Sunday, October 28, 2007

St. James In The Bronx

"The True Vine" by Louis Comfort Tiffany

On the Sunday before our Monday gathering of bloggers in New York City, several of us planned to attend the morning service at the church where Tobias Haller serves as vicar, St. James Episcopal Church, in the Bronx. I left about 45 minutes before the service from midtown. Big mistake. Definitely not enough time to get to the Bronx on a Sunday when subway services are reduced.

I found the station for the crosstown subway to take me to the No. 4 to the Bronx with no trouble, but - alas! - all the gates were locked. A few others came in, and then a nice couple from NYC took me and another out-of-town couple in hand and showed us the way to another station where the gates were not locked. They were getting off at the same station as I was, and they showed me the track to the No. 4. Once I was on the No. 4, I looked at my watch and knew I would be late for the service.

We began to speed through all the stops, and I began to worry that the train would not stop at Fordham Road, where I needed to get off, but when I expressed my concern to a gentleman near me, he said that it was an express only until it got to the Bronx - which, indeed, it was. When I got off, I knew to go left, but I did not see a church, so I headed under the el in the wrong direction until I asked directions and had the way pointed out.

Thirty minutes past the time for the beginning of the service, I arrived at St. James. Tobias was already preaching, as I slinked into a rear pew. If you think that Tobias does not use his thespian gifts in his preaching, you are wrong. He uses them with great skill, but he's not at all over the top. Here is the link to the sermon that he preached last Sunday. He said that I had missed only a few minutes of the sermon, and I see that is correct. I have long admired Tobias' sermons. They are simple and profound at the same time. He does not talk down to his congregation, yet his words are accessible to all. When he was preaching, especially on the story of Jacob wrestling with God, he used arm gestures that he may have learned in his acting days.

As though I had not made enough of a spectacle of myself by arriving 30 minutes late to the service, I had to go to the ladies room after the sermon was finished. I went outside and made my way around to the parish hall, but the doors were locked. I had to go back inside, walk across the rear of the church, then down the side aisle to the door to the parish hall.

The service was a sung Eucharist with smells and bells - lots of smoke from the incense. I suppose the cops on the beat in the area are familiar with the smoke wafting through the doors, or they'd burst in saying, "What are you folks smoking?"

Grandpère tells the story of a classmate of his who, with the first whiff of incense, would pass out cold, yet the powers-that-be kept insisting that he attend. In the Roman Catholic Church, where I spent most of my life, incense was reserved for solemn occasions or for the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, which became rarer as I grew older.

Since the altar is attached to the wall, Tobias faces east as he presides at the Eucharist, with his back to the congregation during the Eucharistic prayers and the consecration of the elements. That brought back memories of my days in the RCC before Vatican II. However, I had forgotten how much of the time the priest actually does face the congregation to exchange responses.

The congregation at St. James is warm and welcoming. When they pass the peace, they pass the peace, with many walking all around the church to greet fellow parishioners and guests. During the announcement period, Tobias introduced us as a group of Episcopal bloggers from here, there, and everywhere. I thought that took a bit of courage. I wonder what the congregation thought of us. How many of them know what a blogger is? Not many of my parishioners know. The congregation is predominantly black, so we brought in a bit of diversity, since we're all white.

St. James is a beautiful old Gothic-style church built in the early 1860s. The building contains several windows by Tiffany, including the beauty shown below of The Last Supper. At the link, click on "Tiffany Windows" on the left-hand sidebar to see them all.

My church is actually older than St. James, dating to 1844, but much simpler and of the classical style. Both our congregations are aware that beautiful old churches are lovely to have, but are often in need of fixing, which costs money, money, money.

Altogether it was a beautiful service and well worth the trials and tribulations of getting there.

I met up with the other bloggers and had a walk around the church. Afterwards, we went to the parish hall for coffee and cake and a chat. Pictured below are the bloggers who were present at the service.

Mark, from the seminary, gave a lift to Klady, Terry, Gabe, and me after my looong, southern good-bye to the others. Meanwhile, Mark and his other passengers waited in the car. I'm sure they were thinking, "Will she ever come and get in the car?" Mark dropped us off around West 59th Street and recommended a restaurant nearby, which we chose to try. The four of us had a lovely brunch. Klady and I had spent quality time together, but, at lunch, I got to know Terry and Gabe. Both are delightful company. We had good conversation, which included many laughs, and I was sorry when the brunch came to an end. They had to go home to take care of their dog. Imagine! They preferred the company of their dog to Klady and me. People and their dogs! However, I confess that the company of a good dog is sometimes preferable to the company of certain people I can think of.

I had intended to put the group picture at the top of the post, but when I saw how lovely the "True Vine" window looked, I demoted us to the bottom. I love you, my friends, and you are beautiful, but just look at that window.

Thanks to Doug for the photo. In the back row: Klady, Terry, and Gabe. In front: Doug, Paul, Mimi, and Tobias.

UPDATE CORRECTION: The picture at the end of the post is there because I saved the best for last. We truly are more beautiful than the Tiffany window.


