Notes on a visit to St. [Anonymous]

Notes on a visit to St. [Anonymous] November 10, 2019

So here’s the deal:  my local parish is shrinking, bit by bit.  But I keep hearing, “boy, St. [Anonymous] is doing things so much better than we are” and am told that lots of people are jumping ship in order to start attending there instead (they’re only a mile up the road).  So today I had someone else serving donuts and decided to check them out, and thought I’d share what I saw and solicit reader comments.

First observations:

they had remodeled the church a year ago.  The church had been around for quite a whole, but was a small-ish simple brick building and when the area started growing substantially, they added on “gym masses” as an expedient, but the building project was intended to expand the sanctuary (information on their website said they’d go from seating for 500 to 800) so they could consolidate and finally “move out” of the gym in anticipation of no longer having two priests who could say mass in two different locations simultaneously.

Due to the nature of the building’s layout and various constraints, they took an unusual approach to the expansion — they built out the arms of the “T” (which had been sacristy and side entryways) into additional seating, for the assembly on one side and the choir on the other, and they shrunk the sanctuary so that it was quite shallow (there is now virtually no sacristy that I could see). They also added a foyer/gathering-type area to the side.

And they added projectors, one above Mary and one above Joseph.

They also had a small table at the entrance with nametags and a substantial number of people did stop and make themselves a nametag.  (These were just stickers, not reusable nametags as some Protestant churches have.)

Now, there were some ways in which they had become more traditional than when I had last been there, or than what I remembered.  Small things:  they said “for us men” rather than “for us” or “for us all.”  (Maybe this has stopped being a thing in general.)  The altar servers wore red with white on top.  They were all boys, though that may have been a coincidence.

I was also surprised that there was no children’s liturgy, even though this was the main family mass.   Maybe it’s a matter of logistics and room availability, but I would have expected they would have used the church basement.

It was Stewardship Weekend, so the homily was the usual “time, talent, treasure” sort but with some details on how the parish is doing, including a statement that they’ve increased by 300 people in the past year (I think?) — not sure if this was membership or attendance.  And the priest also said that for the last 6 years, they haven’t done second collections, but just donate to the 2nd collection cause out of their regular Sunday collection.  “Either we’re growing or we’re dying.”  They had the RCIA candidate presentation:  6 people, of varying ages.

And afterwards they had coffee & donuts.  I later learned that this was monthly, not every week, and in the foyer/gathering room, which was small for this purpose, so perhaps that’s why they don’t do it as often.

But what everyone at my parish kept saying was “their music is so much better.”

The first song was nothing remarkable — “What Wondrous Love is This” — and this and the Gloria and the Psalm were characterized by the guitar being very loud relative to the choir, cantor, congregation, or the piano or any other instrumentation.  The children’s choir sang the offertory.  The two communion songs and the closing song, however, definitely followed the “praise and worship” model:  “O Come to the Altar,” “Revelation Song,” and “Stand in Your Love.”  These songs are contemporary worship songs dating to 2017 (released by the worship group associated with the Elevation megachurch),  2009, and 2018, respectively.  The first of these was primarily sung by a male soloist, but some portion of the congregation kinda-sorta joined in for the choruses, especially after a couple repetitions, and the same pattern followed for the second communion song except that it was a female soloist.  I am not certain whether the same pattern held true for the final song but the melodies weren’t intuitive except for the chorus, and, of course, there was no printed music to follow along with.

But the question I kept asking myself is, “are people singing?”  I was about halfway back (usually I sit closer up but I got there at the last minute and, unlike my home parish, St. [Anonymous] was pretty full) and it’s always the case that the closer up you are, the more likely people are to be singing, but I did kind of expect, from a church with “such great music,” more congregational singing.  I was also surprised to hear the soloists, that is, rather than the choir, and, well, they sounded far more professional than any cantor I’ve ever  heard at my own parish, and I wonder whether they were literally professional, that is, paid musicians, or whether they were simply incredibly fortunate.  But I guess I could see that, if you value, “songs that are nice and inspirational to listen to,” then this music would have hit the mark.

And I should mention that we ourselves have a “praise and worship” choir for the Sunday evening mass — but it’s teens, which is great, but they are not professional, or even highly experienced, and there’s a lot of “you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit” in terms of the number of singers any given Sunday, and the instrumentation (no guitars because none of the teens plays a guitar; instead, it’s the instruments the kids play in band or orchestra).

So should our parish just copy their music?  Should our aim be: “I used to go to St. [Anonymous] but it was a hassle to find a parking place and my new church is almost as good with a lot more parking”?

I’m not sure that it’s even possible, logistically, architecturally, to put in projectors.  I noted that they made the sanctuary very shallow in order to expand seating.  Our church is much bigger in size, as a basic rectangle rather than St. [Anonymous]’s “arms,” so I can’t see a way that a projector/set of projectors could be installed that people in the back row could see, especially since the back of the sanctuary is far back indeed (the church was built in the 50s, pre-Vatican II).  Are the projectors a necessary ingredient because people enjoy the experience more when they don’t have to look at a worship aid?

I would have been more impressed, honestly, if this had been an experience similar to some of the praise-and-worship oriented (Protestant) services that I have been at, where the congregation did appear more actively engaged.  I’m not saying that they needed to have been raising their hands, but I would have liked for it to have been more unmistakable that the assembly was singing rather than just listening.  But Catholics gonna Catholic, I guess.

And at any rate, I don’t know that we could just copy their music, simply by deciding to do so.  From the looks of it, they have a lot more people, volunteer or paid, in their music ministry, with contemporary choirs at two separate liturgies, and a traditional choir at a third (we have only the traditional choir and a small ensemble at a second mass, plus the teens).  And, again, I am not a fan of church music that’s designed to be listened to rather than actively sung.

So that’s where I’m at.  Readers, your feedback is requested!


Image:  from pixabay:; public domain  NOT St. Anonymous.

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