Parish musicians keep sacred music, community alive despite coronavirus separation

  • Written by Julie A. Ferraro
  • Published in Local
A virtual “Sunday brunch” is keeping choir members from St. John the Evangelist Parish in Seattle connected during the coronavirus restrictions. Other parish musicians around the archdiocese are sharing music virtually. Photo: Courtesy Joseph Tancioco A virtual “Sunday brunch” is keeping choir members from St. John the Evangelist Parish in Seattle connected during the coronavirus restrictions. Other parish musicians around the archdiocese are sharing music virtually. Photo: Courtesy Joseph Tancioco

SEATTLE – Church choirs around the archdiocese are staying connected and sharing sacred music with their parish communities, despite being physically separated by coronavirus restrictions.

At All Saints Parish in Puyallup, music and liturgy director Paula Schmitz started a special Facebook page where she posts songs that the choir would normally sing for the parish’s livestreamed liturgies.

She’s also working with choir members on a recording of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria,” a project inspired when parishes were encouraged to ring their church bells at noon to remind the faithful to pray the Angelus.

“I got to ring the Angelus bell the first day,” Schmitz said. Then she texted choir members a link to Biebl’s composition, which incorporates part of the Angelus.

The immediate response, she said, was, “Let’s do it!”

Since then, she scanned the musical score and sent it to the choir members, in the hope they will be able to gather in person and perform the music at a future Mass.

At St. John Vianney Parish in Kirkland, musicians used technology to blend their voices and musical talents to create a recording of “When You Prayed Beneath the Trees.” The recording was played at the beginning of the parish’s livestreamed Good Friday service, according to Margaret Graham, St. John Vianney’s music director.

They’ve also remotely produced a recording of the song “Many and One” that has been posted on the parish website.

“Margaret laid down the piano track. Separately, Lauren, Annie, and Margaret recorded their vocals to it. Mike laid the guitar track, then mixed it,” reads an explanation of the process on the website.

Graham said the challenge for the vocalists was listening to the piano through headphones, while singing and recording only their voices on separate equipment.

“They got it right away,” she said.

After combining the files on her computer, Graham forwarded them to her brother for the finishing touches.

As the website says, “literally many, who are separate yet bound in his love, created this one track to bring peace to us all.”

Providing music in person

Many parishes are providing simpler, “live” music during their livestreamed Masses because of the strict limits on how many people can participate in Mass.

“The coronavirus pandemic and resulting stay-at-home orders have put the cathedral’s choirs and ensembles in an alien land indeed,” Joseph Adam, director of music at St. James Cathedral, wrote in an email.

For instance, the traditional Office of Tenebrae liturgical service during Holy Week usually features the Cathedral Cantorei ensemble and Men's Chant Choir; this year a quartet from the Cantorei provided music for the livestreamed service.

“Although necessarily limited in its scope, the music we provide both speaks to the moment and enhances the celebration of the church’s liturgy,” Adam said.

At St. John the Evangelist Parish in Seattle, livestreamed music is a family affair.

“Our family are all musicians,” said Twi McDonell, St. John’s music director, who directs the choir for the 8:30 a.m. Mass.

Her husband, Angus, is a pastoral assistant for music and youth at St. Bridget Parish in Seattle and a published composer. (He’s also in the archdiocese’s deacon formation program). Their children, Josie and Lawrence, both in their 20s, also have music degrees.

During St. John’s Masses, Josie plays the piano, with Twi serving as cantor or reader. When possible, Lawrence joins them. “Angus and I arm-wrestle for him,” Twi said, chuckling, to determine whether their son will help with music at St. John’s or St. Bridget’s.

Although the choir members who sing at St. John’s regular 8:30 a.m. Sunday Mass can’t gather to join their voices in song, they are keeping in touch under Twi’s leadership. The parish’s 10:30 a.m. choir members were missing each other, so they’ve started meeting virtually on Sundays, said Joseph Tancioco, who plays piano at the Mass and sometimes sings with the choir.

“We get together during the time we would usually be singing for Mass,” said Tancioco, who is program manager of the archdiocese’s office of Marriage, Family Life and Formation.

Like others during this time of the coronavirus, choir members are looking forward to the time when they can gather and join their voices in musical praise at Mass.

“We all pray for the day that we will be together again, when we can indeed ‘sing unto the Lord a new song,’” said Adam, the cathedral’s music director.