An unlikely group topped Billboard magazine’s "Traditional Classical Albums" chart from May into June: the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles.
The singing sisters’ Angels and Saints at Ephesus (Decca/De Montfort Music) debuted on May 7 — and, right away, it became No. 1. It also earned the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s "Heatseekers" chart, which includes all music genres.
This is the second album from the cloistered contemplative nuns from Gower, Mo.
The English and Latin pieces, sung a cappella, follow in the wake of Advent at Ephesus, which debuted in November 2012 at No. 1. Six weeks later, the sisters were named the "Top Classical Traditional Artist of 2012."
These spouses of Christ, who live a contemplative life singing the Divine Office in Latin eight times a day in their cloister at Our Lady of Ephesus Priory, have found an international audience. This new album fulfills fans’ requests for a year-round CD. In May, EWTN aired a special on the making of the album.
Mother Cecilia, the prioress, gave a rare interview about the sisters’ music and cloistered life.
Were you surprised by the overwhelming response to your first album?
Honestly, I did not know what to expect, but only trusting that if God willed for this music to reach a wide audience he would make it happen. And, as we know, with God all things are possible!
Why did you chose Angels and Saints as the theme for your second album?
Because our first recording, Advent at Ephesus was tied into a liturgical season, we thought it would be good for a more general approach for our second. We had learned a beautiful piece by Victoria, Duo Seraphim, for the investiture of three of our novices last fall, and we used that as our starting point. We knew many pieces honoring the angels and saints or poems written by the saints themselves that had been set to music, and we realized we could put together another CD based on this theme without too much practice. Of course, we also had a great desire to give tribute and honor to these holy intercessors, who are continually praying for us and assisting us on our journey to our true home.
How do you see your singing being related to the angels and saints?
What we do during the Divine Office is very much an emulation of what the choirs of angels and saints are doing before the throne of God: raising and offering up their voices in praise, adoration and thanksgiving for his goodness and mercy. Indeed, this is what we strive to do, not only with our voices, but with our whole lives, just like the angels and saints.
Have you been told your singing sounds angelic?
I have told many people who remark that we sound like angels, "If we do, then it is precisely because the angels join in to help us!" With that said, it is true that we strive to live the whole of our lives with one heart, cor unum, whether in the chapel singing the Divine Praises, outside weeding the gardens or sewing vestments for priests. If each one of us gives our heart entirely to the Lord, he will take that offering and mold us all into one heart, which is his own. Truly, our voices are an extension of our hearts, and if our hearts are united in his, then it is only natural that our voices will meld and come together as one.
How is your CD related to singing the Divine Office?
If we had not been coming together eight times a day for many years to sing the praises of God, I don’t think we would have the means of making a CD. The ability we have to sing together in such a unified way comes directly from the chanting of the Divine Office.
Before you entered the Benedictines of Mary, you had a top seat with two major symphony orchestras, didn’t you?
I prefer to say less rather than more about my musical background, as this music, this community, this story is not about me, but about God’s workings through his weak and frail instruments. I will say that God has desires for each and every soul, and we each find our true peace and tranquility in the depths of our hearts only when we heed his voice and cooperate with his desires for us. It was in the midst of a professional orchestral career that his will for me became unmistakable, and I have never once regretted leaving that all behind in order to surrender to his sweet yoke.
Why are these works a wonderful way to praise God and reach listeners with truth and beauty?
I believe wholeheartedly that the music we listen to, especially within the context of the liturgy, has a tremendous impact on whether the soul is drawn above to higher realities or is left on the level of the senses. I can attest to the power that beautiful, sacred music has on the soul. I don’t believe I would have been open to my vocation if I had not been introduced to the ancient, sacred musical patrimony of the Church.
Hearing, for example, Allegri’s Miserere, works by Palestrina and Gregorian chant for the first time at Mass had a tremendously moving and powerful effect on my life. This was, it seemed to me, the music of heaven, and hearing it made me want heaven all the more. It moved me to do all that I could in this short life to please Our Lord in order to get there, bringing as many souls with me as possible.
And, for me, that was giving him my entire life, including the departure from my career in music. But Our Lord will never be outdone in generosity! Here, 10 years later, he has given this tremendous opportunity to share our sacred music with a world that desperately needs to be reminded of beauty. For "beauty," to quote Dostoyevsky, "will save the world."
