Arts & Entertainment
Praise and Worship in Many-Part Harmony
Mater Ecclesiae’s Music Ministry Is Growing
BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN
April 15-21, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/10/07 at 9:00 AM
San Diego resident Chris Boore doesn’t hesitate when asked to describe the sound of the choir at Mater Ecclesiae College in Wakefield, R.I.
“It’s like being in the presence of angels,” he says. “I hear angels sing when I hear the consecrated sing.”
Mater Ecclesiae is a school for the consecrated women of Regnum Christi, the movement of apostolate of the Legionaries of Christ.
Now the choir has diversified its sound and gone national, releasing four CDs over the past few years. Two feature contemporary music and lyrics composed by some of the women, and two offer traditional Catholic hymnody. To date, they’ve sold more than 15,000 copies combined, almost entirely by word of mouth.
The choir sang for Pope John Paul II at his audience with Regnum Christi members on Jan. 4, 2001. The song was “There Can Be Miracles” from their first CD, “Cast the Nets.”
While the sacred music — “In His Presence” and “The Word Became Flesh,” a Christmas album — were recorded in the chapel and feature most of the 100 women at the college, the contemporary ones were done in a studio with fewer singers. The latest, “Making All Things New,” features 10 people.
Jill Swallow, the college’s music director and dean of students for the sophomore class, explains how the women recorded the CDs for a threefold purpose: to praise God, use their talents and evangelize.
“Those of us who have been given the talent of music are very grateful to God for that gift,” she says. “Singing and writing songs is one way we can praise God and a way we can teach people about God.”
Swallow believes “Making All Things New’s” upbeat pop sounds will appeal to a younger audience.
“Who doesn’t enjoy music?” she says. “It’s part of our culture. So why not use it as a means to transmit values, truth and the love of God?”
In “Existential,” a song off “Making All Things New,” the lyrics tell of a young woman “looking for the meaning of life.” Law school, Wall Street and cocktail parties fail to satisfy. Where to look for real fulfillment? It’s a serious existential question set to a bright, catchy tune.
Then there’s “All Things New,” which a consecrated woman was inspired to write while watching The Passion of the Christ.
“Many of the songs came about by somebody being in the chapel praying before Our Lord and in a sense receiving an inspiration,” Swallow explains about the original compositions. “They come from our hearts and in prayer, and that desire to express it to someone else in a way you can’t do in words alone. There’s a certain power that music has that can transmit more than mere words alone.”
People who’ve heard “Mother Knows Best,” another cut on the latest CD, would agree. It’s based on a true story of a consecrated woman’s vocation and her mother’s constant encouragement and support. It was originally told in a published story.
“Even from her hospital bed her mother gave the same advice: No matter what you do, I’ll be proud of you; if you feel God is asking for more, give it to him,” Swallow explains of the narrative lyric. Although she didn’t adapt this one, she has written some of the other songs on the original albums both alone and with others, and sung some solo parts.
In Greenville, Ohio, “Cast the Nets” is one of the favorite albums of Swallow’s own mother, Diane.
“Jill wrote the song ‘Abide in My Love,’ which tells how the consecrated have been called by God, and the sacrifice they’ve made giving up their life at home to answer God’s call,” explains Diane Swallow.
She recalls how, when Jill was 12 years old, she’d say that someday she would make a musical recording. The mom recalls with a chuckle how she got a mental picture of her daughter becoming a country-music star.
“She basically answered God’s call by becoming a consecrated woman,” says Diane. “In turn, he blessed her with one of her dreams.”
The CDs are blessing listeners, too. Diane Swallow describes how a non-Catholic friend of the family listened and then expressed that he was “totally amazed” — not only with the beauty of the music but also with the appeal of its message. Swallow says she’s not certain, but the friend’s attitude toward Catholic things seems to have “softened” since he heard the CD.
Jill Swallow tells how a hospitalized woman suffering with cancer is filled with joy and peace every time someone plays the women’s Christmas album for her.
“Perhaps she can’t leave her room and go to the chapel for Mass,” says Jill Swallow, “but she can lift her soul in prayer.”
That happens for Chris Boore, whose daughter Courtney is a member of the consecrated women’s choir, when he hears one of his favorites from the sacred music album. He describes it as “a real unique version of ‘Ave Maria.’ It’s almost done like a chant in an arrangement I’ve never heard before. Whenever it comes on, it puts me in a great meditative state.”
Others have told Yvonne Nuxoll, a consecrated woman with multiple musical talents, that they never tire of listening to “In His Presence,” a volume of sacred music.
“Working on these CDs helps me give voice to what I have inside,” Nuxoll says. “The way we as consecrated souls can offer something to the world is our love for Christ through music.”
Nuxoll points out that “Prayer for the Pope,” on the first release, has very special meaning because it expresses part of the women’s charism — a joyfully loyal adherence to the Holy Father.
A few of the consecrated women put the prayer composed by the Legionaries’ founder, Father Marcial Maciel, to the music.
“Both the prayer and the song express the love and fidelity the Regnum Christi members have toward the Holy Father, whoever he is,” explains Swallow. “It’s a prayer asking God to watch over him and protect him in his mission.”
As for the mission with the consecrated women’s choir, the popularity of the CDs means one thing.
“We are making plans,” says Swallow, “to do another CD in the near future.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.
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