“We’re the longest running show on Broadway!” quips the rector of Saint Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church about their worship services. The church was founded in 1868 and had its first building where Longacre Theater now stands. In 1895, it opened the doors of its current incarnation along West 46th Street in Manhattan. In 1904, the area was baptized Times Square.
While Saint Mary’s might be at the center of the Great White Way, its performances are nothing like the musicals and other productions available in the vicinity. Rather, the drama and music are from another time and place – when church was theater and worship time was grand and mysterious, designed to inspire awe and point to the divine.
Saint Mary’s Times Square was created to be the Anglo-Catholic cathedral in the United States. During the mid-19th century, the Oxford Movement formed within the Church of England to reclaim Anglicanism’s catholic roots. It brought back liturgical practices, ornaments, vestments and other accoutrements more Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox than Protestant. The movement readily found its way and followers in America.
Since then, Saint Mary’s has kept its sublimeness. Walk through its doors and you are transported away from the din and bustle to peace and expansiveness. You are left speechless by the space before you, a French Gothic edifice, a city block deep and 80 feet high, hidden in midtown Manhattan. Statues and images of Mary, Jesus, saints and angels inspire reverence or at least respectful silence.
Walk into a service and the East facing liturgy replete with stunning vestments, towering candlesticks, exploding floral arrangements, and solemn ministers leaves you thunderstruck. Strains of Tomas Luis de Victoria, Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina, William Byrd and Maurice Durufle struck by a massive pipe organ and sung by a professional choir render you speechless. Thick, thick incense smoke takes your breath away. It is this that earned the church its moniker Smokey Mary’s. In a humid August day, the smoke hangs like a veil above all. It floats and lingers throughout. On other days, the smoke takes its time languidly undulating to a ceiling painted royal blue and speckled with gold stars.
In what appears anachronistic is a real church very much present and urgently needed in our day. Amidst all this splendor is down to earth Christianity and community.
While still new and unwelcome, especially among Anglo-Catholic parishes, women priests were invited to celebrate mass at Saint Mary’s. This cost the favor of many Anglo-Catholics to put it mildly. In 2003, the rector hired an openly gay and partnered priest as curate and without much thought announced the appointment in a newsletter read all over the world. This brought tears to the eyes of many gay men and women who continue to seek recognition and acceptance within the church.
On any given day, rank and file employees that inhabit the skyscrapers retreat to Saint Mary’s for a moment’s peace and solace. They are joined by the cleaning ladies and doormen of nearby boutique hotels along with dumbstruck tourists who chanced upon the place, make the sign of the cross then reach for their cameras. Resting undisturbed are a handful of homeless men catching much needed sleep and rest.
Saint Mary’s Times Square might at first glance be from another time and place, perhaps even out of touch, but look closely. At the altar and in the pews are men and women, white, black, Asian, Latino, young, old, gay, straight, rich and poor. Everyone is welcome. Everyone has a place at the table.
Bravo! May the longest running show in Broadway live on.