Archive for the '52 Churches' Category

Jul 18 2010

The Baseball Sermon: Cotuit Federated Church, 52 Churches

Yes, it has been a while since this church project has shown any progress. Trust me, there are two posts in the draft queue awaiting publication, but today I had to mark a significant event: the second annual baseball sermon at my village church here in Cotuit.

The Reverend Jeremy Nickel, my neighbor and friend and baseball buddy, pitched a gem of a sermon last summer at the Federated Church, preaching (to my ears at least) that Dave Roberts, the Red Sox pinch runner who sparked the greatest comeback in sporting history with his steal of second base against the evil Yankees in 2004, opening the door for the Red Sox’s first World Series championship in modern memory, should be canonized and given sainthood for his courage to step off of the bag and fly like the wind into the unknown and future greatness.

This morning Jeremy pitched his final baseball sermon, sadly on his way to California and a lucky congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area. The topic was, “The Imperfect Game”, and with artful elegance and insight the Reverend Nickel recounted the tale of Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galaragga’s tragic reminder that there is no perfection in the human pursuit, only the Daedalusian drive to try, always strive, to find perfection only to see it lost, robbed, by human fallability and fate.

Baseball is indeed a sport of awesome precision and regularity, yet also a pastime rife with errors and the capricious wiles of bad luck, misfortune, and emotion. The distance between the bases, the beautiful geometry of the lines, the time it takes for a catcher to throw a ball to second to try to catch a runner stealing the base …. it all fit beautifully, played out over a numeric routine of innings, outs, strikes, and plays that while tightly prescribed and timeless, is ultimately chaotic and as subject to entropy as anything can be.

The Church:

This is where Churbucks are married, where they are buried. I was married here. I have stood on the altar stairs twice — once as a sweating groom, then before that at my father’s funeral, stammering to choke back tears as I read these lines from Melville in memory of his imperfect but brief  larger-than-life life, and his unrealized dream of sailing around the world:

“”Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.

“Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.”

Those were sad words to say, words I always think of when I see the little shingle chapel in my comings and goings from the post office. I am not a parishioner of the church, but it remains my church, and while I planned on saving it as the last and final church in my rounds of 52, it had to happen today, out of respect to Jeremy and his wife Nicole, who are leaving later this summer for their new parishes in California.

The Service:

Fortunately I checked the church website for the time of the service, having mistakenly assumed a 10 am service when in fact summer hours called for a 9 am start. I popped upstairs, put on my 2007 Mike Lowell Red Sox jersey (he was the World Series MVP that year and is to my mind the ultimate Red Sox for his abilities, his good humor in the face of injury, and his solid performance in the clutch), and my battered and sweat stained Red Sox cap.  The walk across the park takes all but three minutes, past the library and down the shady bower of Norwegian Maples where the hippies congregated in a noisy tribal mob during the late 1960s. Up the little hill and into the chapel, steamy in the July heat.

I took the back pew, in the corner under an open window and started to sweat. In the pew before me sat Cotuit Kettleers Michael Faulkner, the fantastic centerfielder from Arkansas State and his teammate Chad Wright who also stands in the outfield and is also batting over .300 so far this season. To my right, politely standing so the women and children filling the church could have a seat, was the Kettleer’s coach, Mike Roberts, father of Baltimore Oriole Brian Roberts. It felt good to be surrounded by talent.

The pastor, Nicole LaMarche, opened the service with announcements, a bell-choir rang the introit, and Reverend Jeremy (@PeaceNick) was given a Barnstable Bat and an old framed map of the village from the grateful congregation.

He began the call to worship with these words:

“To worship is to stand in awe under the hot sun in Fenway, to smell the fresh cut grass, the peanuts being freed from their shell …”

Then he and his wife read, one after the other, some poignant quotes about the religion of the game. Including my favorite from A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of Yale during my days in New Haven, and perhaps the best commissioner of Major League Baseball of all time:

“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

The sermon was the best retelling of the Galaragga incident I have heard.

Then we rose as one and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

Flickr Video

Random Thoughts:

  • We’re going to miss Jeremy and Nicole
  • Baseball is one of the last great things in the world, a  place where children can stand on the field with their heroes, where youth displays excellence, where men like me can exult in the timelessness of the form.

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May 30 2010

52 Churches: Basilica Cattedrale Patriachale di San Marco, Venice

Published by under 52 Churches

A morning mass is the best way to gain fast entry to this famous basilica without having to stand in line for an hour with the mobs of cruise ship tours that infest Venice and seem to be an even greater peril to its future than global warming and the rising seas that flood San Marco Plaza every evening. The lines are atrocious, but to be fair are the only way to take in the entire experience of the 1000-year old church, one of the world’s most famous and certainly one of the most outrageous, with its homage to Venice’s Byzantine roots, its ties to the Holy Roman Church and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the rise of the maritime city-state into the greatest naval power of its time.

I rose early and walked alone from the Hotel Flora to St. Mark’s in the morning quiet, accompanied only by a few locals on their way to work and the first wave of workers trundling in pallets of bottle water, washing machines, hams, postcards, and cigarettes to restock the trattorias and tabacherria’s depleted by the previous day’s assault. A few puddles stood on the paving stones, left over from the previous evening’s high full-moon tides. The pigeons were gone, some high overhead growling and cooing in the smog blackened cornices of the piazza, ready to come back down and flock over some salmonella loving tourist’s hands and arms later in the afternoon. St. Mark’s is one of the world’s more ubiquitous tourism clichés, a place so filmed and described that one feels silly pressing the shutter button on one’s own digital camera.  Hemingway wrote, in Across and the River and Into the Trees, that the church looked like a “cinema palace” and the square, when flooded and devoid of pigeons was an unappealing place for breakfast with one’s 19-year old lover at the city’s oldest continuous café, the Florian. I didn’t mind, I was happy to see it open and empty as the sky pinked over the domes and spires of the fantastic church.

St. Mark, one of the 12 apostles, was a big score for the people of Venice, even after the Byzantine Emperor strongly suggested the city’s patron saint should be Saint Theodore, who, judging from his pose atop the column at the foot of the harbor, killed some crocodile type of beast. But the people of Venice wanted one of Jesus’ board of directors so to speak, so, upon the discovery of the long deceased saint’s corpse in Egypt, managed to smuggle it out of the country buried under an order of fresh pork, effectively masking it from Muslim detection until it was safe ashore. With a full apostle’s relics in their possession, the people of Venice pulled out the stops constructing a Basilica that surely must rank among the greatest religious structures in the world, certainly in Christianity.

