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Sacrament, Tolleson, Arizona, USA
Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
Blessed Sacrament, Tolleson, Arizona, USA.
A stone building in the Spanish Mission style. Inside has a
colonial Spanish feel: red tile floor, white walls, dark wood
ceiling and window frames, windows of plain frosted glass, Spanish
style chandeliers. A communion table sits in front of a small
altar that supports the tabernacle; this is backed by a blue
wall on which hangs a large cross. Paintings of St Joseph with
the boy Jesus and one of Our Lady of Guadalupe hang to the left
and right of the sanctuary, respectively. The church still had
its Christmas decorations up: trees, poinsettias, a Nativity
The church: They celebrate two Sunday masses in Spanish and one in English, plus the Saturday vigil mass in English. Mass is also said during the week except on Thursdays, when they conduct a holy hour. Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament is held on Fridays.
Tolleson is a tiny (population 5000) community situated on Interstate
10 just west of Phoenix. In 1912, a certain land speculator
from South Carolina by the name of W.G. Tolleson, en route to
California, stopped in Arizona at a stagecoach station known
as Ten Mile Store. Liking what he saw, Tolleson bought up large
tracts of land and encouraged settlers to come to the area.
Incorporated in 1929, the town of Tolleson was the first in
Arizona to pave all of its streets. For most of the 20th century,
Tolleson's economy was dependent on agriculture. However, with
the completion in 1990 of Interstate 10, linking Santa Monica,
California, with Jacksonville, Florida, by way of Phoenix, Houston
and New Orleans, Tolleson has become a major shipping and warehousing
hub. Even so, downtown Tolleson retains a quaint days-gone-by
atmosphere rapidly disappearing from the American landscape.
The cast: The Revd Pedro Velez Prensa, parochial administrator, celebrated mass. He was assisted by the Revd Mr Peter Murphy, deacon. Mr Ben McClellan played the digital keyboard and served as cantor – but I’d rather call him Liberace, for reasons that will become evident.
The date & time: The Epiphany of the Lord, Saturday, January 7, 2011, 5.00pm.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
The church can hold about 200 and was completely full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden pews, angled slightly in. They looked like they could use a refinishing. I wouldn’t exactly call them comfortable, but they weren’t too bad.
How would you describe the pre-service
A recording of Gregorian chant was playing softly over the PA
system. I recognized Puer natus in Bethlehem (appropriate),
Pueri Hebraeorum (inappropriate – from Palm Sunday
liturgy), and Ubi caritas et amor (inappropriate –
from Holy Thursday liturgy). I didn’t recognize the other selections,
but the overall effect was very relaxing. People entered quietly
and knelt in prayer. An electronic carillon chimed outside,
clashing with the Gregorian chant. The sacristan, dressed in
street clothes, lit the altar candles with a mechanical barbeque
lighter. The church bell was rung immediately before the service.
What were the exact opening words of the
"Good evening. We extend a warm welcome to you all, and especially to our visitors."
What books did the congregation use during the
The hardbound Gather hymnal was stacked on a table
in the vestibule, but hardly anyone took one. They couldn’t
have sung anyway to Liberace’s accompaniment – but more about
that in a moment. Cards with the new English responses were
also available for the taking.
What musical instruments were played?
A digital keyboard, located up in the choir loft. I also spotted some music stands with mikes positioned next to them, but fortunately they remained unoccupied.
Did anything distract you?
Liberace’s playing was a major distraction. He chose an electric
piano stop from those available on the instrument, and banged
away at a volume that drowned out his singing (he doubled as
cantor) and in a style full of glissandos, trills, and other
embellishments that were fine for a Las Vegas lounge act, but
useless as an aid to congregational singing.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or
I was not expecting a dignified, well-executed liturgy, but
that’s exactly what we got! The entrance procession consisted
of thurifer, crucifer, acolytes (all in cassock and surplice
and, I’m happy to say, black haberdashery), deacon in alb and
deacon’s stole, and celebrant in a beautifully patterned white
chasuble. We sang "Hark, the herald angels sing" a
cappella as Liberace ran thump-thump-thumping up the choir
stairs a minute after the procession began. First and second
censing, and censing of the gospel book, were done with dignity
and grace. The bell was rung at the epiclesis as well as the
consecration. No chanting, though. The congregation seemed to
have the new English responses down pat.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 I tried hard to like Father Pedro’s presentation. He’s
a very young priest and was trying his best to explain the Epiphany
to the congregation. He spoke with a heavy Spanish accent that
was actually rather charming. I think he had notes in front
of him, but he tried to sound extemporaneous. He would have
succeeded had he not rambled on for half an hour after making
his point in about ten minutes.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon
Epiphany means "manifestation." The "plain sense" of the Nativity
is that God manifested himself to the entire world in the person
of Jesus: first to the shepherds (representing the Jews and
the common people) and then to the Magi (representing the pagans
and the well-born). God chose Israel to be the center of salvation
– it flows out from there to the whole world. The spirit of
Christmas is the light that dispels darkness. Jesus is that
light – the "new star" that the Magi saw. The gifts
of the Magi represent Christ’s kingship (gold), priesthood (frankincense),
and redemptive act (myrrh). We, too, bring gifts to Christ –
but we have only ourselves to offer. Let us open our hearts
to God so that we, too, can adore him.
Which part of the service was like being in
A beautifully executed liturgy in a church reminiscent of colonial Spain.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Oh, that Liberace! He chose good hymns ("We three kings", "What child is this", "Joy to the world") but no one could sing to his bravura playing. And no one did! Returning from communion, I realized that there were two other singers besides himself up in the choir loft: a young man and a woman. But no one could hear them. At communion, after attempting to have us sing "What child is this", Liberace launched into a solo that can only be described as Chopin on crack cocaine.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone filed out quickly.
How would you describe the after-service
None on offer.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 Lawk a'mercy, I’d like to. But they’d have to replace
Liberace with someone who could choose a decent-sounding organ
stop on the digital keyboard, if one is available, and play
in a style designed to support singing, not show off the keyboardist’s
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. It was refreshing to experience a liturgy of that quality in a Catholic church. But oh, the music! I wanted to scream!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I’m going to put Liberace out of my mind and try to remember Father Pedro’s charming attempt to explain the Epiphany to his congregation.
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