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Catholic Chant Heads to World Youth Day

Choristers from Connecticut seek to connect with young people from around the world with traditional Church singing.

BY JOSEPH PRONECHEN

| Posted 8/14/11 at 4:28 AM

Stuart Chessman
 

In some school districts in America, some lucky high-school students in language classes have gotten to go on trips abroad — French student to Paris; Spanish students to Madrid; Italian students to Rome.

Next week, a group of 25 students from the New York-Connecticut area will be practicing their newfound language at World Youth Day in Madrid. And according to those involved, the hundreds of thousands of young people they will encounter from around the world will have no problem understanding.

Spanish? No. Their language is music — the traditional music of the Church, sung in the Church’s mother tongue: Latin.

The Norwalk, Conn.-based St. Mary’s Student Schola is ready and eager to head to Madrid and share what they’ve learned and practiced: Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, and parts of the Mass set to music by great composers such as William Byrd, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Josquin de Prez.

The group has already made such a name for themselves that they’ve been invited by Archbishop Braulio Rodriguez of Toledo, the primate of Spain, to sing at the Cathedral of St. Mary of Toledo.

From there, they will go to Avila to sing at Mass on the feast of the Assumption at the Monasterio de la Encarnación (Monastery of the Incarnation), where St. Teresa of Jesus entered the Carmelites. Then, in Madrid, they will sing for the solemn high Mass in the extraordinary form for WYD pilgrims.

Based at St. Mary’s Church in Norwalk, Conn., this schola of youngsters sings Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony so beautifully that the Sisters of Life and the Knights of Columbus invited them to be the choir for the main English-speaking Masses at World Youth Day at the Palacio de Deportes. The giant Madrid arena holds upwards of 15,000 and is expected to be full for WYD. Some of the Sisters of Life, who are based in New York and run a retreat house in Stamford, Conn., will join them for some of the singing in Madrid.

For the schola’s founder-director David Hughes, the invitations to sing in Spain “confirm that this is a good work to be done in the service of the Lord and the Church.” Hughes is choirmaster for all seven choirs at St. Mary’s, which have adult-professional and adult-volunteer divisions.


’You Grow in Love With It’

The 25 singers going to Spain are the most advanced of the St. Mary’s Student Schola’s 75 children. They range in age from 9 to 18, with the average being 12-13.

“They’re eager to share [the music] with thousands of other young people at these Masses, who, in most cases, have not encountered it on a regular basis in their home parishes,” Hughes said. “For these young children, to offer this gift is a great honor, and also a source of great excitement, too.”

One of the composers in their musical repertoire is Tomas Luis de Victoria, who spent his life in Avila and Madrid. Hughes pointed out that this year is the 400th anniversary of his death. “We get to offer his music on his home turf, so to speak, in its intended context — not in concert, but as a sung prayer, which is an integral part of the holy Mass.”

The choir hopes that it will inspire WYD pilgrims to want to hear more of the Church’s sung prayer. That was one of the reasons the Sisters of Life invited the schola to Spain.

“In addition to traditional hymns in English, we wanted to present to the youth beautifully sung Gregorian chant and polyphony as exemplary models of the Church’s music, and it just so happens St. Mary’s Student Schola specializes in this type of music,” said Sister Mary Concepta, coordinator of liturgy and music for the Sisters of Life, who sang with the schola on previous occasions, including once at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in New York City. “We realize probably many youth have not been exposed to it in their churchgoing lives. We thought being brought from youth it would be a great benefit to them and inspire them. The more you’re exposed to it, the more you grow in love with it and pray in it.”

Members of the schola share the same hope, as do their parents and their director. Laurie Furey, whose 11-year-old son Alex looks forward to singing in Madrid, sees this as “a marvelous opportunity to introduce chant to a wider audience, especially through these children, because they really love it, and it comes through in the singing.”


‘It’s Awesome’

There’s no doubt why Alex sings. “I love the music,” he said. “It just sounds beautiful. It’s awesome. We’re really doing it for the greater honor and glory of God than for a concert.”

Fourteen-year-old Abigail Anderson hopes to show the youth at WYD that centuries-old Gregorian chant is not outdated. She will be accompanied to Madrid by her 16-year-old sister Isabel and 12-year-old sister Ana, who are also schola members.

“Beautiful music is the same throughout the centuries,” said Abigail, who thought it was cool to sing “history” when she started in the schola. “But then, doing more and more of the polyphony pieces, it was out of our hands. And it was God speaking through us, the beauty he showed to all the monks and those who wrote this down over the centuries: composers Victoria, Byrd, Palestrina — and through them to Mr. Hughes, and through him, right down to us. It’s an extraordinary sequence.”

Hughes got the children involved in this ancient music a mere three years ago, when he launched a summer “Chant Camp” at St. Mary’s Church. Those first 30 youngsters were so enthusiastic that he began the Student Schola during the fall of 2008.

Since then, the schola has grown steadily. Many of the singers are from home-schooling families from several towns and cities in Connecticut and New York.

The schola sings monthly at the parish’s Mass in the extraordinary form and, for special occasions, joins the church’s professional schola.

The young singers recorded a CD in April to help raise funds for WYD, to offset the expense, since some families have several children making the trip.

Hughes says his choir perceives the real beauty of the music: “They understand in a visceral way that this is the sung prayer of the Church, the sacred music par excellence of the Church.”

“Beautifully done, it unites us to our whole tradition,” said Sister Mary Concepta, noting that the singers learn the history behind the music and how to sing it well technically, “but, most importantly, they learn to pray the music.”


Youth Evangelizing Youth

As the schola sings prayerfully, Father Greg Markey, pastor of St. Mary’s, said they’re a great example that “children can know and love the Tradition of the Church,” he said. “We don’t need pop music to win children over to the beauty of our faith.”

“These children at a really young age understand the evangelical importance of beauty,” Hughes explained. “The fact they have great love for the traditional music of the Church that comes forth in their singing should make an impression on the slightly older students there.”

Singer Isabel Anderson, who is excited to go to WYD, believes it will have a far-reaching effect: “When they see someone of their generation and younger, it will help them to see there’s a sort of revolution toward tradition in the Church, and it will help them see it’s their generation helping lead that revolution. If they want to join that movement, they will fit right in because it’s their age, their generation.”

Her father, Duncan Anderson, envisions WYD pilgrims will discover a love for chant and bring it to their parishes: “I think it will change the habit of music and prayer.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.