It’s been a while since I posted a church visit post. There’s a simple reason for that: I missed a week due to a slight case of the wine flu and I decided to post four churches in one post for Holy Week. So hang on for a long one. I don’t want to over clutter the blog with too much piety and devotion, so this will serve as a mega post in the project, befitting the holiest week in the Christian calendar. I visited five churches in the course of the week (I didn’t enter one due to the cancellation of the service because of the weather, so it will not count but I did drive three hours to find that out!). They were:
- St. Peter’s Episcopal, Osterville, Mass.: Palm Sunday
- St. Mary’s of the Assumption, Catholic, Fall River, Mass: Chrism Mass (cancelled)
- St. Barnabas Episcopal, Falmouth, Mass.: Maundy Thursday
- St. Michael the Archangel, Antiochean Orthodox, Cotuit, Mass: Good Friday
- St. George, Greek Orthodox, Centerville, Mass.: Holy Saturday Easter Vigil
Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday. Good Friday or Holy Saturday. I had no idea. Seriously. I’ve never “given up” anything for Lent. I have never had ashes smeared on my forehead and until this past Palm Sunday, have never come home with a palm frond. My Easter knowledge is pretty much defined by Sunday School, Charlton Heston, Mel Gibson and the usual highlights of crucified, died, entombed, risen. Then there are the eggs, chocolates rabbits, peeps, hunts, and plastic green grass. Holy Week is a pretty intense round of church, and given that the Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant Easter calenders coincide this year, I decided to make the most of it and mix it up between different churches and different denominations. I did not get to a Catholic church — I tried on Tuesday to attend the Fall River Diocese cathedral at St. Mary’s, but alas, it was rained out.
After the jump – five churches in one post, but only four count.
Palm Sunday: St. Peter’s Episcopal
I started off on Palm Sunday at my home church, St. Peter’s Episcopal in Osterville. It’s been years since I set foot inside of the little wooden chapel on Wianno Avenue, the church where my three kids went through nursery school, where my mother and step-father sing in the choir, where the sister of my boat building buddy is the music director. Yet … yet I don’t go to church there, and were I to become a faithful congregant, that’s the church where my paperwork is on file, transferred there from the Brooks School where I was baptized and confirmed in 1975.
The plan on Palm Sunday had been to head west, to Woods Hole, and the Episcopal church there, but I didn’t check the service times the night before and found myself at 7:45 am looking at an 8 am start time and a 30 minute drive. Being dressed, and having skipped the previous Sunday, I fell back on St. Peter’s and made the 8 am service a few minutes late. The plan had been to save St. Peter’s for the end of the 52 Church project, one of the last churches I planned on visiting — coming “home” as it were — but there I was on Palm Sunday, reading a sign on the front doors of the narthex telling me to enter through the vestry.
The church is located in one of the more affluent neighborhoods on Cape Cod, just steps from Nantucket Sound and East Bay and surrounded by some pretty amazing mansions and old summer homes gathered around the exclusive Wianno Club. In some regards St. Peter’s has the feeling of a summer chapel, but the interior of the church is very familiar to me, in the same wooden beam style that the Ashburn Chapel at Brooks evokes.
I came in through the side entrance, took a palm frond from the basket by the altar, and found a seat in the front pew — the first time I’ve sat in the front of a church — because the congregation was facing backwards towards the narthex where the reverend and his acolytes stood giving the first benediction and prayers of the service. I could find no program so I was flying blind during the service, with no idea what was happening or what to do when.
This was the 8 am early service, and the parishoners were older, with no children in attendance. Apparently the service began in the parish hall and followed a procession into the church to symbolize Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. Palm Sunday is a “movable feast” — not in the Hemingway sense of the term — but as an event that takes place on different dates from year to year, ie Christmas is always on December 25. Palm Sunday is the Sunday before Easter (and I have digressed at great length about the importance of Easter in determining our modern calendar) and kicks off what is variously known as Holy Week or Bright Week. The main days are — Saturday before Palm Sunday is the Feast of Lazarus — to commemorate the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Then there is Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday — the Sacred Triduum or three days leading into Easter Sunday, or in the words of the Orthodox, the Pascha.
The service at St. Peter’s was quite simple, but as I had no order or program to follow and bring home, I can’t recall the liturgy save for one point when the Reverend, standing in the aisle between the pews, read the account of the Passion of Christ, when Jesus was brought before Pilate, who reluctantly, and at the urging of the same mob that had welcomed Christ, ordered him put to death. I thought that was one of the more brutal and moving pieces of gospel I’ve heard read in the past six months, and it put a tone on the week that was hard to shake off.
