09 December 2009

St. Augustine Church

First, a quick apology. I visited St. Augustine on Sunday, but I didn’t get the opportunity to post a write-up until today because I was working on an essay all night Sunday night, and I needed to sleep last night. Also, this was such an incredible experience that I didn’t want to rush through it with a quick post.

But first, a quick digression. I left my dorm around 11:45 to get to St. Augustine’s for 12:30 Mass. I took the Orange Line Metro to Metro Center, hoping to transfer to the Red Line for one stop, to Gallery Place/Chinatown, and then transfer again to the Green/Yellow Line to get to U St./Cardozo. (For those not familiar with the area, here’s a map: http://www.wmata.com/rail/maps/map.cfm) When I got to Metro Center, however, I saw that the next Red Line train was arriving in sixteen minutes. It was 12:00. That would be cutting things awful close, because I still had to ride to Gallery Place, make another transfer to the Green/Yellow, ride to U St., and then walk two blocks to the church. So I made a pretty sneaky move. I left the Metro Center station, and walked five blocks to Gallery Place/Chinatown. I beat the Red Line train there by eight minutes, and I made it to Church with time to spare. I paid an extra $1.35, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid the “walk of shame” into a Church that you’ve never been to before. Sorry if this was a boring story. Coming from an L.A. perspective, I guess it’s the equivalent of taking the 210 freeway instead of the 5 and beating the rush hour traffic.

I was interested in St. Augustine because it describes itself as the “Mother Church of Black Catholics,” and is located in a traditionally African-American neighborhood, around U Street. I was very curious as to what this church would be like. It’s certainly not a stretch to say that there aren’t a lot of black Catholics, according to statistics, only 4% of American Catholics are black. According to their website, the 12:30 Mass featured a gospel choir, with both traditional and African-American hymns. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. Would this be a totally different service than I was used to? Or would it be just like the other D.C. Masses that I had attended?

The answer was a little bit of both. On the surface, the church looked just like many of the other churches in D.C. There were two large towers in the front, an organ, a colonnade leading up to the altar, and rows and rows of wooden pews. On two of the frontmost columns were purple banners with the messages “THE ULTIMATE GIFT/HOPE” and “THE ULTIMATE GIFT/PEACE.” Mass was very well-attended, and the crowd was lively before Mass. I got the feeling that the Church was used to visitors; before the Mass started, the choir director told everyone not to take pictures during the service.

The first interesting thing I noticed was the presentation of the second candle of Advent. A woman wearing no shoes carried the candle rigidly out in front of her and brought it down the aisle. She seemed almost like a ballerina, with careful foot movements and a balanced posture.
Oh, did I mention the Gospel choir? This was something that I had typically associated with a number of Protestant churches, but certainly not Catholics. Watching two dozen singers, both black and white, singing with such tremendous spirit and enthusiasm for their faith was refreshing and entertaining. They were accompanied by a full band, including drums, guitars, and saxophones. There was one band member who was playing a different instrument every time I looked at him: first alto saxophone, then soprano saxophone and then the flute.

I’ve often heard it said that an academic takes a simple idea and makes it complicated, but a communicator takes something complicated and makes it simple. The priest at St. Augustine was definitely a communicator. Father Patrick’s homily was down-to-earth, and easy to understand. He had a great connection with his audience. Whenever he made a good point, the congregation would respond with a chorus of Hmm-mm’s or Amens. This was another tradition that I have never seen in a Roman Catholic Mass. Father Patrick delivered a poignant message, that we pray to God because we have hope that he can lead us through our troubles. He described people in the Old Testament as oppressed, and that while the Bible mentions “big names” like Tiberius Caesar and Herod, the people come to John the Baptist for salvation because he speaks for God. It was because people had hope that God would deliver them from oppression. There is always suffering, he said, but God gives us hope, just like John the Baptist did. During advent, we light candles in the face of darkness. I thought it was very interesting when he pointed out that there are a lot of lights up this time of year, but we can’t appreciate them during the day. We can only appreciate the hope that God gives us when we realize that we face great struggles and suffering.

Father Patrick had a lot of great messages in his sermon, which I won’t take the time to post on here. It was a very long homily. I didn’t time it, but I’d guess that it was probably 30-45 minutes- much longer than the 15 minute homilies that I’m used to.

During the collection, a man on acoustic guitar took the lead in singing a hymn, with the choir backing him up. Towards the end of the song, he started a chorus of “There’s no God like Jehovah” that got everyone up on their feet. The choir was clapping and swaying side to side, and the congregation joined along. There was a lot of energy in that crowd. I don’t like to use the word amazing, but it was amazing.

