At St. Paul and St. James Church on Wooster Street, the band was already swinging through some New Orleans classics and the food was out, a rich spread of gumbo, jambalaya, and rice and beans, complemented by a stack of pies from Pepe’s and a salad.
“Did you get a plate?” a parishioner asked. “It’s Fat Tuesday. You’re supposed to indulge a little.”
The crowd of about 40 congregated Tuesday night in the church’s parish hall to celebrate Mardi Gras as well — a fitting way to begin Lent for the church, which has a jazz service every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. and celebrates Palm Sunday with a second line through the Wooster Square neighborhood. The Mardi Gras feast was also a way to bring a few congregations together, as parishioners from Trinity on the Green and St. Luke’s on Whalley Avenue came over to St. Paul and St. James to celebrate.
“I’m in love with this church,” said Mary Barnett, a parishioner from Trinity. She lives in Branford but decided to get involved in the churches in New Haven because “it’s just more alive.” She had a special affection for St. Paul and St. James because of its history of mixing the arts and social activism. She’s currently going to Yale’s divinity school. Did she intend to become clergy?
“I didn’t think so,” she said. “And then I see a place like this and I think, oh my God ... this place is set to fly. If the church would have me, then yes, strap a collar on me.”
Another parishioner, Felix Rivera, is a retired engineer who first heard about St. Paul and St. James while on a trip with his wife to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rivera’s father had been a professional jazz musician. In Argentina, he met a percussionist on a youth mission and they “started talking jazz,” Rivera said. “You ought to go to St. Paul and St. James,” he recalled the percussionist saying. That was in 2006.
In 2011 the Riveras started attending services at St. Paul and St. James. When he was younger, Rivera said, “you had to pull teeth to get me to church.” But he’s come to St. Paul and St. James nearly every Sunday for the past five years. Two years ago they moved to Westville from Meriden, too.
People cleaned their plates from dinner and divided up the king cake. The band — Will Cleary on saxophone, Mike Asetta on bass, Tido Holtkamp on drums, and Jim Martin on guitar — launched into “Down By The Riverside.”
“Sing with your full heart, because Lent starts tomorrow,” someone shouted.
Everyone did, and clapped on the backbeat. By the time the band had settled into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” everyone had stood up and was dancing around the room, over and over.
Meanwhile, at the Ives branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, the organization’s annual Mardi Gras party and fundraiser was still swinging hours after the parade, and after the food had been eaten and the cocktails drunk. The items for the library’s silent auction, which ranged from books and handicrafts to theater tickets and vacation packages, had almost all been bid on, many more than once. Yet dozens of partygoers were still going.
A photo booth that Lotta Studio had set up this year, as they did last year, allowed costumed groups to leave an indelible impression.
“The library asked us to come back and it was so much fun,” said Luke Hanscom, as he spread out the photos Mistina Hanscom took of willing participants on a small table, for those pictured to take with them. “It’s a great way to go home with everybody.”
Why did Lyric Hall owner John Cavaliere come to the celebration? “Friends,” he said, as he and Anne Schenck chatted about the past — and possible future — of New Haven’s arts scene.
Two members of that possible future, Dylan McDonnell and Rio Santisteban, were talking just behind them. Santisteban, who grew up in New Haven, had come out to support the library and thought the party would be “a great way to spend a Tuesday.” McDonnell agreed. He had played in the parade hours ago, and — and this party was on the verge of winding down — was maybe on his way to another, later one.