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1919: St Thomas Aquinas, Avondale, Arizona, USA
St Thomas Aquinas, Avondale, Arizona, USA
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: St Thomas Aquinas, Avondale, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Phoenix.
The building: A huge complex of buildings in the Southwest Mission style – church, school, office and parish hall – connected via a cloister. The church itself is large, with a dome soaring 85 feet above the sanctuary and a 100 foot bell tower. It is cruciform, with pews in the nave and transepts. To the left of the nave is a cry room, to the right the Blessed Sacrament chapel with tabernacle conspicuously empty. Behind the crossing, a large square altar of dark oak sits in the center of a raised platform. To the left is a baptismal chapel; to the right choir seating with organ console, a grand piano and (alas) a drum set. Behind the altar is a reredos featuring a large crucifix and two statues, all of which were veiled in purple. Several shrines are positioned in the side aisles, also with veiled statues. The walls are lined with large oil-painted stations of the cross in the Mexican folk art style.
The church: The parish began in the early 1900s as a small mission church and became an independent parish in 1975. Today they claim to be the largest Roman Catholic parish in Arizona. They sponsor several spiritual and social activities, including Bible study, marriage preparation, a charismatic prayer group, Knights of Columbus, a prison ministry, and many others. They are especially proud of their music program (and rightly so – see below), with youth, teen and adult choirs continuing the rich musical heritage of the Western church. They also sponsor Music and the Arts, a non-profit organization that reaches out to the local community with an eclectic program of sacred, classical and popular music.
The neighborhood: Avondale is a western suburb of Phoenix. It was founded around 1880 by a certain Billy Moore, a renegade who (legend has it) rode with the notorious Quantrill Gang, a band of Civil War mercenaries. Moore built a railway freight station near a cold water spring, naming it (not surprisingly) Coldwater Station. With the addition of a saloon for those whose thirst just couldn’t be slaked by cold water alone, Coldwater Station quickly became a popular watering hole for stagecoach drivers. The Post Office established a branch there in 1911, renaming the place Avondale after a nearby ranch. Today, Avondale is a sprawling residential and commercial suburb of about 80,000. It is home to Phoenix International Raceway, a well-known auto race track. Each autumn the city celebrates Billy More Heritage Days with a community parade, carnival and street fair, although lately the event has fallen victim to budget cuts.
The cast: The liturgy was conducted by the Revd Thielo Ramirez, associate pastor. He was assisted by the Revd Mr Milford Suida and the Revd Mr Albert Scheller, deacons. A fourth cleric whose name I could not ascertain served as subdeacon. There was also one acolyte and two lay readers. Father Ramirez was vested in a red chasuble, the deacons in red dalmatics, the subdeacon in a red tunicle. The acolyte wore an alb and cincture. Matthew Sprinkle, music director, conducted a choir of 15 mixed voices. Mr Sprinkle was vested in cassock and surplice; the choir wore black concert dress.
The date & time: Good Friday, April 2, 2010, 3.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Service of the Lord’s Passion.

How full was the building?
The church is very large and can easily seat 600 in the nave and 500 in the transepts. It was completely full! I marveled at the size of the crowd for a Good Friday afternoon service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were of dark wood with dark brown upholstery. They were very comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People entered quietly and knelt or sat in prayer. The choir were rehearsing. The clergy puttered about the altar with their preparations. Just before the service began, the choir moved from the choir seating area to chairs that had been set up behind the altar.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us kneel."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There was an assortment of material in the pews, but we used a specially prepared service leaflet that contained everything – well, sort of (see below).

What musical instruments were played?
None, as is proper for Good Friday, not even to give the choir their pitches!

St Thomas Aquinas, Avondale, Arizona, USA

Did anything distract you?
Some people genuflected before the empty tabernacle in the Blessed Sacrament chapel as they entered (why?). Not all parents with noisy children availed themselves of the cry room. The liturgy didn’t always coincide with what was in the service leaflet – the leaflet omitted the solemn collects and reproaches, for example, and some of the responses were worded differently from what was actually said.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Solemn, dignified and inspiring. The clergy entered in silence and prostrated themselves before the altar. The liturgy followed the standard Good Friday order: lessons, passion, solemn collects, veneration of the cross with reproaches, communion from the reserved sacrament. The choir chanted the psalm to what sounded very much like Anglican chant (more about this later). The passion was recited by the officiant and the two deacons, but the choir did not take the turba part as is customary – rather, the deacons split it between themselves. The officiant chanted the solemn collects in a lovely pure tenor voice. Three men carried in a life-sized cross made of rough-hewn wood beams, and held it erect for people to venerate. It looked very heavy and very realistic, and one of the men especially looked like he was rapidly tiring! After the veneration of the cross had concluded, the cross was leaned up against the altar. There was no altar of repose – the reserved sacrament was unceremoniously brought to the altar from a credenza, and no candles were lit.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – The sermon was very good but Father read it from papers he held in front of him.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Good Friday makes sense only to Christians. "What kind of god would let himself be killed?" non-Christians might ask. "Wasn’t there a better way to reconcile a broken world? Couldn’t God simply have made things better by a stroke of his will? Did Christ have to die?" Even we Christians may ask the same questions. The central truth of our faith is a paradox. If the cross means only suffering and death, then our veneration of it is misguided. But the cross is incomplete without the resurrection, which changed the world for all time. It is a gift from God, and our gift in return should be a grateful heart. The power of Christ’s death and resurrection has made a clear difference in our lives. Can we take that difference out of church with us and into a broken world? Can we see hope? This is our challenge as Christians: to embrace the passion in its entirety, not merely to admire it from a distance.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This was one of the most dignified and moving Good Friday liturgies I have experienced in a long time. The choir was simply magnificent! Among their offerings were the spiritual "Were You There"; that grand old Victorian seat-wetter, the Tertius Noble setting of "Go to Dark Gethsemane"; Palestrina’s "Adoramus Te Christe" (taken at twice the tempo it usually is); and others of similar stature.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But does the choir have to rehearse in church? Are there no choir rooms? Especially on a day as somber as Good Friday, when people are trying to meditate or pray, their rehearsal was most distracting. Also distracting was the spectacle of at least two choir members chugging water out of plastic bottles. At least turn your backs, my dears, so we can’t see you.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The clergy processed out in silence, followed by the congregation. I asked the choir director, Matthew Sprinkle, if the music was always that good, and several choir members replied with a resounding "Yes!" I believe it! Mr Sprinkle and I had an extended conversation about church music. He comes from an Episcopalian background, which explains his good taste in liturgical music and the Anglican chant-sounding psalm setting.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If I were still Roman Catholic, I’d be there in a flash! As it is, I’m sorely tempted. "We’re very high church here," Mr Sprinkle told me. I mean, veiled statues during Lent in a Catholic church? And a subdeacon? And Anglican chant? Who could ask for anything more?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. From the clergy prostrating themselves to the veneration of the cross, I was reminded that to be Christian is to be humble.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The rough-hewn wooden cross leaned up against the altar.
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