The Church

The present structure is the third to bear the name St. Mark’s. Here is the Wikipedia being smart so I don’t have to be:

“The first St Mark’s was a temporary building in the Doge’s Palace, constructed in 828, when Venetian merchants stole the supposed relics of Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria. This was replaced by a new church on its present site in 832; from the same century dates the first St Mark’s Campanile (bell tower). The new church was burned in a rebellion in 976, rebuilt in 978 and again to form the basis of the present basilica since 1063. The basilica was consecrated in 1094, the same year in which the body of Saint Mark was supposedly rediscovered in a pillar by Vitale Falierodoge at the time”

The 7 am service took place in the western, or port-side chapel to the left of the main altar and iconostasis. Entrance was gained through a side door roped off by a velvet disco rope. A security guard gave me the eye as I entered, but the first rule of sneaking into anything is never sneak and always arrive with the full psychological expectations and body language of one permitted to be there. This has worked for me at everything from churches to Grateful Dead concerts, even crime scenes marked off with yellow police tape. I pressed through a pair of doors, through a green curtain, and into a small chapel arrayed before a gorgeous golden icon of the Madonna and Child. Afterwards I learned this icon had serious historical significance, dating back to 1200 when it was carried into battle by Venetian armies and navies as superstitious inspiration. Twenty candles in red glass pendants hung from the ceiling on black chains, giving the altar an ancient, almost Hindu aspect I recall from some of the inner sanctums of the Temple of Shiva at Madurai. In the center of the church rose the altar, iconstasis, and prayer chancel, a marble object so old and worn it looked dirty and greasy from centuries of hands touching and rubbing it for good luck.

The floor was a fantastic constellation of mosaic work and cracked marble tiles, swirling like the end papers of an 18th century leatherbound novel.  The columns before the apse, starting with the penditives that supported the circular base of the dome, were dark green like wet marine creatures, all dark but gleaming in the reflected sunlight that managed to murkily seep through the windows on the southern side of the cruciform nave.  The last column, against the wall was plain brick, red and crumbling, making, to my projected imagination, a statement about simplicity and unadorned

The Service

Two columns of prayer benches and wooden chairs ran back about 15 rows from the altar. I sat alone on the left side in the customary back row, three nuns took the last row of the right side, a gentleman in a trench coat sat in the second row, and that was it. Five congregants sitting quietly. An electric bell rang and two priests, each about my age, popped out from behind the main altar in white vestments with gold collars and surplices. They quickly strolled in front of the icon, turned on their heels in perfect synchronization and knelt deeply before the table. They lingered for a moment, then rose, turned and with upraised right hands, greeted us.

To state the obvious: the service was conducted in Italian which meant I understood less than ten percent of the content but was able to more or less guess along with the rest. Morning weekday services are very efficient, very effective, and meant to nourish the spirit before a long day at the oar of a gondola the way a nonbeliever like me needs a caffe macchiato to get things rolling in the morning. Speaking of which, I did zone out and caught myself falling asleep at one point – one those whiplash inducing bouts of narcolepsy where I made a loud and abupt “Snark!” as I popped back awake. I dragged my shoe on the floor to try to mask the sound with another like it, but it was no good, I had snored and the nuns busted me.

At one point the man in the raincoat rose and joined the priests by reading some scripture or bible verse. One of the security guards assisted with the blessing of the holy sacrament, helping by unfolding the holy towel/napkin and helping the priest when he poured holy water from a small cruet over his hands.

Communion was served and I decided to partake – something I do more often ever since partaking in Istanbul at the Feast of the Three Hierarchs. Communion was supposed to be verboten in this project – as I do not want to participate in any holy of holy acts up at the altar, but sometimes I feel so moved to get up close and personal and check things out, so that Wednesday morning in Venice, in one of the oldest places I have ever stood, I tagged along in the communion line, stood before the priest, opened wide and waited for him to intinct my wafer in the vin sancto and place it in my gaping mouth.

It was the generic communion wafer, made of some pulp/paper product in a special communion wafer factory. It was the size of a Sacagawea silver dollar and it cemented itself to the roof of my mouth. I thought about scraping it off with my finger, but suffered through it as the priest wound things up and the mass drew to a close. I was first through the green curtain, popped a picture of some water puddle in the basilica’s porch, and once outside in the morning light found my chance to get the wafer pried free. Five minutes later I sat down with my wife and daughter in the garden of the Hotel Flora and drank my coffee.

Next: an overdue account of my one and only brush with Christian Science.

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May 28 2010

D.H. Lawrence on Italian Churches

Published by under 52 Churches

“I went into the church. It was very dark, and impregnated with centuries of incense. It affected me like the lair of some enormous creature. My senses were roused, they sprang awake in the hot, spiced darkness. My skin was expectant, as it expected some contact, some embrace, as if it were aware of the contiguity of the physical wor;ld, the physical contact with the darkness and the heavy, suggestive substance of the enclosure. It was a think fierce darkness of the senses. But my soul shrank.

“I went out again. The pavemented threshold was clear as a jewel, the marvellous clarity of sunshine that becomes blue in the height seemed to distil me into itself.”

D.H. Lawrence, Twilight in Italy

Very strange metaphysical exploration by Lawrence, set in the Lago Garda region of Northern Italy in the Dolomites. Stumbled on the book and found this passage that seemed appropriate after venturing into the darkness of Venice’s St. Mark’s Basillica.

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May 27 2010

52 Churches: Santa Maria del Fiore “The Duomo”

Published by under 52 Churches,General

The opportunity to visit some of the great churches of Europe has always held a very exotic appeal for this 52 Churches project, but the problem is most of my business travel takes me pretty much everywhere but Europe. A recent vacation in Italy – my first real leisurely personal trip through the country – yielded two wonderful opportunities to really experience the Catholic Church in all of its Italian glory. I took advantage, and on two mornings woke early for the first mass of the day.

The first was in Florence, Firenze, in the great cathedral of the city, the “Duomo” or more accurately Santa Maria del Fiore and the second was in Venice, at the Basilica San Marco the ancient basilica that looks, in the words of Hemingway, like a “damned Cinema Palace.”