I took communion and left hurriedly at the conclusion of the service, unsure of whether it was even over or not.
- This was the best dressed congregation yet. One gentleman wore a double breasted blazer that looked like it came from Jermyn Street.
- The Reverend Thompson, an interim pastor, apparently was active in the civil rights movement in the 1960s in Mississippi.
- The chapel is adorned with donor’s plaques in memory of various parishioners.
- There is a nice organ in the chapel, but on the morning of Palm Sunday there was no music nor choir.
The Non-Chrism Mass: St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Assumption
I wanted to divide holy week between the three big liturgical Christian denominations: Catholic, Episcopalian and Orthodox. My choice for Catholic was the cathedral in the tired mill city of Fall River, some sixty miles to the west, because the mass was unusual in that it was when the holy oil, or Chrism, was blessed and distributed to all of the churches in the archdiocese (including those parishes on Cape Cod). It was also the Mass in which the clergy from each of the archdiocese parishes came together to reaffirm their faith.
I figured this would be a good chance, in a good church (built in the 1850s), to see some good Catholic pomp. So on Tuesday, in a driving rain, I moved my calls from my home office to my headset, and started driving all the way to Fall River in order to make a 4 pm Mass.
I got to Fall River (spotting a potential Hindu temple in an old mill for future consideration), found the cathedral, a grey battleship of a church made all the more somber in the late March rain. I fed the parking meter, patted my pockets for camera, notecards and pen, and crossed to the entrance. There was tacked a little sign: “Chrism Mass Postponed to Wednesday Due to Weather.”
I said a very un-Catholic word and drove back to the Cape as NPR told me that Rhode Island, the state across the Taunton River from Fall River, was underwater and sinking and more than the disaster area it normally is. Oh well, I said to myself, no Catholic church this week.
No service. No random observations. Just a snapshot to prove I made the $$%&#$%^%@ pilgrimage. That’s what I deserve for leaving the Cape to find interesting churches.
Maundy Thursday: St. Barnabas Episcopal, Falmouth, Mass.
This is the church where I started this project last November, and while I didn’t intend to make any repeats, my good friend and guide Paul Noonan is a loyal parishioner and deacon of this gorgeous stone church on the village green in Falmouth. Some time ago he stood in my kitchen and explained the sequence of Holy Week to me, the different liturgies and what they signified. I knew firsthand how well the St. Barnabas choir sings, so I suggested to my wife that we take in the service together.
Maundy Thursday marks the Last Supper — think of DaVinci’s painting — and it was a Passover dinner with Christ and his 12 apostles. It is arguably the most important communion of the year in that it is the service that marks the creation of the concept of the “host” and communion, when Christ told the apostles that when they ate and drank they were to remember him.
This is also the end of Lent, the season of pertinence and self-denial kicked off by Mardi Gras. It is the beginning of the Three Sacred Days, the Triduum Sacrum. There is a lot going on in this service. It’s Christ’s last night alive. He knows he’s been betrayed, he knows what lies ahead. From the service program I quote:
“He gave his disciples a moving discourse on their unity and he gave them also the sacrament of unity, Holy Communion, as a concrete expression of his promise to be with them always. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word Mandate: meaning mandate or commandment. This comes from the phrase used by our Lord after he had washed the disciples feet: “A new commandment (mandate) I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The service commenced with the procession, an impressive affair given the large choir in their black and white gowns. St. Barnabas has the best choir I’ve come across yet on the Cape, and certainly the music is right up there with what I’ve heard at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco or the Orthodox Church of St. George in Constantinople.
The service was very interesting for two reasons. First, the homily by the reverend was about the scene at the Last Supper, a very direct discussion of Christ’s refusal to acknowledge the mob and claim the power the mob offered him, but instead to get down on his knees and wash his disciples’ feet. An act that confused them to no end.
The congregation was then invited to come forward and have their feet washed by the minister and her assistants. My wife and I demurred, but still, what ensued was one of the more intimate acts I’ve witnessed in a church. Basins of dirty water were taken out to the vestry, fresh water was brought back in large brass pitchers. And one after another the parishioners came forward, sat down, and had their feet washed.
We left at communion because I had a phone call with the China team at work, and thus missed the “stripping of the altar” when the all decorations are removed and the church is made harsh and austere for the day of Christ’s crucifixion, Good Friday.
- The foot washing put me off, but I can see the role such a ritual plays in creating a bond within a congregation. The entire point of the power crossing from the servant to the master, that to lead means to serve … I get it, it was still strange to behold.
