Our Christmas Hope

My cousin Sarah teaches music history in St. Paul, MN, at the University of St. Thomas, which held its Christmas concert last week at a packed Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. Since she also plays the French horn, she lent her talent to the event—no small achievement for a breast cancer survivor. Afterward, she e-mailed me: “When the men from all [five] choirs sang Ave Maria, and when the large choir sang Martin Lauridsen's arrangement of O Magnum Mysterium, I was moved to tears at witnessing the beauty of God's gift of MUSIC being shared—students singing with full hearts, open to ignite the hearts and minds and ears of listeners. I saw an old man listening with mouth open, eyes shut, tears streaming down his face. I was trying to keep it together, then saw my horn students in our section doing the same thing! We all took a ‘group eye-dabbing’ before putting horns up for the next piece. The birth of HOPE for the world is upon us!”

That’s exactly what the Daughters of St. Paul Choir experienced when the sisters sang and danced in eight different venues over the past two weeks. Echoing our tagline, Discover Hope, the theme of our Christmas cards, calendars, and concerts is “Our Christmas Hope,” a sentiment that shows no signs of wear, despite months of planning and promotion. My office is along the main walkway through our publishing house, and I just heard someone pass by still humming one of the final numbers of Sunday’s Boston show. Nor are the songs the only thing people walked away with. Person after person said how year after year, it marks the spirit of the season for them, inviting them into our own joyful celebration of the Good News.

Everywhere, those who’ve attended concerts through several years commented that this year’s performance was “the best ever.” A man in Alexandria, VA, thought that, because the singing and choreography were right on and so together, it was lip-synched. A woman wondered how we could top it next year. In Piscataway, NJ, a girl—maybe ten-years-old—shyly approached Sr. Tracey, who remembered her from last year. “I like this one the best of all,” she ventured, then walked away. She came back and added, “I have one more thing: you all sang the best I’ve ever heard you sing.” Sr. Tracey was touched, especially as she recognized what an effort it was for her to say it.

A New Jersey man in his early 80’s is very involved in the life of his parish, but feels he has to come to the concert every year to start off his Christmas season. In Cleveland, the sound engineers, who’ve worked the concert there for the past three years claim that it’s now part of their Christmas. They confided, “While you’re singing, we pick out two voices and harmonize them. Wow! Beautiful sounds come out of these ladies. It’s pure joy.” J. D. Goddard, a music reviewer for music zine Cleveland Classical, was more moderate, but considering it was not a classical event, he was just as positive about their “exceptional” and “‘upbeat’ performance” that reflected “their strong religious convictions and faith.”

Romeo Marquis, the husband of Claudette, another cousin of mine, (He wrote the Pauline Faithways post of Sept. 7) gave me his evaluation of the Boston performance: “This is a great event, not only because of the music, but because of your attitude toward each other.” A woman said to one sister, “I want to tell you I was expecting nothing. What I got was a huge shot of joy. It’s the way you poke fun at each other, and I kept feeling the joy filling my heart.” As a first-time guest, the aunt of one of our co-workers fretted over the prospect of being bored by a prim recital, followed by some tweedy reception: “I hope we don’t pray too long. My knees are hurting!”

If anyone expressed the mood, it was the kids. In Alexandria, where the concert was held in a church, the turning point for them was at “the costume change,” when the sisters put the gloves and scarves on for Silver Bells, Jingle Bells, and Winter Wonderland. “Twenty-five or thirty kids started crawling out of their pews, three or four of them at a time,” Sr. Tracey told me. “Their eyes were twinkling as they got closer and imitated our hand motions. One little girl positioned herself in the middle aisle, chin in hand, probably to have a balanced view of the whole thing.”

At the reception following each of the Boston gigs, I donned a Santa hat. Armed with a matching red stocking, a sign that read, “Stuff Santa’s Stocking!” and a bag of brochures, forms, and business cards, I mingled with guests, available for their questions about our life and mission. Several signed up for a notification about the annual concerts, or an e-mail about the weekly Pauline Faithways posting. Some dropped in a twenty or more; others dropped in a prayer intention or two. A little boy, maybe six years old, rushed up to me and announced, “I want a train like this!” and he pointed to the two boxcars he held in his hands.

Uh-oh, I thought, he thinks I’m the real deal. I guess the lack of beard and girth didn’t make a whole lot of difference.

“OK,” I played along, “Do you want to show me the details? We gotta make sure it’s the right one.” “It has to have these kind of wheels,” and he carefully indicated the blue ones on either side of each. “I’ll be sure to pass that on!” I smiled at mom, who smiled back apologetically and gently herded her boys toward the cookie table.

One of our Sunday chaplains in Boston named Sr. Anne “Sister O-Holy-Night.” That song was the best number of the whole performance, according to two young Boston women. The Saturday evening audience gave her a standing ovation, and Sr. Nancy, who carried the performance into the next selection almost sent everybody home, commenting, “You can’t beat that.” At the Staten Island Hilton dinner concert, Sara Boccieri the four-year-old granddaughter of our friends, Gene and JoAnn Boccieri, toggled between her parents’ table and her grandparents’, where I was sitting. After the first few lively songs, the tone of the concert became a little softer. Sara was perched on her grandfather’s knee when Sr. Anne began to sing O Holy Night. Sara froze, her eyes riveted on Sr. Anne. When she got to the words, “This is the night of the dear Savior’s birth,” Sara, without taking her eyes off the stage, made the Sign of the Cross and folded her little hands. Given Sr. Anne’s blue veil, she probably thought she was seeing the Virgin Mary! Whether she understood the words or not, it was obvious she was having a sacred moment. Of course, it lasted all of about ten seconds before she slid from her grandfather’s knee and scooted off toward her parents.