The Duomo in Florence is one of the enduring symbols of the Renaissance, particularly its astonishing dome, which was designed by Brunelleschi and completed in 1463. I climbed to the top of the dome, all 462 steps, and overcame a severe phobia of heights long enough to cling to a wall and peer anxiously out at the city arrayed along the Arno Valley.

One of the great advantages of church tourism is that the tourist has a certain pious priority in gaining access to churches otherwise overwhelmed by lines of tourists paying steep admission fees. By inquiring of a quard standing by the door into one of the side chapels I learned the first mass of the day was at 7:30 am. The next morning I hurried through the alleys of Florence alone, dressed as respectfully as possible in jacket and tie, humming the words of the Band’s great “When I Paint My Masterpiece” while enjoying a few minutes of silent streets before the whining hornet drones of the Vespas and scooters ruined the atmosphere.

I entered early and made a brief tour of the three altars, trying the entire time not to gawk too much in front of the skeptical guards who doubtlessly thought I was a tourist just trying to get a free unobstructed tour of the nave and apse before the mobs arrived. Photography is permitted inside of the Duomo — one of the few churches that do permit photography, but I didn’t press my luck during that morning visit, but instead tried to determine which of the three “churches” or chapels within the Cathedral would be the scene of the mass, which I assume would be called “Matins.”

The Cathedral

The Duomo is the fourth largest cathedral in the world according to the guide books, and was built by the wool merchants guild of Florence in the 1400s. Given that the Medici fortune was based on wool, there is a certsin syllogism that the Duomo is not only Florence’s most enduring landmark but also a monument to the power snd glory of one of the world’s most powerful and illustrious fsmilies, one that gave the church several Popes,  Queens, Kings, and overtime became the wealthiest family in the world. But I digress as this post is not a history lesson on the Medicis but a simple account of a trip to a great church.

I had read an excellent history, Brunelleschi’s Dome, by Ross King, before visiting and would recommend the same to anyone anticipating a visit to the Duomo. It is an amazing tale of Renaissance brillance, of a true “Renaisssance man” Filippio Brunelleschi, an inventor, architect, and artist who not only pulled out an impossible act of engineering but in also invented some key construction tools and machines that were the technical marvels of their time, being sketched by Da Vinci and widely imitated as ground breaking enablers of architectural wonders.

For ten minutes I sat alone in the northern chapel, as the cancles there were lit and the rows of prayer benches looked promising. but as I got comfortable and gawked st the soaring arches, pendentives, mosaics and stained glass windows I realized the action was across the nave in the southern, Arno-side apse. Off I went, taking the usual back row seat, satisfied I was in the right place when a gaggle of nuns in blue and white habits paraded down the aisle and took the first few rows on the starboard side. A few worshippers joined them until there were about a dozen of us waiting for the procession of the priest and his assistant. In the game of “One of These Things if Not Like the Other,” your’s truly was the obvious choice, as I stuck out fairly obviously as one who had no clue what the drill was.

A bell rang, we stood, and in marched the priests.

The Mass

The mass was conducted in Italian, and therefore my comprehension level was ten percent. mostly due to three years of Latin with Doctor Baade and Mister Burgess at Brooks in the mid-70s, three years of tedious declensions and genders that yielded a decent score on the SATs and enabled me to figure out some of what the priest was doing. The nice thing about morning weekday mass is the service is very accelerated and to the point. Prayers, a little Bible, Lord’s Prayer, the Credo, some silent kneeling prayer, some communion, greet your neighbor,  make the signo croce a few times, and all if over in sbout 30 minutes.

Of course there is far more than that going on. First off the priest’s words do some amazing things in a stone cathedral the size of the blimp hanger in Mountain View, California. Second, you’re genuflecting, kneeling, and praying in a space 600 years old, looking at a marble floor that is out of this world, and greeting the day under stained glass that was the 1400s version of George Lucas and the first Star Wars movie to the peasants.

More photos and details to follow when my internet connection improves.

Next, the Basilica San Marco in Venice

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Apr 11 2010

Cape Sangha – Buddhist: 52 Churches

Published by under 52 Churches,Cape Cod

As I draw close to the six-month mark of this amazing and humbling experience, I find myself not so much losing interest as losing my motivation to make a move on Sunday morning to the next church. This is understandable given last week’s stint of five churches during Holy Week, and I have to admit there was no way I was going to consider another Christian church this fine morning.

So off I turned to my local guide, a page on the Cape Cod Times website that lists, in some detail, the local worship options. Today I found, after months of wondering if I would ever succeed on the Cape, a Buddhist service, the Cape Sangha; a small gathering who follow the teachings of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. This was my first Buddhist service, and my prior education in the faith has been limited to a reading of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and a viewing of Bernardo Bertulucci’s Little Buddha starring a trippy recreation of Buddha’s life by Keanu Reeves. I have never visited a Buddhist temple nor worshipped/meditated in any formal sense of the concept.

I emailed the organizer of the Cape Sangha, Jim, and asked for permission to visit. He replied in the affirmative and so off I went for the 4:30 pm meditation session at the Unity Church of the Light Spiritual Unity Session in Hyannis near the Cape Cod Mall and the BMW dealership. I arrived a few minutes early, saw some others in the parking lot and followed them into the nondescript building and onwards into a nave-like space with about 100 chairs and an altar at the south end. I dropped my offering into a box, signed the guest book behind a large man with a big bushy white beard and a spring jacket with an eye painted on the back.

At the front of the “pews” was a small table covered with a cloth. On it was a candle, two framed photographs (of Thich Nhat Hanh I assume) and a small statue of Buddha. Around the table/altar was a ring of pillows for sitting in the lotus position. Around that collection of floor seating was a ring of chairs. As I cannot contort myself into the Lotus position I took a chair and sat and smiled at the two men in brown robe-like jackets sitting in the positions of prominence. I assumed one of them was Jim. By 4:30 there were 19 people gathered at the front of the church. A bank of candles flickered in the apse. There were no Christian symbols such crucifixes, but some potted plants and two tapestries which expressed sentiments along the lines of “Celebrate Community.”

I shed my jacket. I was dressed in jeans, clogs, and a polo/golf shirt — correctly assuming back home that a pair of grey flannels and a blue blazer with a bowtie would not be part of the Buddhist dress code.

