St Cosmas & St Damian, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Cosmas & St Damian, Punxsutawney
Location: Pennsylvania, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 4 February 2024, 11:00am

The building

The parish was formed in 1870, with mass being celebrated in a parishioner’s home. The original Romanesque building was begun in 1885 and demolished in 1941, when construction began on the present Gothic Revival church. It was designed by Pennsylvania architect George W. Stickle, noted primarily for his churches in Pennsylvania and surrounding states. The building incorporates locally quarried sandstone as well as marble from Italy and Germany, plus cleaned and recycled bricks from the old church. Stained glass is from Venice. The exterior is marred by an ugly bell tower that looks like something the Jolly Green Giant would build with his Erector Set. The interior was renovated in 1982 and again in 2009. One’s eye is drawn to the simple versus populum altar, backed by a smaller Blessed Sacrament altar. A large mosaic of Christ the King and Great High Priest, dating from 1982 and replacing an earlier mosaic, towers over the sanctuary. An arched ceiling covers the nave.

The church

Their ministries are well documented on their website and include chapters of the Saint Claire Fraternity, whose members (quoting from their website) ‘look for ways to embrace the Gospel in [their] lives and try to help others to do likewise;’ the Apostolate of Fatima, formed to ‘spread Mary’s beautiful message of peace and hope for mankind;’ Catholic Daughters of America; and Knights of Columbus, among others. Of special note is the Funeral Luncheon Committee, organized ‘to help relieve unnecessary burdens that are often placed on families at the time of a funeral.’ There are two masses each Sunday in addition to the Saturday vigil mass.

The neighborhood

Punxsutawney, in central Pennsylvania slightly to the west of center, was once home to Native American communities that were plagued by swarms of biting insects, which they called ponkies. They named the area Punkwsutènay, which roughly translates as ‘mosquito town.’ European settlers arrived in the early 1800s, and the borough of Punxsutawney was incorporated in 1817. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of coal mining and a variety of factories, but these were mostly gone by the 1930s. However, Punxsutawney is largely known for the annual civic celebration that began in 1887. German immigrants had brought with them the tradition of observing the behavior of badgers around the feast of Candelmas, or February 2. If the badger emerged from its den on Candelmas and saw its shadow in the bright sunlight, it would scurry back inside and winter would last for another month or so. But if the day was cloudy, the badger would remain outside and spring would soon begin. Over time the badger was replaced by the groundhog. Punxsutawney turned the custom into an annual ‘Groundhog Day’ celebration that has attracted visitors from all over ever since. The film Groundhog Day, made in 1993 starring Bill Murray, tells the story of a reporter covering the event who becomes trapped in a time loop, having to relive the day over and over again until he changes his selfish ways. (The film was actually shot almost entirely in Woodstock, Illinois.) The church is located on State Route 36, one of the main drags through town, in a not especially memorable neighborhood of residential streets and assorted businesses.

The cast

A priest in full eucharistic vestiture, assisted by a server in alb, cincture, and (oh, the horror) red sneakers! Thankfully my smelling salts were nearby. There was also a lay reader in charcoal suit and paisley tie, and two eucharistic ministers. So far as I could tell, the clergy are not identified on the website, so I don’t know who the priest was.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

It looked to be pretty full from what I could see. I attended via Web live feed; there was no online counter.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. I attended online – but see below!

Was your pew comfortable?

My desk chair was its usual comfortable self.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

The video feed had the pianist playing some tinkly bits, but I don’t know what may have been going on in the church. The entrance procession consisted of server bearing the processional cross, followed by lector and priest. The entrance hymn was traditional sounding but I didn’t recognize it.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

‘Good morning. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

What books did the congregation use during the service?

There was a bulletin available for download but it contained only announcements and ads. From what I could tell, there were no books available for the congregation to use.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and what sounded like a digital piano. Naturally I saw no one in the congregation singing, but I did hear some feeble attempts – there may have been a small choir present, but it was poorly miked. This was especially evident in the psalm – it sounded like a cantor was singing the verses and the choir was joining in with the response – but I could barely hear them.

Did anything distract you?

The priest’s voice broke every now and then; I wondered if he was suffering from a cold. But the biggest distraction was the way in which I had to hear this mass. Their website says that the mass is live-streamed at 10.00 on Sunday morning and gives a link to click. I clicked the link at about 9.25 Arizona time, which would be about 11.25 Eastern time, expecting to find a YouTube recording of the finished mass. However, I saw that the live-stream was already in progress – they were at the Creed. Delving deeper into their website, I saw that the ‘Summer Schedule’ listed the mass as being at 10.00 but the ‘Winter Schedule’ listed it at 11.00. Is there no webmaster who keeps track of these things? So I attended mass from the Creed on via the live feed, and then I backtracked afterwards to witness the Service of the Word from the YouTube recording.

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

A mass done with dignity and strictly by the book. The server knelt on the floor when kneeling was called for. More power to you, young man – the time will come when your knees will not allow that. No incense. The Gloria was recited, not sung. The Kyrie, Sanctus, Mystery of Faith, Per Ipsum and Great Amen, and Agnus Dei were sung to tunes I didn’t recognize. Bells at the consecration. The Lord’s Prayer was recited, not chanted. At the exchange of peace, the priest and server did not exchange with each other. The congregation received communion under the species of bread only. Communion went pretty quickly, with the priest and two eucharistic ministers dispensing the hosts.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

6 — It appeared that the priest was speaking extemporaneously. I couldn’t tell if he had notes in front of him. As a result, although his message was sound and his voice was clear, I thought the sermon came over a bit disjointed.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Jesus began to form his group of disciples in the early days of his ministry. Mark’s Gospel relates Jesus’ first miracle – curing Simon Peter’s mother of a fever. There were people whom Jesus did not get the opportunity to heal. Mark’s Gospel makes it clear that Jesus wanted not to linger, but rather to reach as many people as he could. The human condition is such that at any moment we can lose what is precious to us. How do we react to that in terms of our relationship with God? These are difficult times for people without faith – and that is why Jesus came. He brought us salvation. He enables us to lead our lives as fully as possible. The promise is the same from generation to generation – we who believe will never die.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It’s not every day (alas!) that you see a RC mass done strictly by the book and including a server who is well-trained and knows exactly what is expected of him. I almost forgave him his red sneakers. And what a joy to hear traditional music, even if no one in the congregation appeared to be singing.

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

The organist took the offertory hymn, the very lovely ‘There Is a balm in Gilead,’ at a tempo that suggested that the balm would run out at any minute and they’d better hurry up and get some.

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

At the end, the priest added ‘Have a nice day’ after ‘The mass is ended, go in peace.’ The recessional hymn was ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name’ – the priest waited until the second verse to begin recessing out, and of course each row of pews emptied out the moment the priest passed. They weren’t singing anyway. I did hear quite a bit of talking before the live feed cut off.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I had already had breakfast and it was too early for lunch.

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

5 — Should I find myself in Punxsutawney I might stop by. It’s always a treat to hear a well celebrated mass. And I just might fool them all by singing.

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 split way in which I had to hear the mass.

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