St. James Episcopal exterior

Roamin‘ Catholics

“Our first Christmas, I was by myself.”

For Father Matthew Bailey, December 25, 2006, inspires head-shaking laughter and a humbling reminiscence. St. Joseph of Arimathea, the nontraditional Catholic church he’d just founded with Father Shawn Smith, was operating during limited hours out of the basement of Center Church on the New Haven Green. Smith had gone back to Michigan to spend the holiday with family, leaving it to Bailey to lead the fledgling parish’s inaugural Christmas service.

Only, nobody showed up. “It’s Christmas. You assume people who’ve never come or have been thinking about coming are going to come,” Bailey says. “So I was downstairs in the church, and I set everything up. And I waited. And the start time came, and there was no one there. And I waited… At that point I think we realized it was going to be a lot of hard work. It was going to take time.”

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Eight-plus years, three subsequent spaces and hundreds of regionally dispersed parishioners later—some 40 to 50 of whom manage to make it out to any given Mass, Bailey estimates—patience and understanding remain key virtues for St. Joe’s, which now pursues its mission out of St. James Episcopal Church, a shabby-chic brownstone structure with wooden spire and parapet rising above a hilly street. A banner out front reads, “St. James Welcomes St. Joe’s,” noting the former’s Sunday service at 9:30 a.m. and the latter’s at 11. Another banner says, “St. Joseph of Arimathea / Independent Catholic Church / A Different Kind of Catholic Sunday Mass.”

Many of the standard trappings of a Catholic service—stained-glass windows, lit candles, ornate vestments, sermons, certain rituals, liturgical music—are in place. But the differences from a traditional Sunday Mass are numerous and run deeper. Instead of preaching from the lectern, for instance, Bailey and Smith deliver their sermons more intimately, from the center aisle between the pews. Instead of passing a pressure-inducing collection plate, the church puts out an offertory box at the back (and, as Bailey noted to the congregation this past Sunday, maintains an online giving option for even freer decision-making). Instead of utilizing an organ or an official choir, worship music is often backed by a four-piece band playing light rock ’n’ roll arrangements.

Meanwhile, Communion is “open,” meaning that anyone, self-identified Catholic or not, can partake in the Eucharist. Bailey and Smith, who lead alternating Sunday services, make sure to note as much just before calling people forward, adding words of respect for anyone who chooses not to do so, while also inviting anyone whose “spiritual tradition” doesn’t mesh with the ritual to come forward and receive a simple blessing if they like.

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The differences last beyond Sunday as well, with St. Joe’s taking progressive stances that fundamentally differ from those held by the Roman Catholic Church (you know, the big global one led by the Pope and the Vatican), with which St. Joe’s has no institutional affiliation. Here, female priests, married priests and same-sex couples are not only recognized but embraced.

Most parishioners are disillusioned Roman Catholics, Bailey suggests—people who could no longer abide by some of the establishment’s ways of doing and thinking but wanted to retain as much of their heritage and faith as they could. While hinting that he and Smith were among the disillusioned, Bailey says, “We believed there were a lot of people looking for a way to exercise their faith in harmony with their understanding of who God is and calls us to be, which is a community that’s not about judgment. It’s about welcoming all people, no matter where they are on their journey.”

He notes with pride the non-hierarchical, “lay-driven” nature of the church, where a parish council comprised of churchgoers chosen by other churchgoers makes many of the important decisions affecting the community’s direction. He’s also proud of the culture of “mature dialogue” he says an accepting, open-minded approach to worship has fostered. There’ve been members—even “some who’ve served in our parish council”—who’ve communicated how much they “struggle” to retain their core faith, he says. “But we want them to do it with us, to wrestle with it here. To know that it’s okay to not be certain. We’re not above questioning.”

Or above keeping reminders of hard-won answers. For instance, shedding his priestly vestments after this past Sunday’s Mass, Father Shawn revealed a big forearm tattoo of a hand clutching a rosary—honoring a tradition, in a nontraditional way.

So, par for the course.

St. Joseph of Arimathea Independent Catholic Church
at St. James Episcopal Church
62 East Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
Weekly Sunday Masses at 11am
(888) 688-2871 |

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Image 1 depicts, from left, Matthew Bailey and Shawn Smith.

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