The sign of peace gave me an indication of what an tight-knit community this Church was. People were walking around, hugging their friends, family members, and acquaintances. Some folks were just walking up and down the aisles, hugging and shaking hands with anyone in their path. I thought it was really sweet. The choir sang a beautiful song towards the end of the Mass telling us that “there is hope for the world,” and the priest jokingly admonished them for summing his entire homily up in one hymn.

St. Augustine has a lot of visitors, and they do a good job of making them feel welcome. At the end of the Mass, Father Patrick asked first-time visitors to stand up. The altar servers brought microphones to those who stood, and we announced where we were from. “Hi, I’m Michael Salgarolo, from George Washington University, originally from Los Angeles, California.” Some of the other visitors were from France and Brazil.

Mass at St. Augustine was inspiring. I was amazed that they were able to take many of the traditions of black Protestant churches and fuse them into the Roman Catholic Mass. What was even more inspiring, and what should other Catholic Churches should take to heart, was the tremendous, indescribable sense of energy and community. They have developed a community based on love and faith, and their unique Mass is a source of pride and comfort. When the two people behind me encouraged me to adopt St. Augustine as my new parish, I explained my mission to them. “Well,” one man said, “go to another church in the morning, but come to 12:30 Mass here.” I don’t know if I’ll have the time for that, but I’ll certainly keep them on my mind.

Feel free to comment, I'd love to hear what you have to say.

08 November 2009

St. Patrick "In The City" Church

I went to another church downtown this week, St. Patrick. Founded in 1794, it claims to be the oldest Roman Catholic Parish in the District of Columbia. Located at the intersection of 10th and G Street, it’s a short Metro ride away, walking distance from Metro Center.

The church’s design is very similar to the other ones I’ve visited. Columns flank the pews, leading up to the altar. It’s a medium sized worship space, not as wide as St. Dominic, but longer than the cramped Holy Rosary. Even though the church was plenty long, the first thing I noticed was the crammed pews. As I sat down, I barely had enough room to put my legs out, and the back of the seat seemed extraordinarily stiff. I must admit, I was pretty tired, and the uncomfortable pews made it impossible for me to doze off during the Mass. Maybe that’s the point.

The cross behind the altar was strange, but beautiful once I figured it out. It was marble, and depicted two figures on the cross. One was Christ, with hands outstretched. Christ was inside a larger figure, carved into the cross. The larger figure looked like an imprint that you make when you lie down in sand. Why was Christ inside this looming figure? Well, here’s the conclusion I came to. The larger figure’s arms were extended outwards, with hands pointing downward, seemingly limp. I realized that this was the outline of Christ suffering on the crucifix, the image generally depicted on decorative crosses. Upon second look, the smaller Christ figure had his arms pointed upwards, and he looked up towards heaven. The cross was commenting on the dual nature of the crucifixion. While we often look at the crucifixion as an event of sadness and suffering, it was also a moment of beauty and hope, because Christ sacrificed himself to bring salvation to his people on earth. The larger figure represents the suffering of the crucifixion, while the smaller figure is a reminder that it was also a moment of hope and salvation. (If I didn't describe it well enough, see the third or fourth picture below, and click to enlarge it.)

I was twenty minutes early for 12:00 Mass, and the church was almost empty. It seemed pretty empty up until about two minutes before, when large groups started pouring in. This Mass was more crowded than the others I’ve been to so far. This might have been because of the parish, or it may have been because this was the first noon Mass I’ve been to. I’d put my money on the noon factor: I figure most DC Catholics have just as hard a time as I do waking up early on a Sunday.

As the Mass’s one singer welcomed the congregation, a large family paraded through the church, taking up the first two rows of pews. I noticed that there were a lot of families in the congregation, surprising because the parish is so old, and the priests and deacon were certainly advanced in years.

The clergymen may have been elderly, but they were certainly not past their prime. The priest who gave the homily presented some interesting observations explaining why we need to have Christ in our lives. He said that temptation was really just a “scam,” like the scams we hear about in the news, to make us think we can be satisfied without following God. He told a story about a fudge sundae that he ate, and compared it to the nature of sin. He said that while it initially satisfied him, the more he ate, the less he was satisfied. Similarly, he said, pursuing anything other than God to achieve satisfaction was “destined to fail.”

The homily was nicely accompanied by the small children seated throughout the church, whose crying and shouting echoed cacophonously throughout the entire Mass. The priest finished his remarks just as the little boy behind me finished his third recitation of “Old MacDonald Had A Farm.”

I’m having a lot of fun with this project, hope you guys are enjoying reading it. Leave me a comment, I would love to hear what you have to say!

