Sunday, October 25, 2009

Choir in a Big Church Requires Organization

"Cantate Domino canticum novum.
Sing to the Lord a new song."

We sang it like that. The setting of "Cantate Domino" by James Chapponis has it in Latin first, then in English. The choir of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church, 2250 E. Stadium Blvd. in Ann Arbor, are a dedicated group of singers who take a lot of responsibility for making the right things happen at the right times during the Mass. In the role of a visiting choir member, The Itinerant Chorister did not hold up this part of this duty very well, being overwhelmed by working out of four different books of hymns, liturgy, and propers (this is an ecclesiastical term for the prayers and scripture readings that are particular to that day of the church calendar). There were also photocopied papers of the the sequence of things to happen and of the psalm to be chanted that day. Choir members have canvas tote bags, most of them maroon and printed with "St. Francis of Assisi Choir", for carrying all of their choir related things. I kept my library under my chair and tried my best to pull out the right things at the right time. Along with the notebook that I have to help in writing the blog, as well as my camera, I was greatly burdened with earthly possessions while worshiping at St. Francis.

St. Francis has roughly 8,000 parishioners, likely making it the largest church in Ann Arbor (I welcome corrections on this point), and they thoroughly filled a large building. The building, stylistically, is the counterpoint to St. Lorenz Kirche in Nuremberg, Germany. While St. Lorenz is a Lutheran church that maintains much of the statuary from its ancient Roman Catholic history, St. Francis is a rather austere brick structure with only a few plain-colored statues near the back. The chancel area was decorated with fall-themed items. Believe it or not, this is also the first place on my tour of Ann Arbor-area churches that I heard any mention of college football from the clergy during the service.

In this service, I got to hear for the second consecutive week about "a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 5:6), with less stumbling over that name this week than last. The other lesson was Mark 10:46-52, in which Bartimaeus the blind man yelled for Jesus to help him, and many followers of Jesus told him to be quiet. In the homily by Father John Linden, he asked the parishioners who it is that they find easy to rebuke, and reminded us that was very selective in when to call people to task, and in fact did it when most of the people conventionally considered righteous least expected it.

A few things that struck me during this service were that they had a time to bless all those going trick-or-treating this week, and another time to collect packages of Halloween candy for the less fortunate. Perhaps Halloween candy is not as much a necessity as other things, but one of the great strengths that I see in the Roman Catholic church is their level of care for the earthly needs of people. At other places, on the Sunday before Halloween, they celebrate Martin Luther, and I had to strongly resist the temptation to bring Diet of Worms cake to the Catholic church. Everyone held hands with their neighbor while saying the Lord's Prayer, which for me caused a crisis in which I had to scramble to put down the book in my hands; I had managed to cut down to holding only one book at that time. However, soon after that, I forgot about the fairly large book on my chair and sat right on it. Also, they inducted an adult member through confirmation during the mass--someone I know, as it turned out.

Much of the music in the mass had a modern feel to it, notably the closing hymn, "Lift Up Your Hearts," accompanied by Tom Kean on the organ and Evelyn Scheutte on the piano. The liturgy featured leadership by Cantor Diane Herstein. And this service also featured the bell choir, directed by Ginnie Birchler, playing "Holy Manna" arranged by Margaret Tucker and "Declare the Maker's Praise" by Joseph Daniel.

Going chronologically backward, rehearsal was where the organizational skills of the choir leadership showed up. Director Tom Kean is very methodical about rehearsal, and gives very precise instructions. At one point in the rehearsal, he demonstrated the way that most people had been doing a particular rhythm in one piece of the liturgy and said, "That is so close to being correct." The notes that I took then don't remind me of what the error was, but I think it was the difference between two sixteenth notes followed by an eight note and vice-versa. Tom pays close attention to make sure that members are enunciating their vowels well, even practicing by singing only vowel sounds. And he does a lot of rehearsing only two of the voice parts singing at once, but I think he went through all of the possible pairings at different times. Adding to the level of organization, music librarian Ralph (didn't catch his last name) keeps close tabs on what music is needed and what is out, and it is all put into music packages. This choir has excellent representation by men; at one point while the group were still arriving for rehearsal, I counted 13 men and 6 women.

At an intermediate chronological point, I was to go to the choir's Halloween party on Saturday night. I put on my costume, which was intended to be a wolfman, but because of a not-really-right wig and hair stuck to my face in tufts, turned out to be more of a wolfman-cum-Klingon-cum-hippie, and headed over. However, I didn't have the instructions right, and rang into the actual condo where the hosts live, when in fact it was in the common room across the way within the complex. I had the phone number, but being a reluctant cell phone user, didn't have the cell with me and went out in search of a pay phone. I fought my way through the very crowded Fraser's Pub (about an hour and a half after the football game ended) in all my wolfman-Klingon glory to a pay phone that didn't work. I found another pay phone up the street, but of course had no luck because I was trying to call the wrong place. I found out the problem the next morning, when it was too late.

Next week: Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania


  1. Well done commentary, Brent. Glad to see you after the mass..Wendy

  2. It has been so interesting to read your blog. I would be interested if you know of Chiors who perform Christmas programs during the season. My husband and I are fairly new to the area and we would love to know of a place to enjoy great Christmas music

  3. Jess and Drew,

    I'm sorry that I haven't been really attentive to the comments on my blog. I could have made better recommendations earlier, but one that I am aware of right now is the Christmas program of the youth of the Fountain Church of God in Christ. This will feature genuine African-American gospel music, and will be located at their church on Stadium Boulevard directly across from Pioneer High School at 4 pm on Sunday, December 20. Most churches will have Christmas Eve services.