St. Mary Cathedral – Austin, TX

Sunday #8 – St. Mary Cathedral, 203 East 10th Street, Austin, TX


Why This Church?

Last week’s visit to the Church Under the Bridge surprised me. I had not expected to find stained glass in their building. But since then, I’ve learned that churches of all sizes and denominations incorporate narratives from the Bible through the use of stained glass. Since I had to be in Austin this weekend, I set out to find a Catholic church with beautiful stained glass to fuel my ongoing interest in the art.

Mike and I often talked about learning the art of making stained glass. We never did. Yet, we always enjoyed it in whatever form we found it – fake Tiffany lamps, fixtures or nighlights. In fact, at his memorial service, my daughter Barbie told the most heart-warming story that involved his love of stained glass. Over a recent Christmas vacation to Paris, Mike, Barbie and Heather had toured the La Sainte-chapelle.

His mobility, often hampered by painful knees, led him to send the girls on up the winding staircase without him; those stairs would take the girls to the most beautiful view of the chapel’s stained glass from high above the ground floor. Sometime later, the girls heard a noise and with amazement turned to find their dad, huffing, puffing, sweating profusely with tears rolling down his face, as he caught the first sight of the stain glass beauty.  They suddenly realized what Mike had accomplished and asked, “Dad, how did you get up all those winding stairs?” He replied, “I crawled on my hands and knees.” That was such Mike’s way. He wasn’t always sure how to get something done, but he found a way.”

I came to St. Mary Cathedral with that story in mind and in memory of Mike, whose birthday would have been Tuesday this past week. In preparation for the visit, I also learned about another church in America with awesome stained glass — Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland. It is known to have one of the most beautiful works of stained glass in America. With having grown up Presbyterian and raised in the Baltimore area, I now wonder whether or not Mike had ever been to that church. Unfortunately, now I’ll never know.

Preconceived Ideas about Catholic Churches

I’ve been to a few Catholic Masses in my life, mainly for weddings. At those times, I felt profoundly out of place with all the kneeling and standing and not knowing when to do what. My knowledge of the Catholic Church is limited, and most of what I learned came from TV episodes of The Flying Nun. Actress Sally Field may not have liked her role as Sister Bertrille, but I sure liked that cornette she used to carry her 90-pound body into the air across Santo Domingo. Here are my general thoughts about the Catholic Church:

  • Extremely reverent with not much ancillary noise
  • Lots of ritual that will probably make me feel like an outsider
  • Uncertainty over communion and whether non-Catholics are supposed to take it at Mass. (I hear they use wine, so I might pretend to be Catholic, considering how much I enjoy wine.)

Much has changed in the Catholic Church from when I was a young girl. Most masses are no longer done in Latin. The Vatican loosened its reigns about eating meat on Friday and even cremation is now permitted. The Catholic Church gave me a serious case of the giggles this week. I picked up a Tom Lehrer CD at the library and ran across a song called “The Vatican Rag” from the once popular satirist. Thought I’d stick it in here to make you smile, too, since a review of my visit to a Catholic Mass will probably be serious.


The outside beauty of this church cause many people to stop and take pictures from the Austin streets, but the inside will take your breath away.

photo 1

The centerpiece of the church is a large crucifix in the altar area surrounded by more stained glass, angel motifs and large marble columns. Along both sides of the church, you’ll find tall windows of stained glass that when the afternoon sun streams in paints the inner cathedral with a wash of colors.

photo 2

Sis and I found a seat on the wooden pews toward the back of the cathedral; we don’t kneel and make the sign of the cross like everyone else did before taking a seat. (Is this learned in Catechism classes, or is this ritual passed down from parent to child? I need to ask someone about that.)

Service Begins

Music from a pipe organ began to fill the cathedral with eerie sounds and a complete reverence came over the crowd of about 75 people in this 300+ seat church. Church bells began ringing. (I suppose that’s to indicate that service had begun). Then a procession of altar boys holding candles, including one boy who held a gilded Bible above his head made their way down the main aisle to the altar, followed by the robed priest.

Then a disembodied voice began the service. I looked around to find out where this voice came from, but never found its origin. Sis, who is always good for comic relief said that it always creeped her out, too, when she’d hear a voice and couldn’t find its source.

Then the service began with a prayer of confession (I don’t think this counted as the “real” confession so you could partake of communion, but I’m not sure.) Then the church attendees began singing a hymn that I knew (Phew, finally felt at home). After the hymn, someone read something from St. Paul, then one of the altar boys grabbed the big gold book, opened it and held it in front of the priest to read from.