- The depth of symbolism in the liturgy is very interesting and seems to reveal more layers with study. I can see how a church service provided an immense amount of “entertainment” to a pre-media world where the architecture, music, and ritual combined to provide the average parishioner with the most stimulus of their day-to-day life.
- The liturgy notes in the St. Barnabas program notes were the best I have read.
Good Friday: St. Michael the Archangel, Antiochian Orthodox Church
At the northern end of Main Street in Cotuit is the village of Santuit — the oldest part of the town with old colonials clustered around the disjointed intersections of Route 28, Route 130, and Main. Santuit once had its own post office (restored by my friend Fred) and has a different village feel than the center of Cotuit where I live. In the middle of it all is a building that once housed the EPAC Grotto, a village hall that could be compared to a Grange or old fashioned community center. The last time I was in the EPAC Grotto was in the early 1980s when my brother-in-law was the guest of honor at a going-away party there. It was a great party and I remember the beer, laughs, and his mother’s beef brachiole.
What does “EPAC” mean? My theory was it was an acronym for “Eastern Portuguese American Club” — given the annual June Portuguese Feast conducted across the street down by the Santuit River. Someone laughed at me and told me it was “Cape” spelled backwards, but whatever the origin, in the mid-199os the Grotto was sold and converted into an Orthodox Church, a classic example of why I started this project because of the hundreds of times I have driven past the place and wondered: “What goes on inside of there?”
Now I know.
On Good Friday I visited the St. Michael’s website and l learned the church would be conducting a Service of Lamentations at 6:30 pm. I arrived a few minutes early, parked, had a moment of entrance confusion, but went for the front door and stepped inside of a long building with an old fashioned tin embossed ceiling. The floor was the original old wood, stripped and varnished, but the rest of the place was unrecognizable from the old Grotto, but familiar after my visit to the Church of St. George in Constantinople for the Feast of the Hierarch. I made a conscious decision at the beginning of the week to end it with visits to the two Orthodox congregations that I know of on Cape Cod. Easter, or “Pascha” is the holiest days in the Orthodox calendar, and this year is a rare year in which the Orthodox and Catholic Easter’s coincide.
So, back to the old EPAC Grotto: the biggest change was the presence of a modest iconstasis, the decorated wall that divides the nave, or main space where the congregation sits, from the apse, the sanctum that houses the holy altar. The iconstatis has three doors — the central door is known as the Beautiful Gates, and is flanked with two other doors. It was, to be frank, weird to see an Orthodox layout in a village I identify with scrub pines, blue bays, yellow sandy beaches and the Federated Church. But …. here I was, in my home town, in the most mysterious and primal of the Christian churches.
As I entered an older man smiled.I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, so I put some money in the box and took a candle with a plastic cup thing (a wind protector I suppose). There was a stack of black bible-looking books with a little sign saying “Holy Week Services $25” – I was tempted, but because I left my wallet in the car, decided to take a pass and work from the printed program for the Service of Lamentations.
I sat in the far corner, out of the way, as I anticipated a full crowd given the solemn importance of the service. The congregation was a LOT older than most, and seemed, to my eye, to be a mixture of old generic Americans, some Slavs, and perhaps a dissident Greek or two. The Very Reverend Father Nicholas Manikas has a “hellenic” name, but from what I can gather, the church is part of a mainstream Orthodox faith known as the Antiochian Orthodox Church, which has a patriarchy and a national diocese system. Cotuit is affiliated with the Worcester archdiocese.
I will pedantically plagiarize from the St. Michael’s website and let you read what it has to say about the composition of the Orthodox Faith:
“Many Orthodox Christians in America proudly trace their ancestry to the lands and cultures of Europe and Asia, but the Orthodox Church in the United States can no longer be seen as an immigrant Church. While the Orthodox Church contains individuals from numerous ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the majority of her membership is composed of persons who have been born in America. In recognition of this. Orthodoxy has been formally acknowledged as one of the Four Major Faiths in the United States. Following the practice of the Early Church, Orthodoxy treasures the various cultures of its people; but it is not bound to any particular culture or people. The Orthodox Church welcomes all!
“There are about 5 million Orthodox Christians in this country. They are grouped into nearly a dozen ecclesiastical jurisdictions. The largest is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, which has about 500 parishes throughout the United States. Undoubtedly, the Primate of the Archdiocese, His Eminence Archbishop lakovos, has been chiefly responsible for acquainting many non-Orthodox with the treasures of Orthodoxy. His selfless ministry, which has spanned more than thirty years, has been one of devotion and vision filled with an appreciation of his Hellenic background and guided by a spirit of ecumenism, Archbishop lakovos has recognized the universal dimension of Orthodoxy. Hellas acted decisively to make this ancient faith of the Apostles and Martyrs a powerful witness in contemporary America.”