What is the Cape Sangha? Let the website do the talking:

“The Cape Sangha is a group of folks who meet weekly to practice mindfulness meditation in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, scholar, author, poet and peacemaker. Our members are interested in numerous types of meditation, including Vipassana, Zen, Tibetan and nonsectarian mindfulness. You don’t have to be Buddhist to practice with us.”

The Service

I hesitate in calling it a “Service” per se, as there was no liturgy or rite aside from a benediction of sorts, the ringing of a handheld bell (in the shape of a brass bowl), and the prayerful hand gesture of namaste. Jim, the leader of the Sangha, welcomed us, encouraged us to move around and be comfortable, and then explained that there would be 20 minutes of meditation, followed by introductions and discussion, then another period of meditation before finishing in 90 minutes.

Shoes were shed, people sat very upright on the floor and in their chairs. Some sat with their eyes closed and their hands resting on their knees, palms up and fingers together. Jim recommended a deep breath to empty the mind, and then to focus on breathing — “Now I am breathing in. Now I am breathing out” — telling us that our “monkey-like minds” would think of the past and the future, but to focus back on the here and the now and the breathing.

I followed his advice and for 20 minutes found myself thinking about the bird outside (I believe it was a robin), the traffic driving past, and the sound of the airplanes taking off and landing at the Barnstable Municipal Airport just a mile or so away. I was conscious of random itches, and found myself speculating on the cause of a random itch, and how thinking about itching engenders further itching. A person coughed. I heard an occasional deep breath like a whale breaching. I heard people readjust themselves. My left buttock fell asleep. I fidgeted. I opened my eyes and looked around at the other people, freaked one of them would open their eyes and catch me peeping.

After 20 minutes the little bowl was tapped with a wooden rod, we opened our eyes, made the namaste sign, and then Jim asked us to introduce ourselves and give a “personal weather report” saying he himself was “partly cloudy.”

The others did the same — all saying their first names and hometowns (which were nearby: Mashpee, Centerville, Osterville, Cotuit, West Dennis), and delivering a little weather statement. There were a few “sunnies” and “clearings.” I introduced myself as “Dave, also from Cotuit. Visiting 52 churches and temples this year and today marks the exact half-way point.” Which I now realize was a statement in error, I am not at 26 yet. Today was 25 — but wait, actually, I haven’t written up second Orthodox church in Istanbul, and nor do I count St. Mary’s in Fall River ……

Then there was discussion of a recent PBS broadcast of a special about Buddha and Jim — who does not own a television — asked those who had watched the show to talk about it. This sparked an interesting discussion about Buddhism, historical evidence, the concept of the “middle-way” and the ecumenical nature of Buddhism which does not pray to a higher power, nor which makes any ecclesiastical demands on its practitioners to do anything or eschew anything in order to be saved or part of the program. I enjoyed that discussion very much. I thought about the surge in interest in Buddhism in the west, and remember my old mentor Bill Ziff scoffing at it. One of my favorite novelists is a Buddhist — Peter Matthiessen — as is Leonard Cohen.

A good number of people spoke — more than half of those in the room — and then we meditated again. This time I realized that like the Quakers I visited last fall, Buddhists put great stock in meditative prayer or silence and that the one thing that really appeals to me in the church/temple experience is the few moments of silence and reflection that worshiping affords.  At the end of the second mediation I definitely felt a little more relaxed and “emptied” than when I arrived, and I think I might try some meditation in the future to cut back on work stress and other psychic baggage.

At the conclusion I thanked Jim, put on my shoes and coat, and made the usual early exit. Before I could leave a lady stopped to ask me about the project, expressing her enthusiasm and encouragement.

Random observations:

  • Women slightly outnumbered men.
  • The Sangha is 14 years old.
  • The group was mostly over 50 years old.
  • It was a very refreshing experience after last week’s solemnity.
  • The parking lot demographic showed a lot of foreign imports and some liberal bumper sticker sentiments.

Next week: I fly to Beijing on Sunday, so I may seek a Brazilian evangelical service some night this week, or a Jewish service on Saturday. I may try to get in a visit to the Lama Temple in Beijing, though I understand from my step-sister that it is more of a tourist thing than a religious experience.

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Apr 07 2010

Holy Week – 52 Churches

Published by under 52 Churches

It’s been a while since I posted a church visit post. There’s a simple reason for that: I missed a week due to a slight case of the wine flu and I decided to post four churches in one post for Holy Week. So hang on for a long one. I don’t want to over clutter the blog with too much piety and devotion, so this will serve as a mega post in the project, befitting the holiest week in the Christian calendar. I visited five churches in the course of the week (I didn’t enter one due to the cancellation of the service because of the weather, so it will not count but I did drive three hours to find that out!). They were:

  1. St. Peter’s Episcopal, Osterville, Mass.: Palm Sunday
  2. St. Mary’s of the Assumption, Catholic, Fall River, Mass: Chrism Mass (cancelled)
  3. St. Barnabas Episcopal, Falmouth, Mass.: Maundy Thursday
  4. St. Michael the Archangel, Antiochean Orthodox, Cotuit, Mass: Good Friday
  5. St. George, Greek Orthodox, Centerville, Mass.: Holy Saturday Easter Vigil

Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday. Good Friday or Holy Saturday. I had no idea. Seriously. I’ve never “given up” anything for Lent. I have never had ashes smeared on my forehead and until this past Palm Sunday, have never come home with a palm frond. My Easter knowledge is pretty much defined by Sunday School, Charlton Heston, Mel Gibson and the usual highlights of crucified, died, entombed, risen. Then there are the eggs, chocolates rabbits, peeps, hunts, and plastic green grass. Holy Week is a pretty intense round of church, and given that the Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant Easter calenders coincide this year, I decided to make the most of it and mix it up between different churches and different denominations. I did not get to a Catholic church  — I tried on Tuesday to attend the Fall River Diocese cathedral at St. Mary’s, but alas, it was rained out.

After the jump – five churches in one post, but only four count.

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Mar 16 2010

Zion Union Church – 52 Churches

Published by under 52 Churches

Sunday’s clock change threw me a surprise, and a calamitous night of howling winds and slamming doors made it a doubly difficult morning, with me fumbling downstairs for the ritual of fetching the newspaper, watching the dogs relieve themselves, feeding them, feeding myself and reading the latest baseball news in the Sunday Times. As I opened the Times, the familiar clock graphic under the fold pf the front page reminded me I was out of time if I wanted to get myself to a church. I hadn’t picked a place and it was nearly nine, so I remember the suggestion from Paul Noonan that I might like to visit the Zion Union Church in Hyannis. A quick online search said services began at 10:45, so I relaxed, finished my oatmeal, then got on my way.

