Heavenly Song

Cantores in Ecclesia Revives Sacred Music in Oregon

Twice monthly, Father Robert Palladino, 82, drives an hour from his farm in Sandy, Ore., to St. Stephen’s parish in Portland to celebrate the ordinary rite of the Mass in Latin.

It’s a long drive in a rainy climate for an elderly man, but he’s happy to make the trip, as his Mass is accompanied by the Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony of the nonprofit lay group Cantores in Ecclesia.

Its music was composed by the great masters of centuries past.

“Musically, they are excellent,” said Father Palladino. “I appreciate them because they sing so well.”

Father should know, as he comes from a musical background.

His father led a church choir, and his mother was a church organist. Additionally, he led a choir for years when he was a Trappist monk in the 1950s and 60s. He entered the monastery at age 17 in 1950, but was dispensed of his vows and left in 1968.

He married and was widowed and became an active priest again for the Archdiocese of Portland in 1995.

But, by the time he began celebrating Mass again, chant and polyphony were gone from Portland-area parishes — with the exception of a few that hosted Cantores in Ecclesia.


Singing in Chant

Dean Applegate, who founded Cantores in 1983, recalled, “At that time, the only place you could find Gregorian chant was in a concert hall. But we wanted to sing it for the liturgy.” He traveled to England to study and then returned to Portland to found the group with the support of Portland’s auxiliary bishop, Paul Waldschmidt (1920-94).

For the next 18 years, Cantores found a home at St. Patrick’s, Portland’s oldest Catholic church, led by pastor Father Frank Knusel.

As Applegate recalled, “The parishioners were immensely receptive to us. In just a few years, we made a major contribution to reviving the parish.”

It was during this period that Father Palladino became affiliated with Cantores, even stepping in to conduct the group when Applegate headed to England for his studies.

Different opinions exist as to why sacred music was dropped from parishes; Father Palladino believes the change from celebrating Mass in Latin to the vernacular was the key factor: “Chant is a Latin music, written for the Latin Mass. It doesn’t fit well with the English language.”

After a few generations of the vernacular, however, “Latin chant really fell by the wayside.”

Today, there are two Cantores choirs, one for adults and the other for children. The adult choir has 30 members, some volunteer and some professional, and the children’s choir has 35 members. They practice three times per week. Much of their funding comes from donations.

They sing at St. Stephen’s and Portland’s Holy Rosary Church. The group sings for Masses in Latin, whether the ordinary or extraordinary form or the Dominican rite.

“The Gregorian chant and polyphony they sing really complete the rites,” said Father Vincent Kelber, a Dominican friar and Holy Rosary’s pastor. “Without that fullness, we’re only getting a part of the liturgy.”

The Pacific Northwest is a notoriously nonreligious region of the country, Father Kelber noted, and the beauty of sacred music in the liturgy can be one way to draw the unchurched to Mass. “I think we’ve sometimes missed the importance of beauty in the liturgy, sacrificing it to function or simplicity.”

Cantores is a model group for resurrecting that beauty, he believes, and in his four years with the parish, he has found their presentations flawless. “They are an amazing, world-class group.”


30th Anniversary and Beyond

Portland’s most prominent Churchman, Archbishop Alexander Sample, has been a good friend to the group, said Applegate.

In 2013, he joined in Cantores’ 30th-anniversary festivities by celebrating Mass at St. Stephen’s. The church was filled to capacity, as three choirs provided an “opulent” musical experience. The impressed archbishop joked that he’d “died and gone to heaven.”

In addition to its weekly Masses, Cantores travels internationally to perform in concerts and competitions.

One of the most memorable overseas experiences was in Rome in 1997. Facing off with similar groups in a Giovanni da Palestrina competition, Cantores took all three gold medals available.

Applegate retired as choir director in 2010, but he still serves as chairman of the choir’s board of directors. Applegate left the group in the capable hands of his son, Blake Applegate, who assumed the role of choir director.

Blake started singing in the children’s choir at age 7 and has been with the adult choir since he was 16.

“Singing in church has always been a big part of my life,” Blake said.

His father took him to monasteries to study chant in England and France beginning when he was in the sixth grade. “This early experience, along with many that would follow, helped form my admiration and respect for the music and liturgy of the Catholic Church.”

Father Palladino believes that, under Blake Applegate, the choir members have “maintained their consistent high standards.”

Particularly important to Blake is the children’s choir, he said, because “it is my responsibility to pass along what I have learned to the younger generations.”

His two children sing in the choir, and “it brings me great happiness to watch them as they develop an appreciation of the traditional music and liturgy of our Church.”

The singing group has come a long way. When Cantores began, it was the only group of its kind in the region. Today, new groups have joined in the effort to revive sacred music, noted Dean Applegate.

But none have yet to compare to the outstanding music of Cantores in Ecclesia, say some Pacific Northwest Catholics.

“I don’t know why Cantores is not better known,” concluded Father Kelber. “They are not just unique, but excellent.”

Jim Graves writes from

Newport Beach, California.


Blake Applegate has begun thinking about a 2017 choir tour to Rome. For information on this and other Cantores news, as well as to listen to samples of their music or purchase CDs, visit CantoresinEcclesia.org.