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Uncommon choir

Author: Arts and Letters

Traveling with Notre Dame’s innovative folk group

Those who sing pray twice," St. Augustine once said. If only it were that simple. These days, those who sing, direct and write church music sometimes fight twice as much as they pray. The postconciliar world of liturgical music is fraught with battles over everything from guitar use to “young adult music” to Latin hymns, and at times it may seem that there’s no musical middle ground in sight. But a closer look at one choral ensemble offers some hints of hope. For 26 years, the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir has built a repertoire that relies on the unlikely partnership of pipe organ and guitar, a rich variety of sacred texts, and hymnody from multiple cultures and ethnic groups. Having been a member of the group myself 10 years ago, I have a firsthand acquaintance with the music of this ensemble.

In the last decade, much of the choir’s published repertoire has worked its way from campus into parish choirs and hymnals around the country. This development is due, in part, to the group’s yearly travels within the United States, Canada and Ireland.

Traveling along as an “embedded journalist,” I spent more than two weeks this spring with the 50-some folk choir members on their tour of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The travelogue that follows offers a window not only into a choral repertoire that transcends the typical categories of liturgical music, but also a window into the hearts and minds of a group of young Catholics, perhaps members of the generation that will help put some of these tired musical style wars to rest.

May 14

*Michigan City, Ind.

  • My time with the choir begins a week before its spring tour, as I drive to meet the choir at the Indiana State Prison on Mother’s Day. The ensemble has been giving a concert at this maximum security prison for the past 10 years, a prison where there has been a steady presence of Holy Cross priests, Notre Dame’s founding order. At the door, we hand over our driver’s licenses and put our valuables into metal lockers, securing our belongings with quarters. As we prepare to walk through the metal detectors, I see the clergy on the other side of security, wearing Roman collars and Notre Dame baseball hats, their keys hanging on neck lanyards that say “IRISH.” There’s something moving about the juxtaposition of the priests and prison bars — the face of the church at work in the world. I think the same thing as I watch boxes of choral folders and musical instruments slide along the conveyor belt through the metal detector: a cello, a guitar, conga drums, bongo drums, a flute, a violin. This is the same ensemble that has sung for Pope John Paul II, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Harper Lee, the same ensemble that sang for Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey at Lambeth Palace and for Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume in Derry, Northern Ireland. Today their concert is being videotaped so those on lockdown on Death Row can view it later.

We move through what seems like an endless progression of cells until we reach a cavernous, air-conditioned room that’s part chapel, part auditorium. More than 300 khaki-clad inmates, some wearing kelly green knit caps, are milling about. Loud banter echoes throughout the room. One of them yells: “You any good?” I’m wondering how one begins such a concert, and I’m curious to see what folk choir director Steve Warner will say first. (Will he take his cues from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and San Quentin?) “Hey guys,” Warner begins, as he steps up to the microphone with his guitar. “Good afternoon, gentlemen. It’s an honor and privilege to be here — every week when we rehearse we’re prayin’ for you guys.”

The music this afternoon ranges from an upbeat and percussive rendition of Psalm 100: “Alleluia! Sing Now with Gladness” to a more reflective version of the Lord’s Prayer, during which nearly every head in the room bows low. At intermission, young coeds mingle with inmates young and old, making conversation over fruit punch and chocolate chip cookies. The whole experience thus far has been one of soulful music and affable conversation, a successful ministerial endeavor by any measure. During the second half of the concert, however, it becomes clear that something is amiss. First, a pretty senior brings down the house with a stunning, gospel-style rendition of the African-American spiritual “I Love the Lord.” She gets a standing ovation and thunderous applause. Suddenly, in the midst of the hoots and hollers, a big, burly prison guard in a navy blue uniform is in front of the room, his hands on his hips. “The count is not clear,” he shouts. “Everyone back to their cells.” Someone came up missing in the post-intermission head count, and for safety’s sake, the concert comes to an abrupt end. The disappointment in the room is palpable, and there are shouts of frustration from the audience. “We’ll sing you out,” Warner promises, and the choir sings an African Gloria as 300 inmates drift out of the room, lingering in the back and waving. I ask one of them if this kind of thing is unusual, and he says nonchalantly, “It happens all the time.” Mistaking me for a student, he shakes my hand politely and thanks me for coming. We later learn that the head count was not done properly in the first place. Because of an administrative mistake, everyone has been punished.

