(This is a guest post. It was written by Chris Newton, a friend and parishioner of St Leonard’s Church, Lexden, Colchester, UK, following his visit to NYC in 2014. This article was subsequently published in his parish magazine.)
During my visit to New York, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit St Patrick’s cathedral. I was able to attend the first sung midweek mass at 7 a.m. quite easily – the cathedral was only ten minutes’ walk from my hotel and my body clock had not adjusted to the five-hour time difference, so I was wide awake at 5am!
St Patrick’s was designed by architect James Renwick and is an example of the American Gothic Revival style. Construction began in 1858 and was completed in 1878. Capable of seating 2,500, it is one of the largest Catholic cathedrals in the United States. It resides on exclusive 5th Avenue, nestling among luxury shops like Cartier’s, Tiffany’s and other great landmarks. The beautiful and spacious Central Park is just a short walk in a northerly direction.
The cathedral was then undergoing extensive restoration and so almost completely shrouded inside and out by scaffolding (as can be seen from the attached photograph of The Lady Chapel). However, overall, it did not interfere too much with the day-to-day running and there was no discernible disturbance during services.
Each weekday there are seven services, with eight on a Sunday. On arriving, there was the usual security check but sadly no-one to ‘meet and greet’. I felt this was a shame as it could have created a warmer welcome and directed worshippers to the right place. The first mass at 7 a.m. is sung and, when I was there, was attended by a congregation of about thirty locals who sat in the first few aisles. At the start there was no procession and a small number of clergy and servers appeared from behind the altar area. The first verses of a few hymns were sung and led by a single server with an excellent singing voice in an emerald-green cassock and brilliant-white cotta.
During the service, I lost my place a few times but the responses were nearly identical to ones we use in St Leonard’s. However, there were some minor differences which I found poetic and my favourites were make holy, therefore, these gifts we pray by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall and remember also our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection…welcome them into the light of your face.
There was a short sermon by a local Cardinal who posed a series of questions and I missed longer sermons which provide greater spiritual insight and guidance. The giving of the peace that followed lacked warmth and was rather perfunctory. A collection was taken with baskets on very long poles, moving quickly and efficiently up and down the aisles which saved valuable time but was slightly amusing. During Communion, the chalice was not offered and I was surprised to see hosts still being given on the tongue if requested. My early upbringing is Roman Catholic and I thought this had been discontinued many years ago.
Finishing promptly at 7.25am with no final procession, the service took twenty-five minutes and we left afterwards without speaking. Although I was glad to take part, it felt hurried and unengaging with insufficient time for prayer or quiet contemplation. However, there are many different styles of worship and it can be worthwhile to experience other services which can help you realise what is important to you personally.
Back at the hotel at 7.35am earlier than planned, I ate a hearty breakfast which gave me the energy for another full day’s sightseeing! The rest of the day was spent on a three-hour cruise around the whole of Manhattan with a superb guide, an afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a guided tour of their world famous Egyptian collection and a few hours exploring the beauty of Central Park.