  1. Great post- clicked into the amazing sermon too...

    I am so delighted that you had such a great time Grandmere.

    Looking at your photo makes me so sad that we could not meet. You have a very special aura around you, which I already knew without seeing you.

    No matter what Mad Priest says!

  2. Fran, I'm sorry that you could not make it. We had a grand time, and we hope to do it again. God willing, we'll meet the next time.

    You are too kind about the aura. I don't see it when I look in the mirror. All I see is my mother.

  3. Merci, Grandmère, for yet another post to bless those who were not there. I think what blesses me is the very human tales of the adventure/encounter, including transportation schedules and closed museums, the sharing of selves in community--it is all incarnate (so Anglican) and very wonderful. It takes us out of the abstractions of some of our discussions and the "virtual" nature of our intial connections and plunges us into flesh and blood (transformed by Flesh and Blood). Blessings!

  4. It is fun to hear these reports of the New York gathering. Wish I could have been there.

    By the way, over at Tobias's webiste, I accepted his invitation to share report card information which includes written witness of my kindness dating back to 1965. I thought that you might want to know.

  5. Paul, thank you. With regard to southerners and stories, we sometimes think we are all Faulkners or Flannery O'Connors.

    What strikes me about NYC is how kind and helpful most folks are, contrary to their reputations.

    KJ, I already left a response to you at Toby's blog, but he moderates, and it's not up yet.

  6. Klady, Gabe and I were so anxious when Mimi did not show up at the beginning of the service. Then, at the Peace, we all got one of those now-famous kisses.

    St. James's church was lovely, the mostly-West Indian congregation welcoming and warm, and the liturgy suitably Anglo-Catholic. The folks there actually applauded when Tobias introduced us bloggers. Did they even know there were such things as Episcopal Bloggers in the world? Do they know Tobias is such a rock star among us? Some do, I am sure.

    I never thought I'd get through an East-Facing Altar liturgy without getting mad, but somehow Tobias makes it all seem natural.

    Mimi, you may see your mother when you look in the mirror, but you also look astonishingly like my mom, too. Coincidence? Doubtful. Or maybe I wish she was just a little more like you.

    Until next time, cher, peace!

  7. QFC, that's right! The congregation did applaud. I forgot to mention that.

    I thought the East-Facing liturgy would bother me, too, but you're right, Tobias does it well. And his parishioners like it that way.

    Of course my looking like your mother is not coincidence; it's karma.

    Peace to you, my friend.

  8. I'm almost jealous that we didn't get there until Sunday night!

  9. Don't you just love Tiffany windows? They are music in glass. When I was rector of my first small parish in Brooklyn, there were several Tiffany windows, and I never tired of looking at them.

    My favorite stained glass of all is that gorgeous blue glass behind the raredos at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue. Did you get over there?

  10. Dennis, you should be jealous. We had a fine time - even without you, although it would have been great to have you and David there.

    DCW, the windows are exquisite. What a joy to see them.

    I have at least two more stories in me about my time in New York, and one of them is about a concert at St. Thomas with the Winchester Cathedral Choir.

  11. Well the window is lovely, but you all look gorgeous in front of that big red door. Especially you, Mimi.

  12. Thanks for more details of the "trip" - inquiring minds want to know!! btw I read that Tiffany's wife did many of the designs for "his" windows. Ann

  13. PJ, thanks for the kind words. I added an update correction stating that I saved the best for last - our picture.

    Ann, thanks for the info on the contribution of Tiffany's wife to the designs. I wonder if Toby knows that.

  14. Hello Mimi--

    It is so lovely to hear tales of the rest of your NYC visit. I'm sure that you were creating the warmth and acceptance that you found.

    I can't wait to hear your description of the sounds and sights of St. Thomas Church. It is one of my favorite places to hear music and sit in New York.

    'Twas an honor to meet you.

    - J

  15. JerseyJo, the honor was mine. Wasn't it a fine celebration?

    Diane, thank you!

    Y'all make me blush.

  16. Dear Mimi,
    Thanks for the rave review. You could get a job as the Mystery Parishioner doing church reviews!

    The NY Subway system is a struggle, even for natives and veterans. One develops coping skills, but it isn't easy!

    Thanks, Ann, for the note on Tiffany's windows. He relied on many women for the work in his windows, and especially the lamps --- Clara Driscoll not only managed the lamp divisions but did many of the designs. Tiffany was an artist and respected other artists and paid them well (one of the reasons his business eventually floundered). He was a bit revolutionary in employing women in roles previously reserved to men -- getting the idea when the men went on strike, he hired women whom he found to have not only smaller hands for finer work, but a better color sense. There was a wonderful exhibition at the NY Historical Society of Clara Driscoll's career and work. Tho the exhibition is closed you can still find info on it at the web.

    It was a joy having y'all visiting at St James... and you are always welcome back!

  17. The Mystery Parishioner? That sounds good. I could have a review column in one of Episcopal Church publications.


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