The Zion Union Church is a Baptist congregation of mostly African-American and Brazilian parishioners. The service is delivered in English, but the scriptures are read in Portuguese as well, and a Portuguese translator does a real-time translation of the sermon — to whom I can’t say, perhaps some remote worshippers listening in via the internet or telephone. I saw no UN-style earpieces or translation devices on people’s heads. I’ve hoped at some point to see a very musical, “gospel” type of service, and on Sunday morning I found it at Zion Union. It was, in classic Baptist tradition, a very vibrant service with all the accompanying cliches of “Can I have a Hallelujah,”  swaying in the pews with arms held high, and a great choir with a particularly wonderful lead singer who would have given Arethra Franklin a run.

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Mar 07 2010

Touro Synagogue – 49 Churches, Two Temples, One Mosque

Published by under 52 Churches

The oldest synagogue in America is 70 miles from my home, so it was a given that at some point I would make the trip. On Friday night, prodded by the congregation’s website that seemed to indicate that services would end on March 6, I rushed to Newport after work, taking a phone call on the way.

Rhode Island’s reputation for religious tolerance in the face of intense intolerance by the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies is renowned — fostered by the liberal attitudes of Rhode Island’s founding governor Roger Williams, who also established the nation’s first Baptist church.  Touro is the only example of a Colonial synagogue, the oldest Jewish structure in America and, as I said, the oldest synagogue. Visiting was a privilege, because if not for this project I doubt I would have had cause or inclination to set foot inside other than to admire the historical furnishings and architecture. As it was, I witnessed a moving, solemn orthodox shabbas service, met my first shabbas goy, and had a good historical experience.


The Jeshuat Israel congregation can be traced back to 1658 when Sephardic Jews arrived in Newport (then the capital of Rhode Island) from the Caribbean island of Curacao. Sephardic Jews emigrated — fled is more accurate — Spain and Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition, when Catholic jurists forced the conversion of  or put to death most Jews. An excellent, if exhaustive history on this topic is B. Netanyahu’s Origins of the Inquisition in the 15th Century. Those Jews who pretended to convert to Christianity, but continued to practice Judaism in secret, are referred to as Marranos.

For the first 100 years of their existence, the Newport Sephardim worshipped in private homes until 1750, when a wealthy merchant, Aaron Lopez, son of Portugese marranos, funded the design and construction of the Touro Synagogue (so named for its first cantor, Issac Touro).  Lopez became the wealthiest resident of Newport through his diverse business interests, but most notably his focus on the spermaceti candle industry — spermaceti being the waxy substance found in the head cavity of a sperm whale.

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Mar 03 2010

First Lutheran Church of West Barnstable – 52 Churches

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There has been a small Finnish community on Cape Cod since the 19th century and I am too lazy to do the research to plausibly explain why in this entry in the 52Church series, but they apparently, according to one local history, had a penchant for drinking and so a temperance society was formed at the turn of the century to quell their dipsomania. That society eventually became a place of worship and since Finns — and many people of the Nordic and Teutonic countries — tend to be Lutheran, so West Barnstable became home to the first Lutheran church on Cape Cod, the Suomi, or Finnish Lutheran synod to be precise. According to Marion Rawson Vuilleumier’s Churches on Cape Cod, services were conducted only in Finnish until 1943, when a second English service was added and the church congregation grew.

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Feb 21 2010

Seventh Day Adventists – 52 Churches

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Over the Christmas holidays while visiting in-laws in San Francisco, I was invited to a party at a wine marker’s cave in the mountaintop town of Angwin, California. As we wound up the steep road my friend said, “This is a Seventh Day Adventist town and university.” We flashed past a big church, the campus of the Pacific Union College, and then on into the back roads to our destination.

Intrigued, I did some research on the religion. Here are the basics: an American denomination formed in the middle of the 19th century from the s0-called “Millerite” movement, and was formally organized in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan (remember Battle Creek), largely around the writings and vision of its prophet, Ellen G. White, a native of Gorham, Maine who wrote prolifically of her visions which began after she was hit in the face by a thrown rock while fleeing a 13 year old girl in Portland, Maine.

The Millerites were a group formed around 1850 in upstate New York who, based on a close reading of the Bible, predicted the Second Coming would occur in 1844. It didn’t. Again, I will spare you my borrowed pedantic knowledge and point you at the Wikipedia entry, which, as I assume with all Wiki entries, shares the input of the church, its members and officials and is as balanced a definition and history as you can find anywhere. The church is unique in several respects, notably the observance of a Saturday sabbath, a high proportion of vegetarians and abstemious practices, and a strong tradition of extroverted charity and public works from hospitals to higher education. Tithing is encouraged — more on that later — and church members do not join unions or other organizations aside from the church.

I believe there is only one Seventh Day Adventist congregation on Cape Cod. I live about five miles from the church on Route 28 in Osterville. It is a modest, contemporary structure set slightly back from the road in a stand of pine trees.

The Service

The parking lot was full — most churches seem to be enjoying strong attendance these days — and I entered the narthex along with a herd of young people dressed in their Sunday best. I was warmly greeted at the door, handed a program, and made my way into the main church hall where I took the customary back-pew-right-hand-side seat. As I settled in I put on my glasses to read the program but the temple piece fell off, victim of a lost screw. As I flustered around trying to fix the specs, a jovial man introduced himself, a local attorney who it turned out was also the church pianist. We talked for a few minutes, me explaining the purpose of my visit, he telling me about his beginnings as a Catholic. Before I could ask him about his conversion the pastor, Rev. Mark Gagnon introduced himself. The welcome was warm and effusive and I was made to feel right at home.

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Feb 17 2010

Jehovah’s Witnesses – 52 Churches

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The plan last Sunday morning was to hit a “regular” church but on the way I saw a few people enter the Assembly Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in North Falmouth on Route 151 near the Massachusetts Military Reservation. I turned around and casually slipped in for what may be one of the more novel religious experiences since I started lurking in strange churches last autumn.

