Talent Well Spent for the Greater Glory of God

Primetime television seems an unlikely place to look for a celebration of large Catholic families.

And yet, this summer, NBC’s popular first season of “America’s Got Talent” proved to be  exactly that as Celtic Spring danced and fiddled their way into the show’s final round.

Celtic Spring is the Wood family of Ventura, Calif. — six offspring between 6 and 20 years old who play fiddles and Irish-dance while Dad (Greg) and Mom (Mary) accompany them on other instruments.

In the end, the group didn’t win the $1 million grand prize. But they did attract enough votes to earn the “Viewers’ Choice” distinction. (And they clearly delighted the show’s host, Regis Philbin.)

Though remarkably accomplished musicians, the Woods lack something all their eight-plus million viewers have: a television. The irony is not lost on Greg.

“Our television-less friends were going to neighbors’ houses,” he says, “so they could watch the Wood family.”

Given their misgivings about the small screen, did they blanch at the idea of participating in such an environment?

“Sometimes you have to put good next to evil so that people can recognize both and choose accordingly,” Greg says.

“As Catholics, we knew that it was a great opportunity to bring some joy to Hollywood,” Mary adds.

When Mary Wood began guiding her children in Irish dancing and music, the lights of Hollywood were far from her mind. She just wanted to pass on the Irish culture of her grandparents from “the old country.” Their acumen for performance, along with their musical skills, developed naturally — if surprisingly fast.

“Since we homeschooled, we were usually together, and violin and Irish dancing became a normal part of our lives,” recalls Mary. “From a very young age, each child was eager to participate. They practiced regularly and advanced very quickly.”

The group’s first performances, at the local farmer’s market, were to raise money to go to “fiddle camps,” where the world’s finest fiddlers instruct by ear and cultural immersion. Word spread about the talented family and, soon enough, Celtic Spring were in demand for weddings and festivals.

As their popularity and sense of mission grew, Mary took over the business side while Greg, a licensed marriage and family counselor, privatized his practice for maximum flexibility.

Celtic Spring’s fame catapulted in the winter of 2002 when they performed on “Good Morning America.”

“After 9/11, the show was looking for families that could represent hope,” Mary says. “They found us somehow, and one thing has led to another ever since.”

One thing leading to another led them to “America’s Got Talent.” While the Woods declare themselves to be a “normal family,” most people’s normal doesn’t include multiple trips to the NBC studios, appearances on “The Today Show,” a feature in TV Guide or the intense pressure that comes from having international audiences watching you compete.

“It was challenging, but we looked on it in part as a spiritual journey,” says Greg. “We really relied on the sacraments — daily Mass and weekly confession. It helped the kids learn that you can’t be one bit timid about your faith.”

Before every performance, the family would pray St. Patrick’s Breastplate, finding particular resonance in the lines “Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.”

“We want to be a vehicle for bringing Christ to our audiences,” says Mary. “To do that, we have to draw on all the grace and strength that comes from our Catholic faith.”

Father Tim Alkire, a longtime friend of the Woods family, has had Celtic Spring perform at his parish in Lafayette, Ind. “People feel an infectious joy in watching them,” says the priest. “You see smiles all around. They also provide the understanding that it’s possible to be a good, down-to-earth Catholic family. They lead by example, letting people know that they’re formed by study and prayer.”

Uniquely Normal

The fact that Celtic Spring finished in the top five of “America’s Got Talent” testifies to their dedication — and their broad appeal.

“People responded to the artistic quality of our act, to the beauty and joy of Irish culture, but particularly to our witness as a family working together and loving each other,” Greg says.

Fans frequently approach them after performances, asking about their faith. “People sense that there’s something more, that God must be a part of this,” Mary explains. “All beauty comes from God, and points back to him implicitly.”

One person who did not respond positively was celebrity judge Piers Morgan, a former editor of a British tabloid. Following one performance, he recommended in no uncertain terms that Celtic Spring “get rid of” the parents and the youngest child, 6-year-old Aidan.

Although taken aback by Morgan’s vitriol, the older Wood boys defended the family’s unity as central to the act. “We felt our deepest values were being attacked,” says Mary. “But we’re not going to compromise our identity because of what someone in Hollywood said. That’s not worth a million dollars to us.”

Adds Greg: “People saw that we’d stand together in spite of criticism. The e-mails we got afterwards were tremendously supportive.”

Life in Concert

Even before NBC called, the Woods had planned to dedicate the upcoming year to recording a new CD, along with traveling and performing in Europe. The two eldest daughters, Elizabeth and Deirdre, will take the year off college to participate.

“We really want to explore Catholic Europe, the living reality of many wonderful convents and monasteries,” Mary explains. “Traveling in Scotland and Ireland will also enhance our understanding of how to play our music.”

The family admits that the million-dollar prize was a tantalizing near-miss — a lot of good can be done with that kind of windfall — but Celtic Spring is still very happy with the net/net of the “America’s Got Talent” experience.

The Woods were able to share what they call their “family apostolate” with millions of viewers. And the exposure is generating opportunities to perform traditional Irish entertainment — and witness the timeless Catholic faith — for audiences from California to Cape Breton.

“We hope to provide inspiration to families, showing them an alternative to some negative aspects of the culture,” Greg says.

While dismayed by the network’s editing out of virtually all religious content from their footage and interviews, Greg reflects: “I don’t think we’d have done anything differently. We were pleased with our opportunity to put something from the culture of life up there and come out looking good.”

But while “America’s Got Talent” was a fruitful experience for the Woods, they’re not rushing out to buy a television. “At the finale,” Greg laughs, “we were all saying how much we’re looking forward to not watching TV again.”

Iain Bernhoft is a graduate student in English at Boston University.