Monday, February 8, 2010

Superbowl Sing at Old St. Patrick

La mort n'est plus. Death is no more.

This week brought The Itinerant Chorister to Old St. Patrick Church at 5671 Whitmore Lake Road, north of Ann Arbor. The church was founded by Father Patrick O'Kelly in 1831 and I was told that it was the first Roman Catholic church in Michigan to use the English language; prior churches used French. The musical experience was quite unusual, as this church has a boychoir that gets together to rehearse and perform only on an occasional basis. They perform three times per year at the church, and also try to find some other performance venues at other times. When they sing at the church, they are augmented by several adult male voices, dubbed the "men singers." Furthermore, several of these are guys who started out singing as boys with this group, even back to its inception ten years ago.

This group sang several things at the 10:30 am Mass. The centerpiece was Cesar Frank's 'Alleluia,' quoted in part at the top of this post. However, this is arranged for soprano, mezzo, and contralto; as a bass, I sat this one out, but the tenors sang the contralto part. This song was sung in abbreviated form from the balcony during the mass, and then in full following the mass from the chancel, by memory. Also featured during mass was 'O Bone Jesu' by Palestrina. The mini-concert following mass consisted of 'Alleluia' along with this choir's traditional closer, 'Behold the Lamb of God' by Bob Burroughs. They even invited alumni of the group forward for the closer, as is done by the U. Michigan Men's Glee Club, Measure for Measure, and many other groups.

In addition to these anthems, the choir also led much of the liturgy of the Mass. As pointed out by Paul Schultz of St. Thomas the Apostle church in Ann Arbor in a comment to my teaser paragraph in, Old St. Patrick is one place that does some pieces of the Latin Mass. This time, we did a Gregorian chant in Latin of 'Glory to God'--'Laudamus te, benedicimus te,' etc. We also chanted the Kyrie, the part of the Latin Mass that actually is in Greek. Some bits of the liturgy and hymns were themed on the scripture readings for the day--Isaiah 6:1-8, featuring the angels singing, 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!', and Luke 5:1-11, in which Jesus promises to make fishermen into fishers of people.

The homily delivered by Father Gerald Gawronski was an exposition on the blessings, responsibilities, and challenges of the Roman Catholic priesthood, and the challenges in the path of maintaining the corpus of priests. He started off by saying something that I found a little startling--the 'common priesthood' that all Catholics share. It sure sounded a lot like the 'priesthood of all believers' of Protestant faiths, although a quick look at Wikipedia helped me to understand the difference. He contrasted this to ministerial priesthood of ordained priests. He highlighted three factors that stand in the way of recruitment of more priests--materialism, hedonism, and excessive individualism. All reduce the capacity for sacrificial love that is required.

This choir has one person, Jim Kaderabek, as its sparkplug. He puts a lot of work into such things as recruiting and communication with the singers and their parents, as most of them are not actually members of the church. He also directs most of the singing. I knew that his formal training in music is limited, but he knows and teaches such things as singing with 'tall' vowels, in order to avoid the kind of sounds that indicate tension in the mouth and throat and, even though they might sound right when talking, sound bad when singing. He maintains an attitude of all business and keeps a bunch of young boys in line. At the same time, Jim has some help on the musical end. Mike Sauter stood in to direct the Franck 'Alleluia,' as well as singing with the basses. And the church's Director of Music, Mara Terwilliger (her blog), did all of the accompaniment on the organ and helped in keeping singers' pitches in line. One particular thing that she did, actually somewhat surreptitiously, was during 'O Bone Jesu' when she gave a big nod of the head when the altos had a tricky entrance on an offbeat.

This event was billed as the 11th Annual Superbowl Sing, but nothing was themed on the Super Bowl. In fact, the only mention that was made of the Super Bowl during the mass included the word 'vulgarity.' Even for a non-football fan like me, I'm not sure that everyone was on board with that.

The physical setup for singing reminded me somewhat of what I described from my December visit to St. Patrick Church (same name) in San Francisco, singing from a rather small balcony. However, in San Francisco, only five men clustered around the organ console in that balcony. This Sunday, six boys sang soprano and seven alto, plus three adult or high school men sang tenor and four sang bass, all within an area the size of a mini-van between the pillars. Through nearly all of the Mass, we stood on plywood risers, with most of the boys using plastic stepstools placed on top of this. During the short times that we could sit, the boys spread out toward the sides of the balcony and the basses sat on the bench in the back row that was only about four inches deep. Contrast the problems with sitting on the front edge of the chair in last week's entry with this week, when the entire seat was the front edge.

A central activity in this choir is recognition of its members. The Saturday evening rehearsal was the only one that I was expected to attend as a bass; there were four rehearsals for sopranos and altos and two for tenors. Following that rehearsal was pizza and pop in the parish hall, and Jim got up and said that this was his favorite time of the sing, when he recognized the members. He had each person stand in turn and first introduce himself, then Jim actually gave a short speech about each person. This included me (I've known Jim for a long time). What kind of youth activity have you been in that gives this level of recognition at each event? There is also a system of items presented for participating several times: a tie for five times, tie clip for ten times, and cufflinks for fifteen times. Also, each participant is given a bottle of water at the Mass, bearing a sticker with his name on it and stars corresponding to the number of times each one has participated. Again, this included me. For those with a greater number of times participating, the stars were color-coded in a system that I didn't entirely get, but gold stars perhaps indicated five times. The bottle that said 'Brent' alas had only one pink star on it.

The group photo is also a big deal. I'm in the right rear.


  1. nice write-up!

    I know I told you this in person, but I'll post in on here also; I think this blog is such a cool idea- I wish I could go around to a different church every week and compare their music and general liturgy, and of course what better way to do that then singing in the choir!

    (also, feel free to come back whenever you want if you want to get the more "normal" adult choir experience.)

  2. Thanks, Mara. It is good to see that you are reading it. I suppose you saw that you are in the background of the one photo.