The service consisted of a small group of men and women singing, in English, a series of chants similar to those I heard in Turkey, but in … English, not Greek. The service had commenced with some pre-recorded chants playing through the speakers, but once the singing began I realized the service was beginning with Matins, or Orthoros, as the Orthodox perform the “morning” service the night before during Holy Week.
I quickly was lost, and just listened, having learned to follow the lead of the rest of the crowd on when to stand and when to sit and when to make the sign of the cross, something Orthodox parishioners do quite a lot.
After 30 minutes of repetitive chanting and singing and a lot of pleading: “Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy. Lord have mercy,” there was some activity in the sanctuary behind the iconstasis. The Beautiful Gates swung open, and a very cool looking piratical priest in a black robe emerged (it later turned out he was a Lebanese Arab and an attorney who had taken vows, but I didn’t catch his name). He circled a flower-bedecked bower on which was placed the epitaphios, an embroidered tapestry bearing an image of the dead Christ. As parishioners had entered the church, some went directly to the bower and kissed the epitaphios, some prostrating themselves on the floors like a Muslim at prayers.
There was some smoking censer work by Father Nicholas, lots of chanting and signing, some reading of some gospel, and then, subtly, a shift in the service from Orthros to the Service of Lamentations.
This was my first time in a church on Good Friday, and as the very piratical looking priest explained in the homily, what I was witnessing, is, in essence, the funeral of Jesus. That was kind of heavy and a bummer, and confirmed for me the gravity of the triduum, and the entire culmination of Lent and then Holy Week. The sadness of Maundy Thursday was nothing compared to the bleak descriptions of a man dying in a brutal way.
Crucifixion is not a pretty way to die. As it was explained to me in prep school Latin, it’s a prolonged death that culminates in suffocation as the condemned slumps and collapses. Add in the whole hammer and nail thing and the description of what happened on the cross some 1980 years ago is about as harsh as it gets in any religious account. The service at St. Michael’s did not dwell on the agony of the crucifixion. Instead it was conducted with a sort of dignified sadness and resignation that culminated when the priests lit the candles, spreading the flame through the congregation in a very nice neighborly gesture.
We followed the priests out the side door, through the parking lot, candles flickering, and stood before the front door as the epitaphios was held overhead as a sort of tent that the congregation ducked under as they re-entered the church. I did the same, never sure when to cross myself, but knowing the motion was from right to left with thumb, index, and middle fingers held together to signify the Trinity, and ring and little finger folded down to the palm to denote the fall of Man.
The cool thing about the Orthodox liturgy is its symbolic complexity. If you are into stuff like the DaVinci Code, then the arcane aspects of the Eastern Rite Orthodox liturgy will keep you occupied for a very long time.
- New churches with old rites and new lighting fixtures feel weird. I was spoiled by my first exposure in Istanbul to a very old, very important church in Fener. This is not to denegrate St. Michael’s — every church starts new. But the icons and art …. I wonder where one gets the stuff to decorate an Orthodox Church? There must be some interesting religious supply business someplace, somewhere.
- This was a long service. Two and a half hours.
- I felt pretty comfortable throughout the service and not too weird being there. I continue to prefer the complexity of liturgical churches as opposed to the Powerpoint-driven enthusiasm of the Pentecostal/Baptist/Born Agains.
- I would recommend to any Cotusion that they take the time to check out a service at St. Michael’s.
Holy Saturday/Easter Sunday: St. George Greek Orthodox Church
True story. I am not making this up.
On Saturday night, as I left home to drive to the 11 pm Pascha service at the Greek Orthodox Church, I decided to drive down Main Street (instead of Putnam Avenue) to see what was going on at St. Michael. As I rounded the corner by the mini-horse farm, the dog leg curve, a rabbit (yes, a grey bunny rabbit) darted out from the left side of the road and committed seppuku under the tires of the car. Thump- bump. Definitely dead and I wasn’t going to stop to confirm that fact in the dark.
“You have killed the Easter Bunny …”
I was pretty upset. Good atheists don’t make omens out of small woodland creatures who are crushed to death beneath the wheels of their German vehicles, but still I was upset. I mean …. I killed a bunny and there aren’t many of those around Cotuit. Squirrels? I get one or two a year. But that was my first rabbit.