May 22


  • It’s the first day of the Pacific Northwest tour. All 53 of us fly across the country from O’Hare to the Seattle-Tacoma airport, and we meet our chartered bus near the baggage claim. Somebody has posted a printed sign on the front of the bus that reads: “Notre Dame Folk Choir: Pacific Northwest Pilgrimage, 2006.” I like the image of pilgrimage for this trip. Though we’ll enjoy many creature comforts over the next two weeks — air travel and carefree days in fun cities and lavish post-concert receptions — there’s much about this journey that bears the hallmarks of pilgrimage. In each city we visit, we’ll rely on strangers for lodging and food. The demanding schedule of performances — sometimes as many as three per day — will be exhausting at times. I watch those who will be my fellow travelers for the next 15 days — many of them in brightly-colored windbreakers with “University of Notre Dame Folk Choir” embroidered across the front — loading up the bowels of the chartered bus, and I’m surprised how quickly and efficiently everything seems to move. Within a matter of minutes, luggage, percussion instruments and banana boxes of CDs, programs and sheet music are neatly stowed away. As I board the bus, I’m assigned a number for roll call that will be mine for the next two weeks: 52. After everyone and everything is accounted for, Robert, our bus driver for the first leg of the trip, glides the bus along the Interstate 5 entrance ramp south to Portland, and we’re off.

May 25

*Portland, Ore.

  • The past few days have been a blur of parish concerts, Masses, workshops and vespers with high schools, grade schools and dioceses. In many ways this journey feels much like a modern-day Canterbury Tales, with each destination giving rise to its own story and cast of colorful characters. At the University of Portland, Oregon’s only Catholic university, we were hosted by Holy Cross Fr. Ed Obermiller, a priest of 10 years and a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef. At La Salle High School in southeast Portland, we arrived a week after the sudden death of a beloved senior, her locker still festooned with written tributes, photographs and flowers. During a concert at north Portland’s Holy Redeemer Parish, one of the poorest parishes in the city, school-age Irish step dancers jigged in the church aisles during a lively song based on a prayer of St. Patrick.

I’m starting to get to know the young troubadours on the bus. On the long ride to Washington’s Port Angeles ferry dock, from which we will head to Victoria, British Columbia, I check out the reading selections they’ve brought along for the trip. From a brief survey of titles, it becomes clear that these are no literary lightweights. I see such titles as The Brothers Karamazov, The Great Gatsby and The Seven Storey Mountain strewn about, along with a few copies of more contemporary reads like Memoirs of a Geisha, Devil in the White City and Angels and Demons. I make a special effort to talk to the recently graduated seniors, many of whom ask me, with no effort to hide their trepidation, about life after college. I meet Sarah Floyd, an avid runner and aspiring financier who’s moving to Philadelphia to work for the Vanguard Group. (She’s reading Global Profit and Global Justice: Using Your Money to Change the World.) I meet Erica Williams, a down-to-earth California native who will attend medical school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in the fall with the goal of specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. I meet Paul Van Leeuwen, a cerebral and congenial computer engineering and Spanish major who will put his technical chops to work for Raytheon Aircraft Company in Fort Wayne, Ind. All of these career plans are impressive. But further conversation with seniors like these reveals not only raw ambition, but real depth as well. Erica, who until college had never sung in a choir, tells me how much she likes the feminine imagery from scripture that Warner draws upon in his repertoire, especially from the books of Ruth and Proverbs. “I went to an all-girls Catholic high school that was very good about strong women in the church,” she said, “so all the feminine imagery wasn’t really new to me, but it’s nice to have Steve reinforce that.” Paul tells me he wants to join a parish choir in Fort Wayne next year: “With as much opportunity as I’ve had, I don’t think I’d have an excuse to not pay that back and to not be active in it still.”

In the past few days I’ve also been struck by the seriousness of the music this group sings, almost all of which is written by Warner and the choir’s Yale-educated associate director, Karen Schneider-Kirner. I’ve heard pieces like " Escucha! Put It in Your Heart," an unabashedly romantic yet assertive bilingual piece inspired by the words of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego; “O, Poor Little Jesus,” a haunting African-American Christmas hymn that connects Jesus’ birth directly to his Passion; and “Run with the Light of Christ,” a rousing hymn based on the final chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict. Many of these songs are so different from the ber-contemporary fare I’ve heard well-meaning parish ministers say young adults “need” to be engaged in liturgy. I ask Warner about this on the bus. “There’s a way to reach young people without selling out,” he tells me. “These people are going to be in parishes. If I don’t pass on to them and help them appreciate the depth of what our hymns are, the theology in them, I’m setting them up for parochial failure once they leave the university. Young adults need not only to be joyful but to learn how to lament. If we choose pop music to give to young adults, we don’t teach them how to grieve, and that despair, as well as joy, is a necessary part of the landscape of our faith.”