I try to find a new denomination everyweek so I don’t fall into the lazy trap of repeating the tried and true. With three Episcopalian visits on the board and two more scheduled I could easily be accused of sticking to what I know when the point of this exercise is to check out the mystery religions I may never have cause to visit again.  With this entry I officially cross the one-third mark in my 52 churches and need to start seeking out the significant Protestant holes in my experience as well as the religions that are going to be tough to track down (Buddhism, Hindu, and Sikhism are the big ones on the list now).

My prior experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been a few random door-bell-ringing-points-of-contact where well-dressed young men, travelling in pairs, come bearing pamphlets and prayers. The second was when I worked as an orderly in suburban Boston hospital and witnessed a drastic surgical procedure on a child who’s spleen had ruptured in a school bus accident and had to have surgery without the benefit of a blood transfusion which Witnesses prohibit due to a specific Biblical admonition against third-party blood. I believe, but can’t confirm, that one of my great-great-grandfather’s four daughters was a Witness, but that is based on faint hearsay and some found copies of the faith’s signature publication, The Watchtower.

Of course the Witnesses’  headquarters in Brooklyn is a familiar sight across New York City’s East River, and according to my brother-in-law Jim,  the Witnesses dominate the dry wall trade in NYC in the 1980s.  I have no reason to doubt his word on this, but at the same time I have no evidence that this is still the case today.

The Assembly Hall is a neat, trim single story building with no rooftop steeple or other overt religious contrivance. I parked and walked back around to the front of the building, up a few steps and into one of two doors. Two gentlemen dressed in suits immediately made me feel under dressed in my Merrill snow clogs, green corduroys, and blue blazer sans necktie. I scanned the tables for some sign of collateral (pamphlets, programs, etc.), saw none, but heard a man’s voice amplified through the sound system.  I said hello to the two deacons and entered the main room in the Hall.

It had three banks of chairs, about ten rows of 15 each, and was more than 75% filled when I entered. A man in a suit stood on the dais behind a lectern and was preaching on the topic of the Sabbath. As I walked to my seat in the last row of the farthest bank of chairs he told the congregation to turn to a specific place in their Bibles. Immediately I was at a disadvantage as I don’t own a Bible and none were furnished. I took off my coat, sat down, and started to take notes, not sure what I had missed as I obviously was entering late.

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Feb 14 2010

Cape Cod Synagogue – 50 Churches, One Mosque, One Temple

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I would make a terrible Jew.

On Saturday I visited my first synagogue and attended my first Jewish services since Hiram Samel’s bar mitzvah in 1972, thus this is the first Jewish visit of the series.  It was a reform congregation in Hyannis, one founded in 1933, located on Winter Street in a contemporary building that is at most thirty or forty years old. I give my participation a C minus at best, but throughly enjoyed the service, particularly the warmth of the congregation and the high degree of communal participation by all in attendance.

This was the most confusing service for me to participate in, with some serious revelations into the depths of my complete ignorance of the Jewish tradition. Example: I did not know the Jewish name for God (Adonai) I certainly do not know how to read Hebrew, let alone pronounce it. I am not used to reading from right to left. I could go on, but let me forge on first. I approach this entry gingerly as good mensch friends like Uncle Fester are sure to howl at my Judaic Ineptitude.

There are not a lot of synagogue options on the Cape.  The other synagogues I’m aware of are in Falmouth, a “Chabad” in Hyannis, and of course the oldest in the country, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. When my eldest son was in third grade he  participated in a “Local Heroes” project which paired him and his classmates with local leaders — his “hero” was the former Rabbi of the Cape Cod Synagogue — and so he shadowed the man for a term, visiting the synagogue on several occasions.   Of the religions I hope to learn the most about in this project, Judaism leads the list due to its venerable age and traditions, and  its commonalities and differences with Christianity (shared geographical locus, Old Testament history, etc.).

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Feb 07 2010

Christ the King – 52 Churches

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As I am back on Cape Cod sand after a weekend of exotic services in Istanbul, today I went to Christ the King, a large Catholic church in the neighboring town of Mashpee.  This is the second Catholic church visited in this project, the first being a Latin mass in San Francisco over the holidays, but one I had highlighted as a key visit in my local peregrinations. I have visited the large, white and relatively new parish twice before: once for my eldest son’s soccer banquet and the second for the funeral of a friend’s father. It is the largest Catholic congregation in the immediate area, perhaps on the entire Cape, and the church itself is the largest local church visited so far on the Cape.

Massachusetts is a very Catholic state due to the high influx of Irish and Italian immigrants in the 19th century.  I estimate half of my childhood friends were Catholic, and over time I felt I was in the minority as a non-church going, non-affiliated quasi-Christian. Those friends would talk about going to  “CCD” (catechism class) and when visiting me on overnight stays, would need to make arrangements to attend Mass at a local church. Catholicism is an integral part of eastern Massachusetts culture, and I’ve always felt excluded when in the company of friends for whom the church was a fact of life.  As a WASP I was part of a different tradition that was more English and austere than Latin and emotional. As the local political columnist Howie Carr once observed, Bay State WASPs worship in wooden churches, Catholics in brick. WASPs tend to have roman numerals after their names, Catholics’ end with a vowel.

In the 1960s and 70s the Catholic parish that went on to become Christ the King was in temporary quarters on Route 28 in the Portugese section of Cotuit near the intersection of Newtown Road. I remember attending Mass there with a visiting friend one summer, the services were held in a tent evidently because the congregation swelled in the summer months and needed additional seating. My memories of that first Mass were of being confused by the Sign of the Cross, the genuflection before entering the pew, and the large amount of memorized rote evidently taught in the catechism classes. I was lost and felt very left out of the internal workings of the church.

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Jan 31 2010

Sultanahmet Camii – The Blue Mosque: 51 Churches and One Mosque

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Today the 52 Churches project left Christianity after 12 churches and finally experienced Islam with a visit to the impressive Blue Mosque of Istanbul. This one was not easy, took some courage and persistence, but was well worth the extra effort and I am particularly proud that my introduction to Islamic worship was in such a venerable and magnificent mosque.

Formally known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in English (the Sultanahmet in Turkish), the Mosque was built between 1606-1616 by Ahmed I, whose tomb is located there. There is a detailed history on Wikipedia of course, so I will spare you the borrowed pedantry and let you click the previous link to educate yourself. It’s blue because of the extensive use of blue tiles throughout the interior, particularly in the immense dome, which in many ways mirrors the grandeur of Hagia Sofia, The Church of Wisdom, built 1100 years earlier across the grand plaza to the east. The mosque is notable for having six minarets, the most of any mosque except for Mecca, which was given a seventh minaret to retain its preeminence in the minaret department.