On the night before ….
Racked with little animal guilt, I drove on to Centerville to the weird basilica of the Cape’s Greek Orthodox community, one that dates back to the early part of the last century, which had been serviced by a Green priest who would visit from New Bedford, but has now grown into a big congregation in a striking church built in 1980 on the corner of Route 28 and Strawberry Hill Road in Centerville near Lambert Fruit.
This is where the 52 Churches project started a couple summers ago. The church has a big Greek Festival in August, and being a total pig for gyros, souvlaki, tzatziki, and baklava I try to make a point to make the pilgrimage every summer. While sitting there, talking to my son’s friend parents, I saw the Father come out of the vestry wearing his finery and said to myself, “Whoa. Dude looks like he’s in ZZ Top.”
And so began my obsession with sneaking into strange churches.
Anyway, let’s wind up this holy week. This was indeed a supposedly cool thing I will never do again. Not because it wasn’t interesting — it was very interesting — but because Holy Week is a lot of work. It is hard being pious. I thought it was weird to think of people going to church 52 Sundays a year, but when I think about it, it is possible for a really devout person to add on at least another seven services between Christmas Eve and Holy Week alone.
I entered the church and immediately lighted a votive candle for the dead rabbit. I felt a little better and continued onwards, sneaking into the back pew and hiding myself behind a column. I definitely do not look Greek, having been compared more to the Big Lebowski-Dude version of Jeff Bridges than Anthony Quinn in Zorba The Greek. Bowties are also not standard and usual in the Greek-American community.
The title of the service was: “Orthros and the Resurrection Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom & His Catechetical Homily.” It began at 11 pm and ran until 1:45 am, thereby officially spanning Holy Saturday and kicking off Easter Sunday, a day the Orthodox refer to as Pascha, which in term has its derivation in Passover. Easter is regarded as a pagan term more tied to the spring solstice and other pagan rites (rabbit and egg fertility images, etc.) where Pascha is the noble term for the Passion and Resurrection.
The service was sung in Greek but spoken in English. Three older men stood on the right side of the iconstasis and displayed considerable stamina in chanting and singing for nearly three hours. One man in particular had a very good voice and was a pleasure to listen to.
The church interior was cavernous, with a huge barrel vault framed by four immense wooden arches. The walls were lined with icons and brass plaques bearing the names of donors and memorials. The iconstasis was more ornate than the one in Cotuit, and the banks of flickering red candles on each side of the Beautiful Gates were extinguished before the service began.
From 11 towards midnight, as Orthros concluded, the church rapidly filled with more and more parishioners until the place was packed and standing room only. As the crowd filed in I found myself getting sleepy and had to fight to stay away under the hypnotic influence of the droning chanters.
The service transitioned into the Resurrection Liturgy, the Protopresbyter revealed himself, resplendent in a red brocade robe. He has the awesome name of Rev. Fr. Panagiotis K. Giannakopoulos and has a commanding presence, ordering in a booming voice the stragglers in the narthex to move inside and find a seat.
Everyone held a candle. The lights were turned off. Only the red glow of the exit signs cast a rosy hue in the darkness. As the chanters sang there was some fuss behind inside the sanctum. Then there was a flickering weak light reflecting off of the curved wall of the apse. The Beautiful Gates were opened and out came the procession of Priest and Acolytes with a single flame. It was one of the most dramatic things I’ve seen, as the flame was used to ignite other flames and the light began to build and glow throughout the space. Slowly it made its way back, and I saw as it moved that family members lovingly gave light to each other, to friends, and the mood swung perceptibly from the doom of the death of Christ to the wonder of his being resurrected.
And then the light came to me and I thought about killing the Easter Bunny but all was well.
Hymns were sung. Benedictions said. Greek chants were chanted. And slowly, imperceptibly, first the young people slipped out of the pews and out the door, leaving their more pious elders (who didn’t have any parties to go to that late Saturday/early Sunday night). I hung in until 1:15 am but the chants were more repetitive, the prayers more verbose, and I left quietly into the foggy night of Easter Sunday.
- I have never eaten rabbit, but feel the urge building.
- The best thing about Easter is deviled eggs and Reese’s peanut butter eggs
- I wanted to go to the Cotuit sunrise service on Loop Beach, but I was shattered from going to bed at 2 am and could not make it at 5:30 am
- The Smithfield Ham from Edwards Smokehouse in Surrey, Virginia is a fine thing for Easter Dinner.
- I am glad I made it through Holy Week and owe a lot to Paul Noonan for his guidance
Coming up: I would like to find some Mormons