I wanted to give a brief orientation before my mother’s memorial service, so that friends who know her will have a little extra background on the music, the beautiful but antique language of this particular service, the intent of the readings, and finally on the resplendent church building itself. Let’s start with those, in reverse order.
New York’s St Bartholomew’s Church is an Episcopal parish with a vibrant congregation and a rich history. The church building itself is a New York City landmark, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is worth arriving to any service there 30 minutes early so you can walk around to admire the inspirational confluence of Romanesque, Byzantine and understated Art Deco styles and architecture.
This is my childhood church, and before that it was where my parents were married (that’s them pictured below with Dr. Terrance Finlay officiating).
That small chapel, where my parents married in 1957, is to the right of the huge central church. My brother and I pretty much spent every Sunday there in the 1960s and 70s. Though I have since lived in many other cities, St Bart’s and that little chapel in particular has always felt like home. So it’s appropriate that my mother wanted her memorial service there, too.
The chapel’s central focal point is an altar painting, Adoration of the Magi, by Ethel Parsons and her husband Telfor Paullin. Though created in 1919, the painting radiates a warm,15th-century Italian style, and complements those colored marble pillars that line either side of the chapel. Adding to the ambiance are beautiful stained glass windows to the right.
The stories in this stained glass are told simply, owing to the chapel’s origin role as a children’s place. The delightful unicorns, serpents and beasts inlaid at the altar; the slightly-lower-than-normal pews; as well as many other touches, complete the friendly, welcoming feel.
And by the way, as you walk in, take notice of the huge bronze doors welcoming children into the chapel.
"All thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children."
Top: St. Mark, the winged lion. Center: Jesus as a child, Bottom: St. John, the eagle.
The Language at the Memorial Service
My mother was very much ahead of her time in many ways: She raised two sons in 1960s New York as a single mom; she held her own with renowned business people, performers and naturalists; she was an in-demand secretary in the New York ad scene during the height “Mad Men” era; she hobnobbed with ambassadors at the UN; she traveled to every continent and around the world countless times.
But our mother Stella was a traditionalist when it came to the church: Church-wise, her world was firmly rooted the traditional language of the King James Version of the Bible (1611) and the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (1928). The churches have largely updated to more modern, more understable prose, but my mother felt comfort in the old words.
As a lover of the English language, my mother adored the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. There’s admittedly something centering about the Early Modern English style, as you can see in the opening lines of the service we have chosen for her, from page 324 of the Book of Common Prayer:
I AM the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.
St. Bart’s is a modern parish and the language of their regular services is plain, clear and beautiful. The language at my mother’s memorial will also be beautiful, but a little different from the norm. If you are younger than a certain age, in fact, the words you hear in the memorial service may seem strange, even ancient. But I think you will find it interesting and enjoyable, and hope that the words speak to you.
Genesis: Love of Nature
Her many friends from the American Museum of Natural History — and her travel friends and companions — may be pleased that we have chosen poetic opening lines from Genesis, celebrating nature, as the Old Testament reading (Genesis 1:20-22, 29-31a).
20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
Interestingly, these words are also tiled in mosaic in the ceiling at the center ceiling of the narthex (“lobby”) of the church. If you pause and look up as you enter the church, you will see these stunning designs, which were created by Art Deco artist Hildreth Meiere. Meiere was a genius who innovated much of the mosaic at St Barts, and won the Gold Medal of the New York Architectural League for these Genesis designs.
The 23rd Psalm
And — more times than my brother and I can count — my mother told us that she must have the 23rd psalm read in the 1928 language. So that is exactly what we are doing:
The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; *
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; *
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; *
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of
mine enemies; *
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days
of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
The Music at the Memorial Service
Music filled my mother’s life, and St Bart’s wonderful music director, Bill Trafka, helped us select several musical pieces that set the tone of the service. We’ve also added a newer piece to balance things.
Music before the service… (hint: get there 15 minutes ahead of time)
Sarabande (French Suite V in G Major) Johann Sebastian Bach.
Concerto in G Major, Op. 4, No. 1
"Ave verum corpus" Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(The Ave Verum is a sneaky foreshadowing of more Mozart to come.)
Music after the opening sentences…
HYMN 680 “O God, our help in ages past” St. Anne
The chords of this hymn form strong pillars supporting some beautifully poetic words:
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Interesting: This hymn was sung at the funeral of Winston Churchill and is fitting of him.
After Psalm 23…
MOTET “Lacrimosa” (from Requiem) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
While my mother mentioned Siegfried’s Funeral March from Wagner’s opera Götterdämmerung, we all listened to this and realized it would weigh very heavy. We decided to promise to ourselves to attend a performance of Götterdämmerung in the near future, so that we could instead play the beautiful Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, which she also loved.
We are privileged to have soprano Jeanmarie Lally at the memorial, and she will provide the vocals for Lacrimosa.
Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus,
pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.
That day of tears and mourning,
when from the ashes shall arise,
all humanity to be judged.
Spare us by your mercy, Lord,
gentle Lord Jesus,
grant them eternal rest. Amen.
Music after the Second Lesson…
HYMN “Golden harps are sounding” St. Theresa
This is a somewhat obscure hymn (at least for us Episcopalians) that my mother several times mentioned to our old friend and minister Bruce Forbes. Because most people don’t know it (it’s not even in the current hymnal), Jeanmarie Lally is going to provide a strong voice to help lead us in signing it.
Pleading for His children in that blessèd place,
Calling them to glory, sending them His grace;
His bright home preparing, faithful ones, for you;
Jesus ever liveth, ever loveth, too.
Before the Commendation…
SONG “Hear You Me” Jimmy Eat World
My son, daughter and I are going to perform this on guitar. While my mother was not up on modern songs, this is a beautiful one, and uncharacteristically mellow from pop punk progenitors Jimmy Eat World. We were inspired by this song because, two days before my mother’s death, I was outdoors playing it on guitar and a hummingbird came and hovered around my head through my singing of a full chorus. It seemed like sign to pay attention to:
May angels lead you in.
Hear you me my friends.
On sleepless roads the sleepless go.
May angels lead you in.
After the dismissal…
VOLUNTARY “Nimrod” (from “Enigma” Variations) Edward Elgar
Sir Edward’s is a beautiful piece that pairs well with the Jimmy Eat World song written about a century later.
We’re looking forward to seeing everyone who is attending the service on Friday. See the New York Times obits and Legacy.com for more information on the service.
- St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church - Wikipedia
- Main St Barts.org web site
- Architectural and Decorative Features of St Bartholomew’s Church - Seymour Durst, 1949. via the Internet Archive.
- Hildreth Meiere, The Forgotten Art Deco Artist - New York Times, May 1, 2014.
- Book of Common Prayer, 1928 (Acrobat PDF)