I tried to enter and observe prayers three times over the past seven days and polled several people about the etiquette and protocol of an infidel such as myself entering a mosque during prayers. In some cases and countries nonbelievers are firmly banned from entering mosques, but allegedly, because of the secular reforms of Kamal Ataturk, Turkey does not hold such a hard line and the Blue Mosque in particular is organized as a “tourist” mosque and permits visitors in between prayers.

Each time I tried to enter I was too close to the beginning of the next prayers and the guest entrance on the west side was closed. The carpet touts and would-be tour guides can be brutal and by my final attempt today, with only hours before I left Turkey for China, I resolved to make one last effort despite the warnings of many that I was a fool to expect to watch prayers. It simply isn’t easy and it isn’t like a typical temple or church where a non-believer can just stroll in and have a seat. Indeed, even in the Eastern Orthodox church they have a name for people like me — catechumen – who are supposed to observe the services out in the narthex outside of the nave. That apparently is NOT the case in a mosque, some of which prohibit a non-believer from entering at all. I was growing a bit pessimistic I would ever gain entry or worse, would have to disguise myself and enter in mufti like Richard Francis Burton did when he snuck into Mecca in 1853 disguised as a Pashtun (he also spoke nearly every Indian and Arabic language).  I am a huge Richard Burton fan by the way. He was one of the more amazing adventurers who ever lived.

Richard Francis Burton in Arab Dress

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Jan 30 2010

Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches

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(Brace yourself church fans; this is going to be a long one I think)

First the context. Then the church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world (after Roman Catholicism) and is the prevalent Christian denomination in Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is Greek in origin and traces its history directly back to Christ’s Apostles, emphasizing in its beliefs its unchanged connection directly  back to the foundation of Christianity.

It was the religion of the Byzantine Empire, which followed the Roman Empire and peaked in its power and extent in the middle of the sixth century but survived until 1453 in its capitol of Constantinople until the city was sacked by the Muslim Turks. The Patriarchate is the spiritual capitol of the faith, yet care must be taken not to assume that the Patriarchate is the “Vatican” of the Orthodox faith, or the Patriarch is tantamount to the Pope. He is, like the Pope, considered “first among equals,” and he is viewed as the leader of the Orthodox faith. Historically the position of Patriarch wielded immense power and in some regards was as powerful as the Byzantine Emperor. The piety of the Byzantine court cannot be underestimated, and the synods or early religious councils that were convened in the early centuries such as the Council of Nicea are fundamental to the history of all Christian denominations.

This is the religion of icons, of priests in black cylindrical hats and flowing robes, of smoking censers filled with frankincense. If you’ve seen Deer Hunter and recall the Orthodox wedding, then you’ve seen some Orthodox liturgy.

After the sack of Constantinople the Byzantine church limped around Istanbul, getting kicked out of one church after another as the Sultan converted Hagia Sofia — The Church of Holy Wisdom — into a mosque and commanded that no Christian church exceed a mosque in size or grandeur. Today the church is the small but elegant Church of St. George on the shores of the Golden Horn in Phanar (Fener), where it has resided since 1600.

From Wikipedia:

“Since the fall of the Ottomans and the rise of modern Turkish nationalism most of the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has emigrated, leaving the Patriarch in the anomalous position of a leader without a flock, at least locally. Today the Church of St George serves mainly as the symbolic centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and as a centre of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The church is financially supported by donations from Orthodox communities in other countries.

On 3 December 1997, a bomb attack seriously injured a deacon and damaged the Patriarchal Cathedral.[4] This was one of the many terrorist attacks against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its churches and cemeteries in Istanbul in recent years.The efforts to bring the terrorists to justice are continuing.”

The Service

Before travelling to Turkey I wrote an email to the secretary of the church seeking some information about services, but I never received a reply, which is not surprising given the incongruity of communicating with an ancient church through a digital pipe. Friday afternoon I used Skype to phone the Patriarchate’s press office where I explained my mission to visit interesting sacred places over the course of a year. I was referred to an American expatriate affiliated with the church, and one minute later had an encouraging discussion with a gentleman named Paul Gigos who told me my timing could not be better as one of the more significant Feasts of the ecumenical calendar was taking place the following morning, Saturday: the Feast of the Three Hierarchs.

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Jan 28 2010

Hagia Sofia – 52 Churches

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I realized a long standing personal dream today when I stepped inside of the Hagia Sofia and admired it’s 1500 year old dome.

I looked up at the distant mosaic of the Virgin and Child, admired the Empress Irene and the Pantocrator, saw the sadness of John the Baptist rendered in little mosaic tiles like a pointillist’s painting. I stood in front of the conquered altar and defiantly said the Lord’s Prayer to myself in an attempt to make this an “official” church visit– since no religious services have been conducted inside the great nave since Kamal Ataturk secularized the monument into a museum in 1935.

The last Christian rites were interrupted because of the sack of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453.  For many Greeks it was a lifelong dream to see that service completed yet it is unlikely Hagia Sofia will ever see another Christian service. The symbolism and the antipathies are too strong so now it sits neutral, a museum to a strange time when the Roman Empire morphed into the Byzantine. An American politician has made some noise about turning Hagia Sofia back into a church,  but ….

I walked on marble floors so worn and ancient they felt soft and comfortable like old shoes. I touched the Sweating Column. I stood before the altar, now defunct and confused with Islamic scripture, and wondered at the coronations, the Easters, the Christmases that were celebrated there in the glory days of the Byzantine Empire, the Empress behind, sitting with her retinue in her loge.

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It was freaky. To be there was an honor, an exceptional thing made real after years of reading about its splendor and magnificence, the Churbuckian version of a celebrity sighting only …. much more profound and humbling. To put it into perspective. I pay homage to history in my backyard that is four hundred years old — old weathered wooden houses and churches built by Pilgrims and Puritans. This was a wonder of the medieval world; at the time of its construction it was the tallest dome in the world and the largest enclosed space in the world. When one stands under the dome and looks up, blinded by the shafts of light through the windows, you have to ask “How did they get the stuff up there?”