At this point, my mind went back to the Buddhist service I recently attended. Many similarities are found between the two. In both the Catholic and Buddhist services, everything seemed directed toward the altar. Many protestant churches feel more like a production with the choir, pastor and announcements made from the middle of the altar presented toward the congregation. In the Catholic and Buddhist services, all focus, prayer and praise is directed toward the altar. Maybe that’s why it seemed so much more reverential.

From a podium on the right, the priest gave the message from Ecclesiastes, but never read from that book in the Bible. Thought that was a bit odd and sis and I talked about that afterward. The priest delivered this message in a monotone voice. Not once did the tone of his voice rise, nor did excessively stress vocally anything about the preparation for the upcoming season of Lent. However, he said that Lent is a time to loosen our grip of things to find freedom and peace. This message was extremely short compared to those in the Protestant churches.

Someone from the audience read a prayer that had the audience completing every sentence with: Lord, Hear our prayer.  Drawing parallels, I guess this audience participation is similar to what the protestant churches do in saying, “Amen” after the pastor makes an important point.

After that, it was time for the offering. Music played while the ushers passed a green velvet lined basket around. I dropped in a check and passed it down the pew. Then came time for the Sacraments and lots of kneeling. This was quite an uncomfortable position. Wasn’t sure if those old pews were just placed too tightly together or if ergonomic design wasn’t important way back when. Commented about it later to my sister who said, “Oh, you have to learn the trick: You kneel down, clasp your hands together in prayer and push your butt back onto the edge of the pew. That way you look like you are still kneeling; it’s very ergonomic.” She said, “I learned that from a nun.” The whole time, I was thinking that Catholics had probably gotten used to the position, much like a well-practiced yoga student.

I’d seen this whole one-cup Sacrament thing previously; Suzanne also helped me figure out what to do and what not to do in letting people out to the aisle. What I didn’t get was the wasted time with all the dish washing up at the front. The priest did more wiping down of the chalice and plates than I do after a night’s dinner!

After all the dishes had been done, the priest instructed us to “Pass the peace.” After a lot of “peace be with you’s” and “also with you’s,” we all said the Lord’s Prayer together. Unlike other churches, Catholics hold their arms up in receptivity during the Lord’s Prayer. I guess this is the Catholic version of worshipping with hands raised in the air like the Pentecostals and Assembly of God folks do. Hadn’t seen that before.

After that came ……another offering? Yep….ding, ding, ding…round two, here there we go again, but I wasn’t sure why. Must have missed that announcement somewhere. Once again, I passed the basket to sis who held it for a few seconds. Later she said she considered rummaging through all those dollar bills to see if they’d put any bread in there for the non-Catholics. She didn’t give the second time either, but if might have if the money went to a dishwasher. They definitely need one in the Catholic church. My sister is such a clown!

After that came the announcements, which were BORING, and finally a hymn; then people began to file out.

One bearded man came up to me at the end of the service. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in a Catholic church who has taken such detailed notes during service,” he said. I explained about writing the blog and then he said he understood. As we walked out toward the front, he said, “You really should come back tomorrow at 3:30 for the service in Latin. Another man asked him if he had been to a Latin service and he said, “Yes, I came to one by accident.” We all laughed at that. He actually meant that he thought he was walking into a regular Mass when it was really a Latin Mass. May have to try that some day.

Post Service Commentary

I completely get the whole Catholic worship thing. Can’t think of any other faith that treats worship with such reverence and silence, giving you space to communicate with God. While the service isn’t very inspiring, the reverence of the people, stained glass and awesome beauty take your breath away, which is in a way, inspiring in and of itself.

What’s Next?

Back in San Antonio next week – thinking I might go to Larry Adamson’s church at University Presbyterian on the Trinity Campus. Larry is Mike’s 80-year-old cousin who invited me to go to his church recently. He’ll be 81 on the 11th of March. Told Larry that I’d only go if he sung, so I’ll have to see if he is singing next Sunday. If not, I might hit the Islamic mosque next week. One of their people emailed me back and said I was welcomed to come on Friday. I need to wear something modest. Had to ask sister Sue what I had that would be modest. I’m fresh out of burkas and have no idea what “modest” means to the Muslims.


4 comments on “St. Mary Cathedral – Austin, TX

  1. […] a Bible, another a candle, and yet another held a pitcher of water. This reminded me a bit of the St. Mary Cathedral I’d visited the week […]

  2. […] hanging from it. This thing was as big as the large bible carried by choirboys down the aisle of St. Mary Cathedral in […]

  3. […] St. Mary Cathedral – Austin (Catholic) — I went to this church for the stained glass, but came away with tears of […]

  4. […] of the National Shrine of the Little Flower. That settled it; even though I’d already attended St. Mary Cathedral in Austin earlier in the year, I’ve yet to take in an all-Spanish service. Let’s see if my four […]

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