St. Peter Claver, West Hartford, Connecticut
New Year's Eve overlooking the city of Hartford from a hilltop home a few miles to the west, I promised another guest at the party I would visit again her parish church, on a Sunday when she and her husband would be singing in the choir. In my review of the previous visit (go to http://www.criticalchristian.com/reviews/review.asp?id=221) I regretted the absence of the choir whose melodic accompaniment to the mass is highly regarded as the crème de la crème in local Catholicism.
We arrived on the third Sunday in January. In years past that sabbath would be either the beginning or the ending of the octave for Christian Unity. Happy memories crowd around this liturgical date. Like Brooklyn 1968, Elim (Swedish) Methodist Church, across the street from St. Agnes' rectory, a Sunday evening, the room so crowded trustees of the church worried the balcony might collapse; nuns playing guitars and leading the singing of "They'll Know We Are Christian by Our Love"; a veritable love-in in the opening celebrations of the ecumenical impulse of Vatican II in the Borough of Churches. In succeeding years I preached the homily (not sermon!) at St. Agatha's, kissed the bishop at his installation at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and even served the Eucharist at my cousin's funeral service at St. Catherine's in Riverside CT, this latter occasion an unauthorized if immensely merciful gesture to my family, by the priest pastor, who, I later discovered, was in the early stages of a terminal cancer.
The pattern of congregational arrival at St. Peter Claver previously reported was repeated. At 9:55 a cadre of gray hairs (including us) sat in relative silence. In the next five minutes two hundred worshippers, most of them in family quantities, filled the benches in front and behind us. My companion in butterfly Christianity suggested that the sudden swarming of souls was the consequence of a class dismissal in the parish house. Casual dress was the norm. Conversations were hushed. The lay worship leader and the cantor arranged papers at the lectern. Three pre-teen altar girls lit the candles.
The building, which I earlier described as modern and spare, not unlike a Congregational meeting house, has been changed, and, to my way of thinking, improved. A sunlit, stained-glass-windowed chapel has been added at the corner of the sanctuary behind the Table, having the consequence of turning a darkened room into one filled with light. Newly tiled floors and freshly refinished wooden pews add to the pleasing brightness of the room.
The choir took its place on a raised dais (also new) behind the organ console. They and the cantor (the woman with a voice as clear and sweetly resonant as any singer of ballads might hope to be) led us in the singing of a hymn by Dan Schutte, a composer represented in The United Methodist Hymnal with "Here I Am, Lord." The tune was unfamiliar and the rhythm unusual, so the congregation sounded like most Protestant gatherings when faced with a new hymn: faintly whispering. We sang two other hymns during the service, one, also a whisper, by another contemporary hymnist, Marty Haugen; the other, a Welsh folk song I learned at Methodist Youth Fellowship in another century, the tune The Ash Grove, with other words, "Let All Things Now Living."
The choir, the occasion for our visit, must have known we were coming (they didn't) because they sang two of our favorite anthems, Mozart's "Ave Verum" and Rutter's "The Lord Bless You and Keep You," the latter rendition prompting my companion to declare how wonderful to hear the women, everyone of the thirty of them, singing as if with one voice. Crème de la crème is an apt description of the choir, although, I confess, I have yet to taste the musical menu at other Catholic churches in town. The bio of the organist and music director, Tim Stella, boasts his Broadway credentials. He is leading the church in oversight of the installation of a brand new pipe organ whose dedication should be an event of wide community celebration.
The pacing of the service deserves comment. I have often advocated dispatch and efficiency in worship, not everyone's preference, but in tune with the spirit of our time and place among middle-class Americans with busy weekend agendas. Not that worship should ever seem to be rushed; just that it should always be to the point. Most Protestant services bog down trying to use all four readings recommended by the Revised Common Lectionary (which see at http://divinity.lib.vanderbilt.edu/lectionary); and, after fielding congregational complaints, often cut the readings to one or two. This Sunday, in the liturgy of the Word at St. Peter Claver, the four readings and associated responses were covered without sensing on my part any frustration with the length of it all. Even the children in the pew near us didn't yawn their complaint.
The transition to the liturgy of the Table proceeded seamlessly after the offering and the passing of the peace. The distribution of the communion gave evidence of a well-trained congregation, mommies and daddies, grannies and babies, proceeding to the altar without the assistance of ushers. It seemed that the choir had no sooner sung Mozart's "Ave Verum" than the bread and wine of the Host were being returned to the ark.
As for the preaching, let's just say the sermon was short and relevant to the several texts; and it did conclude with an exhortation to those present to live their faith in the present moment. Were I in a Methodist church this Sunday I would be in this review more of a critical Christian. I only observe now that many in the Roman tradition have yet to catch up with the Vatican II imperative to give the Liturgy of the Word equal intensity with the Liturgy of the Table. It would also be very helpful to visitors like us to be directed with written or spoken instruction on where to find our place in the Missal provided in the pew rack, the better to follow the unfolding of the Mass.
In my earlier review of St. Peter Claver I faulted its website for presenting stale material. I am happy to report, therefore, that now maintenance of that site is current. Almost everything you could possibly want to know about SPC, including a short bio of the pastor and a description of the life and ministry of the patron saint, can be found at http://www.stpeterclaverparish.com/. A tip of my hat to whoever is responsible for seeing to it that the church is competently presented to the modern age.
Rating: three and a half haloes, again, hoping that a future visit will evidence a stronger presentation of the Liturgy of the Word.