Pictures (click to enlarge):

25 October 2009

Holy Rosary Church

I was unsure about which church I wanted to visit this week when my roommate Loreto invited me to come to mass with him, his father who was visiting from New York, and some family friends. Of course, I accepted.

We went to Holy Rosary Church, in Downtown Washington, near the Judiciary Square Metro station (Red Line). Loreto explained to me that Holy Rosary is an Italian parish, and warned me that the Mass would probably in Italian. Always up for a new experience, we dressed in our Sunday best for the 10:30 Mass.

Holy Rosary is not a very big church, but it has a very powerful spiritual vibe. White marble dominates the space. Lining the way up to the altar was a series of intimidating white marble columns. The altar space was also covered in marble, with beautiful white angel statues on both sides. The flanks of the altar had candles and detailed statues of Christ and the saints.

The choir was sitting in the rear of the church, in the same loft as the organist. When Loreto and I first walked in, a prayer book fell from above, landing on the rearmost pew. Thinking it was a sign from God, I looked up, only to find the choir directly above me. Sometimes divine providence turns out to be a clumsy chorus member.

Mass in another language is quite an interesting experience. Though I am of partial Italian descent, I know absolutely no Italian. It was like watching your favorite movie in another language. It was a test of how well I knew the procedures and rituals of Mass: I didn’t know what they were saying, but I knew what they were doing. I caught on very quickly, reciting the penitential rite (“I confess to Almighty God, and to you my brothers and sisters…”) in English while the rest of the parish recited in Italian.

Shortly after, the crowd began to recite a prayer which had the cadence of the Nicene Creed. I was utterly confused, because the Nicene Creed is supposed to come after the homily. I thought this was a strange Italian tradition, until I realized later that they were reciting the Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth…”). This completely threw me off, because the Gloria is usually sung. Later, a man came up to the podium, read for a minute, initiated a call-and-response sequence, and then did some more reading. I didn’t realize what was going on, but once the deacon came up to read the gospel, I figured it out. The first man had read the first reading, led the responsorial psalm, and then read the second reading. Most of the confusion I experienced was caused by a combination of atypical procedures and the obvious language barrier.

The most fun part of the Mass, from my perspective, was trying to interpret the priest’s homily. Through my limited knowledge of Spanish, (I took three years in high school, I know enough to ask where the bathroom is) and my intuition, I was able to pick up a few bits and pieces. In the beginning, I picked up “luminare” and “speranza,” which mean “to light” and “hope.” “Gesu Cristo” was pretty obvious, and in context I figured that “Signore” was “God,” though it turns out that it really translates to “Lord.” Today’s Gospel Reading talked about Jesus healing the blind man Bartimeo in Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). Before the Lord gives Bartimeo his sight, he says to him, “Go your way, your faith has saved you.” Some of the priest’s lecture touched on the reading, I understood that he was talking about salvation, and he referenced Jericho and Jerusalem. I heard phrases like “paso a paso,” “camino,” and “Gerusalemme” (Jerusalem), which made me believe he was talking about walking down the path to salvation step by step, just as Jesus took the path to Jerusalem after giving sight to Bartimeo.

The music was very good, the choir was backed by a beautiful organ, as I discussed early. I didn’t recognize many of the hymns, but one that I found remarkable was set to the tune of “Kumbaya,” performed during the offering.

I was in an awkward position during the offering of peace. I don’t usually think much about shaking my neighbor’s hand and saying “Peace be with you,” but here I wasn’t sure whether to say “Peace” or use the Italian word “Pace” (pronounced “pa-chey”). I ended up just saying “peace.” I don’t think I offended anyone.

The most remarkable thing about Holy Rosary was the tremendous sense of community. After the Mass ended and we walked out of the church, the socializing had already begun. Loreto’s uncle Enzo was laughing and chatting with some friends, and gladly introduced us. The Italian Mass is a way for these families to stay connected with each other to their ethnic and spiritual heritage. It is a fusion of Old and New World, a way for the generations of the past to connect with their modern descendants. It’s a nice tradition, and I hope that it lives on.

If anyone has any input on my interpretation of the Italian, please feel free to post a comment. In fact, if you have anything you'd like to share, feel free to leave a comment.

11 October 2009

St. Dominic Church

The mission has begun, and so far, is going well. Today I went to St. Dominic's Catholic Church in Southwest Washington D.C. I wanted to start with a church that was close to campus, but far enough to be exciting. St. Dominic's is located about a block from the L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop, which is a few stops from Foggy Bottom.