Domes were throughout the  medieval era through the Renaissancs, incredibly difficult architectural challenges. The Pantheon in Rome is one great example of an ancient dome. The tale of Fillipio Brunelleschi’s great feat in giving Florence a dome on its Cathedral is fascinating. Domes were very high tech for their time, and Hagia Sofia’s is all the more remarkable for its early implementation and sheer size. Hagia Sofia has had several domes, the first one collapsed in 558 in an earthquake and had to be rebuilt. It was hit again in 868 and 989, yet the Emperors kept rebuilding.

The Hagia Sofia was the church of the Byzantine emperors, administered by the Patriarch of Constantinople, built by 10,000 laborers in six years and completed in 527 AD. It was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian and is a reflection of Roman culture for Constantinople was Nova Roma, the new Rome established by the Emperor Constantine — the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity — as a way to move the center of power from the tired and corrupt precincts of Rome to the strategically brilliant locale of Byzantium, a Greek village that dominated the Bosporous, arguably one of the most geographically strategic pieces of land in the world.

Hagia Sofia is a place of so many superlatives that it is hard to follow in the words of the historian Procopius or modern writers such as John Julius Norwich and Lord Stephen Runciman and describe it’s majesty.

The Service

There wasn’t any. There were a lot of Turkish and Japanese tourists. Everyone was holding a camera out in front of them, and some workers were erecting scaffoldings to commence some restoration work. I made my way to the altar and felt a little awestruck, but other than that … no music, no liturgy, no prayers. There was a huge feeling of, well, history, agelessness, ghosts, and some pride in being a human.

Random Observations

  • The first church I paid to enter. 20 Turkish lira. The ticket says “Ayasofya” the Turkish name for Hagia Sofia.
  • I will return before I leave on Sunday. It deserves a second visit I think.
  • The eastern porch smelled funny
  • The Sweating Column was very strange and has me convinced I have contracted a weird disease.
  • There are no stairs to the upper balcony, but a series of ramps with incredibly worn down stones.
  • The mosaics that remain, the Comenus, the Pantocrator, the one high above the altar of the Virgin …. simply breathtaking works of art. The Muslims plastered over most of them in the 15th century as Islam prohibits such imagery.
  • The external architecture is evidently the finest example of Byzantine architecture extant. It remind me a little of the Greek Orthodox church in Centerville on Cape Cod.
  • The big discs hung by the Muslims around the interior upset me as they have when I have seen them in photographs, yet I understand that the structure was holy to those Muslims who worshipped there for 500 years.
  • My chances for attending Muslim prayers grow slim. Colleagues are warning me away.

Next: more church in Istanbul!

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Jan 17 2010

Osterville Baptist Church — 52 Churches

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I resumed the journey to visit 52 places of worship in one year and returned to my home base on Cape Cod this Sunday morning with a visit to my first Baptist church, the Osterville Baptist Church in the center of the village of Osterville. Baptists are among the more mysterious Christian denominations for me, and perhaps the most ridden with cliches and preconceptions to my uninformed mind.

The church dominates the center of the stylish village, nicknamed “Imposterville” by one friend for its glitz and wealth. As a year-round community, Osterville is a quiet village populated by a growing community of middle class working people and merchants. As a summer resort it is home to celebrities and the ultra-wealthy, with some magnificent estates and many waterfront “starter Castles” and McMansions.  It is also a renowned yachting center and home to the Crosby Yacht Yard — birthplace of the totemic Cape Cod Catboat. In January the streets are quiet, in June they are bustling and shining.

Built in 1837, the church is a large white Greek Revival church on the intersection of Main Street and Wianno Avenue in the center of the village. I possess very little historical background on the building and its congregation, and don’t know if it has been a Baptist church over the course of  its entire history.

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Jan 15 2010

Sacred Sites at Sacred Destinations – Explore sacred sites, religious sites, sacred places

Published by under 52 Churches

This will come in handy in Turkey the week after next. I need to get some serious 52 Church work in — and am thinking specifically of the Blue Mosque.

“Sacred Destinations is an ecumenical guide to more than 1,250 sacred sites, holy places, pilgrimage destinations, religious architecture and sacred art in over 60 countries around the world. In addition to richly illustrated articles, there are photo galleries containing over 24,000 high-quality images plus detailed maps and lots of practical travel information. Happy exploring!”

via Sacred Sites at Sacred Destinations – Explore sacred sites, religious sites, sacred places.

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Jan 03 2010

Saints Peter and Paul, San Francisco – 52 Churches

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I picked a Catholic church for my last Sunday in San Francisco, largely for two reasons: sentiment and novelty. Saints Peter and Paul Church presides over Washington Park in the city’s North Beach neighborhood, a twin towered handsome white church I’ve admired since I first lived in San Francisco in the early 1980s. It is the church where Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were said to have been married — at least so said my bartender friends back in the day — but as it turns out Joltin’ Joe did not tie the knot to Marilyn there, but posed for photographs on its steps after their civil ceremony. DiMaggio’s funeral was held in the church in 1999 and he was married to his first wife in the church in 1939.

I have never witnessed a Latin Mass before andsince the church conducts one at 11:45 am on the first Sunday of every month, I took the opportunity while it was available.

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Dec 28 2009

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church – 52 Churches

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The most dreaded words in the Churbuck lexicon are: “Everybody get on your feet and put your hands together.” I am an unwilling, stolid, and confused participant in most group activities.
From square-dancing to collegiate acapella singing groups – David Churbuck is not your man. I dislike physical contact with strangers, am an awkward wooden hugger, air-kiss Europeans like a head injury victim, and get embarrassed by physical therapy sessions and trips to the chiropractor. I am, in short, the perfect repressed WASP who is content to let others sing and dance and who is happy to suffer in silence rather than submit to the sketchy intimacy of a massage or the group conviviality of line dancing.

My wife and children know this, and love to torment me in volunteering me for trips to the stage to be sawn in half by the magician. I have a severe autonomic physical reaction to this stress – a sort of perspiring performance anxiety – which escalates the more I am exhorted to sing, which I am reluctant to do as my only comfortable singing voice in somewhere in the key of Kermit the Frog.

Being an intrepid liturgical explorer, I woke early this morning in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood and decided to knock off this week’s church visit by simply going to the closest church in the neighborhood. Hence today was my first walk-to-church experience, one I am most grateful for because it underscores the founding question behind this project: I wonder what goes on inside of that place on any given Sunday?

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