush hour. The great west door is flanked by two smaller doors and topped by a rose window. Inside, the nave opens directly into the sanctuary; there is no quire. Clerestory windows provide the primary illumination aside from chandeliers. To the left rear are side chapels and confessionals. The high altar is backed by a reredos and mural depicting the Crucifixion. To the left is a mural of the Annunciation, and to the right is a mural of which I couldn’t figure out the subject matter. A plain versus populum altar stands in front of the high altar. In 1991, the church sold its air rights (a clever concept that allows neighboring buildings to be taller than zoning regulations would otherwise allow), thus bringing in money to finance badly needed repairs and renovations.
The church: Almost from the start, St Malachy’s has ministered to actors, dancers, stuntmen, musicians, craftsmen and others associated with the Broadway stage, as well as theater patrons and tourists, arranging its schedule to accommodate show times and night club closing hours. For years the church’s electronic carillon was programmed to play “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Today, St Malachy’s sponsors the St Genesius Society, a workshop for seasoned as well as aspiring actors, writers and directors. There is religious education for children and a young adult group for socializing in a spiritual setting. In addition to two masses plus the Rosary each weekday, there are two Saturday vigil masses (at 5.00 and “post theater”), two Sunday morning masses, and a Sunday evening mass. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is held Tuesday evenings.
The neighborhood: St Malachy’s is located on West 49th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue at the fringes of the Times Square theater district. Once the playground of high society and working class families alike, all looking for a fun night out on the town, Times Square went decidedly to seed beginning in the 1960s, when the sex industry and attendant lawlessness took over. But an aggressive redevelopment effort begun by Mayor Ed Koch, and financed in no small part by the Walt Disney Company, has liberated Times Square from the grip of sleaze and restored it to an area of new office towers, shops, restaurants, theaters, hotels – and tourists. St Malachy’s, once on the brink of closing due to vandalism, structural deterioration and a vanishing congregation tired of having to elbow hookers, hustlers, drug addicts and pickpockets in order to get to church, thrives once again. Immediately across the street is the Eugene O’Neill Theater, and down the street to the right is the Ambassador Theater. Several interesting restaurants also line the block.
The cast: No one was identified, but I’m guessing that the celebrant was the Revd Ernest Izummuo, parochial vicar, and the organist was Stephen Fraser, director of music.
The date & time: Sunday, July 17, 2016, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?

How full was the building?
I counted room for about 150 and it was almost completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
The 1990s renovations saw the pews angled in to face the altar. They are plain wooden pews, comfortable enough, with an unusually large space between the pews and the fold-down kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People entered quietly. The organist played some twiddly bits and then rehearsed a bit with the cantor. The two of them then engaged in some chit-chat – so much for the twiddly bits. The bells were rung just before mass.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
“Glory be to Christ.” The procession consisted of boat girl, thurifer, crucifer, priest, master of ceremonies, reader, and a lady in cotta and purple cassock who I suppose was the RC equivalent of verger.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hardbound Worship hymnal, third edition, and the paperback Seasonal Missalette.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, opus 938 of the venerable Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston. It was rebuilt in 2012 by the Peragallo Pipe Organ Company of Paterson, New Jersey, incorporating the original Aeolian-Skinner pipework and chests, several additional ranks, and ten digital stops by Walker Technical Company of Zionsville, Pennsylvania. It was played masterfully by Mr Fraser and sounded absolutely marvelous!

Did anything distract you?
The cantor had a habit of swaying from side to side as he sang, thus varying the distance between his mouth and the microphone. Additionally, in general, he stood too far away from the microphone. It may have been just as well, as he didn’t seem too sure of his high notes.

St Malachy's, New York AZ (Interior)

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A nicely done missa cantata, but without choir – only the cantor sang (and, in theory anyway, the people). Lots of chanting. Incense and bells at all the right moments. Traditional hymns – none of this Singing Nun stuff. The intercessions included a prayer “for stagehands, technicians, and all associated with the Broadway stage.” We received communion under both species.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The priest spoke without notes and walked out into the congregation as he spoke. He concluded with a solo rendition of the old hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour,” which he sang unaccompanied in a lovely tenor voice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We are invited to listen to and live the Word of God, who speaks to us in all circumstances. We must recognize his message in all its forms. We can tell God our problems, our needs, our desires. Mary and Martha embodied both traditional and non-traditional approaches to God. Traditional doesn’t always satisfy; the non-traditional is also needed. Everyone needs to sit at the feet of Jesus; all are welcome. When bad things happen to us, we mustn’t lose hope. God tells us just to relax, to have vision.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The priest’s spontaneous rendering of the hymn was a heavenly moment, as was the magnificent sound coming out of the grand old Aeolian-Skinner organ.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
We were asked to sing a hymn during communion. No one brings their hymnals with them up to communion. Why not wait until everyone has received and has returned to their pews, and Father is performing his post-communion ablutions? Plenty of time then for a hymn.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn’t think the closing hymn as the organist was playing it was the same as the version found in the hymnal under the number that had been announced. People sang along anyway. Everyone remained in place until the hymn was finished, and then everyone left quickly. The organist played a modern sounding, bombastic sounding postlude I didn’t recognize, but again, the church cat could have walked across the keys and the Aeolian-Skinner would still have sounded grand! Father was at the door shaking everyone’s hand, but no one spoke to one another.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. We retired to a nearby Vietnamese restaurant, where I enjoyed the Vietnamese version of hot and sour soup (delicious – with pineapple chunks and baby mushrooms and not a sliver of tofu to be found, which I despise) and a nice minty chicken salad; and Tibi Omnes indulged in the Vietnamese version of sushi.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – Tibi Omnes noted that they had succeeded in creating a soaring sacred space in cramped quarters – quite charming, really – but he missed the reverence of an all-out old-fashioned Latin mass. I enjoyed the music, especially the organ.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
How grandly the old Aeolian-Skinner organ spoke. I thought of Emily Dickinson: “I’ve heard an organ talk sometimes ...”
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