My cousin Sarah teaches music history in St. Paul, MN, at the University of St. Thomas, which held its Christmas concert last week at a packed Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Since she also plays the French horn, she lent her talent to the event—no small achievement for a breast cancer survivor. Afterward, she e-mailed me: “When the men from all [five] choirs sang Ave Maria, and when the large choir sang Martin Lauridsen's arrangement of O Magnum Mysterium, I was moved to tears at witnessing the beauty of God's gift of MUSIC being shared—students singing with full hearts, open to ignite the hearts and minds and ears of listeners. I saw an old man listening with mouth open, eyes shut, tears streaming down his face. I was trying to keep it together, then saw my horn students in our section doing the same thing! We all took a ‘group eye-dabbing’ before putting horns up for the next piece. The birth of HOPE for the world is upon us!”
That’s exactly what the Daughters of St. Paul Choir experienced when the sisters sang and danced in eight different venues over the past two weeks. Echoing our tagline, Discover Hope, the theme of our Christmas cards, calendars, and concerts is “Our Christmas Hope,” a sentiment that shows no signs of wear, despite months of planning and promotion. My office is along the main walkway through our publishing house, and I just heard someone pass by still humming one of the final numbers of Sunday’s Boston show. Nor are the songs the only thing people walked away with. Person after person said how year after year, it marks the spirit of the season for them, inviting them into our own joyful celebration of the Good News.
Everywhere, those who’ve attended concerts through several years commented that this year’s performance was “the best ever.” A man in Alexandria, VA, thought that, because the singing and choreography were right on and so together, it was lip-synched. A woman wondered how we could top it next year. In Piscataway, NJ, a girl—maybe ten-years-old—shyly approached Sr. Tracey, who remembered her from last year. “I like this one the best of all,” she ventured, then walked away. She came back and added, “I have one more thing: you all sang the best I’ve ever heard you sing.” Sr. Tracey was touched, especially as she recognized what an effort it was for her to say it.
A New Jersey man in his early 80’s is very involved in the life of his parish, but feels he has to come to the concert every year to start off his Christmas season. In Cleveland, the sound engineers, who’ve worked the concert there for the past three years claim that it’s now part of their Christmas. They confided, “While you’re singing, we pick out two voices and harmonize them. Wow! Beautiful sounds come out of these ladies. It’s pure joy.” J. D. Goddard, a music reviewer for music zine Cleveland Classical, was more moderate, but considering it was not a classical event, he was just as positive about their “exceptional” and “‘upbeat’ performance” that reflected “their strong religious convictions and faith.”
Romeo Marquis, the husband of Claudette, another cousin of mine, (He wrote the Pauline Faithways post of Sept. 7) gave me his evaluation of the Boston performance: “This is a great event, not only because of the music, but because of your attitude toward each other.” A woman said to one sister, “I want to tell you I was expecting nothing. What I got was a huge shot of joy. It’s the way you poke fun at each other, and I kept feeling the joy filling my heart.” As a first-time guest, the aunt of one of our co-workers fretted over the prospect of being bored by a prim recital, followed by some tweedy reception: “I hope we don’t pray too long. My knees are hurting!”
If anyone expressed the mood, it was the kids. In Alexandria, where the concert was held in a church, the turning point for them was at “the costume change,” when the sisters put the gloves and scarves on for Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, and Winter Wonderland. “Twenty-five or thirty kids started crawling out of their pews, three or four of them at a time,” Sr. Tracey told me. “Their eyes were twinkling as they got closer and imitated our hand motions. One little girl positioned herself in the middle aisle, chin in hand, probably to have a balanced view of the whole thing.”
At the reception following each of the Boston gigs, I donned a Santa hat. Armed with a matching red stocking, a sign that read, “Stuff Santa’s Stocking!” and a bag of brochures, forms, and business cards, I mingled with guests, available for their questions about our life and mission. Several signed up for a notification about the annual concerts, or an e-mail about the weekly Pauline Faithways posting. Some dropped in a twenty or more; others dropped in a prayer intention or two. A little boy, maybe six years old, rushed up to me and announced, “I want a train like this!” and he pointed to the two boxcars he held in his hands.
Uh-oh, I thought, he thinks I’m the real deal. I guess the lack of beard and girth didn’t make a whole lot of difference.
“OK,” I played along, “Do you want to show me the details? We gotta make sure it’s the right one.”
“It has to have these kind of wheels,” and he carefully indicated the blue ones on either side of each.
