Franciscan Joy: Directing singers 'lights up my life'
Last year, when Provincial Minister, Fr. Jeff Scheeler, OFM invited me to consider assembling and directing a choir to present a program on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, I don’t believe I hesitated a bit. After all, he was asking me to do one of the things in life that brings me great joy.
One reason I enjoy directing so much is the joy I see and even feel in the members of a choir as they experience the thrill of together bringing to life a very beautiful creation. I was for a short period in my professional life a band director. One can make beautiful music in that genre also, of course, but, to me it’s not the same, because there is an instrument between the director and musician. Choral music is heart to heart communication! I’m sure that instrumentalists and band/orchestra conductors would take me to task on that idea. So be it! Actually, it may be because I wasn’t a very good band director!
For the Year of Consecrated Life choir, 120 women and men of different religious communities in the greater Cincinnati area responded to my invitation to sing. After just four rehearsals (never with the full complement of singers), we presented a glorious hour of sacred music before a capacity crowd at Cincinnati’s St. Peter in Chains Cathedral on a snowy Sunday afternoon last February. Over and above the fine performance, which I’m sure brought joy to the singers, the icing on the cake, as it were, was the sustained ovation at the conclusion of the concert. Seeing the happiness on the faces of the participants, mostly older women and men—characteristic of the religious communities we represented—brought me to tears. It was the sort of experience one doesn’t want to end. It truly was for me, for the singers and, judging from the response and the smiles on their faces, for the audience, too, a foretaste of heaven.
I did some choir directing while in the seminary, especially while studying theology. But it was during my first assignment after ordination as a high school teacher that I came into my own as a choral director. I was put in charge of a choral program at our Franciscan high school, Bishop Luers, in Ft. Wayne, IN. There were fewer than 30 kids signed up to sing. In just a few years, we had three choirs with close to 200 singers. Singing in a choir can be just as much fun for the participant as for the director! And, yes, members of the winning football team joined the choir, too. In fact, in my first year our choir president was the quarterback. Perhaps more than any role I performed during my 20 years of high school ministry, directing the choirs was what brought me the greatest joy.
After I left Bishop Luers, I resurrected the choral program at my new assignment, Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati. I then got into other sorts of ministries that limited my opportunity to direct, until I was assigned to a parish deep in Cajun country in Houma, LA. While there I started an adult choir that was pure joy for me and, I am confident, for the members. I recall one of my singers, a deep-sea fisherman, who spoke of choir night as his night out.
A group of 15 friars formed a choir for this year’s area celebration of the Transitus or "Passing" of St. Francis on Oct. 3. Two of the members were in their 90s, both of whom would like the choir to continue for other celebrations. Who says that choral singing, including hard work rehearsing, isn’t fun? I hope it’s clear from what I’ve written that it’s directing the singing that lights up my life. What brings me the greatest joy is knowing that I helped my singers have a rewarding experience. Someone recently planted an idea in my mind of creating an area choir for members of the Secular Franciscan Order. So the blessing and the joy may well continue . . .