It is beauty that can and will inspire us to long for and seek after the beauty of God, who is Beauty himself. Yes, how clearly I see his loving hand in making use of all things in order to share this tremendous reality with others.
The CD has a beautiful piece called A Rose Unpetaled, with lyrics written by St. Thérèse and music composed by one of the sisters. Do the sisters have a special devotion to St. Thérèse, and did she have a hand in these recordings?
We were able to build and move into a new priory in the country just over two years ago, which has been a tremendous gift and blessing. However, we still found ourselves with quite a substantial debt to pay off last year around this time. Two sisters, unbeknownst to each other, read the exact same story of St. Thérèse on the same day — about how she helped a religious community pay off their debt. We decided at that moment that we would pray a novena to her so she would help us to get rid of ours, too.
It was at the time of the novena that the Fitzgibbonses (Kevin and Monica) from DeMontfort Music came into our lives, asking for us to make our music more widely available. It truly was an answer to our prayers. True, the money did not miraculously appear in our safe overnight, but we realized that, through DeMontfort Music, we had the means to sell a great many CDs without any of the expense of production and manufacturing.
Advent at Ephesus helped us a great deal, and we are down to about $1 million left to pay off. We are hoping to take care of another big chunk with the proceeds from Angels and Saints — thank you, St. Thérèse!
Does St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, have a place in your priory, too?
Of course. I have a deep devotion to St. Cecilia, and it necessarily extends to the whole community. We always invoke St. Cecilia before any of our music practices, asking her to help our voices, but, more importantly, to sing from our hearts to God alone. Truly, Our Lord looks to the disposition of the heart rather than the sound of the voice.
You have a wonderful blend of Latin and English chants and hymns on this new CD. Do you have a particular favorite?
Since my faith was broadened and strengthened through the pure heavenly sounds of early polyphony, Palestrina, Victoria and Allegri, for example, my favorite piece is Duo Seraphim. If we could, I would love to make a CD that is strictly this genre of music, knowing how the harmonies have the power to lift souls upwards to the Transcendent. But we are not professionals, and I don’t think we have time for the kind of work it would take. But you never know. Again, with God all things are possible!
How do you think this music will affect those who hear it?
I only pray that it will bring many souls closer to God, urging them to seek the things that are above rather than the things that are below. Our society has gotten so bogged down by the materialism and atheism that inundates our culture — what you perceive with your senses is the only reality.
Sacred music is an extremely powerful means to awaken souls to the truth of spiritual realities. God has given us this precious gift of life in order that we may know him, love him and serve him here below, so that we might be forever happy with him in heaven.
May our music be an ambassador of the joy we possess when we truly live for God, finding our happiness in him rather than in material things, which only leave us empty and unfulfilled in the depths of our souls.
Might it even stir up vocations?
I do not doubt that Our Lord could certainly use this music to stir up vocations to religious life. I can say that with confidence, as that is precisely how he worked in my soul. He most certainly uses beauty to draw souls to himself, he who is the Author of beauty.
Joseph Pronechen is the
Register’s staff writer.
To Order the CDs:
Of Art and Beauty
Sister Scholastica, the sub-prioress of Our Lady of Ephesus Priory, did the artwork for the Angels and Saints CD.
Please tell us a little about the album’s artwork.
I snapped the cover shot on the feast of All Souls while at Mass. It was not posed. The sight is one we live with every day: the schola being conducted in the fluid movements of Gregorian chant, amidst incense and sunlight streaming in. The cover reflects the beauty of our album because it is the real beauty of our life. These images and sounds surround us every blessed day and at every moment. They reflect our life as it is, not as something extrinsic.
Were you surprised by the overwhelming response to your CDs?
It gave me much hope. It shows the world is still open to receive the Beauty that God is in himself.
How do you hope the chants and hymns will affect listeners?
It hit me one Sunday, as I was painting, listening to two sisters play a Haydn duet, and amidst beautiful vestments being sewn — that all this is a part of our call as monastics: the conservation of true beauty.
This is how monasteries saved European culture in the true sense of the Latin cultus, worship. They dedicated their lives to giving God what is beautiful, first and foremost in the liturgy. … True beauty makes us step back and wonder.
— Joseph Pronechen