St Mary Basilica, Minneapolis (Exterior)

Basilica of St Mary, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Basilica of St Mary
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 March 2016, 3:00pm

The building

It was designed by the late 19th-early 20th century Franco-American architect Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, champion of the Beaux Arts style and designer of dozens of Catholic and Protestant churches and cathedrals throughout the Midwest. The cornerstone was laid in 1908 and the dedication took place in 1913, although the interior was not completed until 1925. Pope Pius XI designated it a minor basilica, the first in the United States, one year later. Consecration took place in 1941. There is a large marble altar and imposing baldacchino. The sanctuary area is surrounded by a wrought iron grill. There are statues of the twelve apostles at the top of the grill, modeled on those at St John Lateran in Rome. There are several shrines, and a St Joseph chapel was added in 2000. Beneath each of the Stations of the Cross are contemporary paintings, abstract in design.

The church

This is a parish of 6700 families; its activities are extensive and described in detail on its well-designed website. There are six weekend masses and various opportunities for praying the office: services of morning prayer, solemn vespers, Gregorian vespers, and Taizé prayer services are held throughout the year. In November of each year there is an icon festival, begun in 1995 and designed to introduce Catholics to Christians from different Orthodox traditions. The festival includes concerts and evening prayer using different Orthodox liturgies. The music program is all-encompassing and involves numerous choral and instrumental ensembles, as well as a composer in residence. The social justice ministries are extensive.

The neighborhood

Minneapolis, which strides the Mississippi River just north of its confluence with the Minnesota River, is the larger of the two Twin Cities that comprise the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolis. The most obvious feature of the basilica's environs is the confluence of a couple of expressways very nearby. Across the street is a collection of specialty shops and upscale restaurants.

The cast

No information was given in the service booklet, but from their webpage I surmise that Johan van Parys, Ph.D., the basilica's director of liturgy and sacred arts, was officiant. Teri Larson, director of music liturgy, led the schola cantorum. Much of the music was composed for the basilica by Donald Krubsack, Ph.D., composer in residence.

What was the name of the service?

Solemn Vespers for the Season of Lent

How full was the building?

This service was held in the area behind the main altar. I estimate available seating was 100-120, and it was perhaps two-thirds full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

Reasonably so.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Light and peace through Jesus Christ our Lord," chanted.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A well-designed service booklet, used for all the Sundays of Lent.

What musical instruments were played?

A four-manual pipe organ, opus 3047 of the Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Illinois, installed in 1949. It was enlarged between 1981-2002 and now includes 72 ranks.

Did anything distract you?

Much of the service consisted of chanted psalms and canticles, and there are various ways for an organist to accompany them. At this service, the organist played the opening chord of each section of chant first, with the choir/congregation entering a beat (roughly) later. This is more common in Britain than in the United States (in fact, I don't recall encountering it in this country previously), and it was halfway through the second psalm before I got the hang of it.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

High, but not stuffy. Vespers proper was preceded by an entrance procession (we sang a Taizé Kyrie during it), lucernarium and lighting of candles, a hymn (Marty Haugen's "God of Day and God of Darkness"), and evening thanksgiving. After the psalmody, reading, gospel canticle and prayers of vespers, the choir and congregation processed to the shrine of the Immaculate Conception in silence; then the Ave Regina was chanted, followed by a versicle and response, collect, and sharing the sign of peace. Most of the service was chanted; incense was used in procession and during the Magnificat (the lectern and congregation were censed). A statue of the Blessed Virgin was also censed during the singing of the Ave Regina.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

There was none.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The singing of the schola cantorum, a mixed-voice ensemble of about 15 voices; they were quite exceptional. And I very much liked Dr Krubsack's settings of the psalms, Magnificat, and intercessions.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Only purgatorial, but it did feel a bit odd lighting candles at 3.00pm, when it was still light outdoors. I realize the difficulty, though, of fitting vespers in with the large number of masses the basilica celebrates each weekend (two on Sunday afternoon/evening).

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

The service concluded with the congregation sharing the peace. I decided to take a few more pictures; no one spoke to me, but this was not the sort of service that encourages socializing afterward.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

10 – My "10" refers to this service, which I would certainly attend on a regular basis if I lived in the area. I really don't know, though, if Materfamilias and I would want to be members of such a large parish.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The beauty of the music, the beauty of the space.

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