Looking on its website, the parish is over 100 years old, and is run by friars of the Dominican order. I don't know much about the Dominican order, but it doesn't appear that they have an overbearing influence at St. Dominics. The stained glass windows depict events in the life of St. Dominic, but if I didn't know that, I would have appreciated them just the same. Similarly, if I didn't know that the church was run by Dominicans before I got there, I wouldn't have figured it out during Mass.

The church was built in a very traditional style. Stained glass windows are on all sides of the church, as described before. A large stone bell tower flanks the main building. The inside of the Church is very beautiful. Large columns extend all the way to the high ceiling, leading from entrance to altar. The cross, which is usually a fixture on the wall, was suspended in mid-air from the ceiling by big metal wires. I've posted some pictures below.

As I entered the church, I was greeted by the priest. A very friendly man, he asked everyone who entered if they were a "regular" or not. I told him where I was from, and what I was doing there. I got the feeling that this was a church that was very used to visitors. After all, they were in the middle of Washington, D.C., near a good deal of hotels and tourist attractions. He made several remarks throughout the Mass about visitors; at first I thought he might be referring to visitors coming for the National Equality March on the mall today, either protesters or counter-protesters, but judging by the crowd, I didn't think this was the case. It appeared that "visitors" were a regular part of life at St. Dominic, the parish bulletin addresses issues concerning "regular parishioners" as well as "tourists" and "visitors." This may seem uninviting, but it is not inconsistent with the other Catholic Churches I have visited in other tourist areas, such as Newport Beach and Palm Springs.

About halfway through the first reading, I came across a phenomenon universal to Sunday morning church-going: the Cryin' Baby. It was not a huge disruption, and the reader didn't take offense. At home, if there's a Cryin' Baby during the homily, our priest will stop talking until the guilty parent brings the child outside. There is no crying room at home, and none at St. Dominic, apparently, they've been banned by the church.

I came on a special day for St. Dominic parish, it was the ninetieth anniversary of the consecration of their church building. As the priest explained during the homily, the parish was founded initially by Catholic immigrants (mostly Irish, I saw traces of this influence in the second reader, who had an Irish accent) in the 1850's. Their first church burned down in a fire, but they persisted, building their current church in 1919. The priest emphasized the importance of having a "holy space" in which to conduct religous ceremonies and to become closer to God. In today's reading, Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the sycamore tree, and goes to Zaccheus' home to bring him salvation. For the parishioners of St. Dominic, the father said, God calls them into their consecrated church, their "holy space," to bring them salvation. For this reason, he said, this consecrated church is "more than just the stones that make up the building."

St. Dominic's website touts the church's excellent acoustics. The band and choir, made up of about eight people, was certainly an interesting combination. There were about five singers, two acoustic guitar players, a flutist, and a pianist. The hymns were mostly familiar, and the singers were quite good. At St. Dominic, music is almost constant. The priest sang almost the entire consecration of the host. He would talk/sing through a prayer, often followed up by a chorus/hymn by the choir. I couldn't figure out what the musical style reminded me of, but at this point, I realized that it sounded a little like musical theater. This is not a complaint, the priest had a nice voice, and it made consecration less dry than usual.

Altogether, the Mass was very nice. I'm glad I chose St. Dominic as the first church, and I look forward to going to another church next week.


10 October 2009


Hi, my name is Michael. I am a freshman at the George Washington University, and I am a practicing Roman Catholic. I moved to Washington, D.C. a little over a month ago, and I love it here. I am happy to report that I found a very welcoming Catholic community at the GW Newman Center, and have been attending the masses that the Newman Center holds at St. Stephen Martyr Church, near campus.

I am overjoyed at some news I received from my hometown. My parish, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, in Valencia, California, has just completed the new church building that we have spent over a decade building. From what I am told, it is a beautiful building, and I'm excited to see it when I get home.

I have begun to think about the different ways that Catholics worship. Some parishes sing prayers, some recite them. Some priests may emphasize certain themes in their sermons, while others will find completely different narratives. Some churches have been around for hundreds of years, some are brand new. Parishes themselves vary in size, culture, race, and socioeconomic status. Despite these differences, the fundamentals of the celebration of Mass remains the same. I find these differences fascinating. I've decided to embark on an ambitious new project for the next two years or so: to attend Mass at every Catholic Church in the District of Columbia.

The goal of this project is not merely curiousity, or boredom, but to help me determine what it means to be Catholic in America. I also hope to gain a greater appreciation for the diversity and unique history of Washington, D.C. My goal is to update this page every week with a report on a different Church where I have attended Mass. There are approximately 50 Catholic Churches in the District. This should be a great challenge, and hopefully a lot of fun.