“I’ll be sure to pass that on!” I smiled at mom, who smiled back apologetically and gently herded her boys toward the cookie table.
One of our Sunday chaplains in Boston named Sr. Anne “Sister O-Holy-Night.” That song was the best number of the whole performance, according to two young Boston women. The Saturday evening audience gave her a standing ovation, and Sr. Nancy, who carried the performance into the next selection almost sent everybody home, commenting, “You can’t beat that.” At the Staten Island Hilton dinner concert, Sara Boccieri the four-year-old granddaughter of our friends, Gene and JoAnn Boccieri, toggled between her parents’ table and her grandparents’, where I was sitting. After the first few lively songs, the tone of the concert became a little softer. Sara was perched on her grandfather’s knee when Sr. Anne began to sing O Holy Night. Sara froze, her eyes riveted on Sr. Anne. When she got to the words, “This is the night of the dear Savior’s birth,” Sara, without taking her eyes off the stage, made the Sign of the Cross and folded her little hands. Given Sr. Anne’s blue veil, she probably thought she was seeing the Virgin Mary! Whether she understood the words or not, it was obvious she was having a sacred moment. Of course, it lasted all of about ten seconds before she slid from her grandfather’s knee and scooted off toward her parents.
Was the possibility of a religious vocation awakened in any of them? In the banter and commentary between numbers, various sisters highlighted for the audience one or another aspect of our life. Sr. Tracey, for instance, is from Loreauville, LA, near Lafayette. She told how, as a seventeen-year-old “fashionista,” her highest aspirations had been “to get a really good job at the mall,” so she “could get a really good discount at Gap.” When she visited our Boston community for the first time and heard the sisters singing during Mass, she wondered if she could be part of that harmony for the rest of her life, not leaving behind who she was, but bringing it into the song of religious life. Maybe the answer of her life sparked that question in someone else.
A man in his 40’s was visiting a friend from out-of-state. He had heard for a few years about our music ministry from another friend and decided to take a cab to the concert from the airport on his way to his friend’s home. During our rendition of Angels Among Us tears rolled down his cheeks. After the concert he whispered that it was the song that had most clearly spoken to him. When we carry out our mission, there are times we can only guess at people’s stories, but the comforting thing for them and for us is that God knows and loves every detail and heals everything in his time.
He wasn’t the only one who followed Jesus’ call on impulse like Matthew, Andrew, James, and John. A woman in Boston was talking with her daughter in Kansas City. While she was wondering aloud when the Daughters’ concert might be, her daughter looked it up online. “Mom! It’s today at 3!” Still another woman said that—for reasons we’ll never know—she hadn’t been out of the house for months and felt that she was supposed to go to this. She was glad she did.
Not only did we pray for people who attend, but many others joined in those prayers. Just look at the Daughters of St. Paul Choir Facebook fanpage to get a sampling of what God heard on audiences’ behalf. As a representative of the development office, I participated in the Staten Island dinner concert at the Hilton. Since our own convent was filled with choir members, another visiting FSP and I stayed with the very hospitable Schoenstatt Sisters. They made a point of telling us that they were praying for the people we ministered to that night. “American Idol” may invite votes; we go for the prayers!
I think this is one reason God puts people in our path. At a rest stop between Philadelphia and Hartford, the sisters got something to drink. As they stood in line to pay, a woman turned to one of them and said hesitantly, “I want to let you know, my father passed away. I’ve started to doubt. What should I read? What should I do? What prayer should I say?” Realizing she didn’t know this woman’s story enough to pontificate with her even if she had wanted to, Sister still felt prompted to suggest Psalm 23. “Hear God saying to you, ‘I’m the Good Shepherd.’ Picture yourself in God’s arms. He’s carrying you. He wants to hold you and he’s also holding your father.” The woman began to cry. Then Sister added, “I promise you, we’ll pray for you.”
The morning after one concert, a friend called ahead to a restaurant to pay for both the sisters’ breakfast and lunch for the road, his customary gift each year. He has heavy crosses to carry and seems to appreciate the hope that the music ministry offers him. “People give when they’re touched by our mission,” Sr. Margaret Timothy said. “He never wants thanks. He says, ‘This is my thank-you to you.’”
If you would like to be notified about next year’s concerts, or you know someone who wants to financially sponsor a concert near you, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As you sing the carols and songs of the season, make it a prayer for those who need the hope of Good News in their world.