Another hallmark of this ensemble is its extensive use of percussion, which includes ethnic percussion like a bodhran — a hand-held Irish drum — and a djembe — an African drum with a deep bass sound. “Everyone thinks it’s cool,” says Josh Stagni, the most pensive of the three percussionists. “If you’re going to do other cultures in music, if you’re going to include other languages and voices and styles, you should incorporate the instruments. It’s like adding another layer, but not taking over. If it’s not there, it sounds kind of dead.” Learning another culture’s instrumentation, Josh remarks wryly, has not been without its challenges: “When I’m playing drums, I’m worried because I’m a white guy,” he said. "When we went to Harlem and played, I thought, `These guys are going to think I’m weird or something.’ "

May 28

*Victoria, British Columbia

  • It’s 7p.m. and we’re at the cathedral in Victoria, a fascinating architectural amalgam of French Gothic and First Nations art. As I head into a back room for the group’s pre-concert prayer, I spot Talia Daly, a petite sophomore from St. Paul, Minn., wearing a skirt and platform flip flops, crouching intently over something under one of the pews. I ask her what she’s doing, and she pulls something out of a floral cloth bag. It’s a handcrafted wooden bowl holding a pillar candle and a St. Brigid’s cross made of peat. The bowl is from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, the candle is from Notre Dame’s grotto, and the cross is from Ireland — all small keepsakes obtained from recent choir travels. Talia tells me she has been entrusted with bringing this miniature shrine wherever the ensemble sings, placing the lit candle near the group during every practice, every concert.

Even after just a few days, it’s struck me how serious many of these kids — young adults really — are about their prayer lives. Whenever we’re in a church, it seems that someone is kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, and during a long, drawn-out wait for dinner at a restaurant one night, trying to remember if we’ve said grace yet, one young woman pipes up earnestly, “You guys, I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve prayed.” Establishing a practice of group prayer in a group as large as this is bound to cause some tension, about which many students speak to me freely. “I’ve always had a difficult time being open with my spirituality and my faith life, and in folk choir you’ve got a lot of people that wear it on their sleeve,” says Nicholas Tonozzi, an animated, recently graduated senior, one of a handful of music majors in the group. He will be studying opera at Northwestern. “They say out loud, `God bless you’ all the time, or they’re talking about Jesus all the time. That was something I was never comfortable with. Freshman and sophomore year I struggled a lot with that. Every time someone said it, I just wanted to be like, `Shut up. I get it. You love the Lord, now back off.’ But now I’m kind of growing into an ability to acknowledge my own faith life so I can be open with that and share it with other people. I’m not sure if that would have happened without the folk choir.”

Josh, the percussionist, tells me: “Some people are more traditional and conservative, some more liberal. There are people that aren’t comfortable if we decide to all pray the rosary on the tour bus. At times those differences can make for tense moments, but that’s also very good. But they’re not something to talk about on a tour when we get no sleep.” I take that as my cue to change the subject, and I ask him about his own spiritual influences. He tells me about joining an interdenominational Christian club on campus, called Iron Sharpens Iron. “I was interested in exploring something that wasn’t just Catholic, that was something I didn’t have to do,” he said. “The prayer groups when we prayed out loud were the hardest things for me to get used to as a Catholic, but they ended up being one of the greatest parts. They made me more comfortable asking people: Is there anything I can pray for for you?”

May 29

*Victoria, British Columbia

  • Today is a busy day, with a high school concert in the morning, a grade school concert in the afternoon and an ecumenical concert in the evening. We take a long lunch today, and I get the chance to talk to Emily Andreas, a bright-eyed film, television and theatre major from New Hampshire. She just graduated, and is eager to tell me about her senior project for her digital video production class: a documentary on women’s ordination and the Catholic church, a project that she worked on for the entire semester. "One issue I’ve discussed with my mom several times is `Why can’t women be priests?’ " she said. "And I got to thinking, `What does this mean for women who want to be priests? Are there women who want to be priests or is it just a moot point because no one is interested?’ " Emily tells me about the people she interviewed for this project, and she excitedly hands me the DVD of her 10-minute documentary, which she’s brought with her on tour. I ask her how making the documentary has shaped her own feelings on the issue.

“I still was not able to discern exactly why women can’t be priests,” she said. “I never found it very clear what the real theology or the real reasoning behind this choice and this declaration was. No one’s been able to explain it really firmly. I think women should continue to work within the church and show we’re good, that we do our jobs well. That’s what they did in the Episcopal church and in other churches. They continued to work within the churches, within the system, and eventually made changes. One thing a female Episcopal priest said to me is how sad it would have been if women in the Episcopal church would have left before they were allowed to be priests. She was very thankful those women had stayed and worked within the church to bring that change.” I ask Emily if she thinks Catholic women should be ordained. “I would love to see women ordained,” she said with a smile. “I don’t know that I’m allowed to say that, but I went to the Episcopal Mass and saw [the female Episcopal priest] preside and that was one of the most moving services I’ve ever been to, even including my own church. To see a woman up on the altar was just stunning.”

I think about her words as I attend the choir’s ecumenical concert at St. Aidan’s United Church of Christ in Victoria. We later learn that people from more than 20 denominations are in the audience, and the atmosphere is positively electric. As I’m taking in the music I think of the words of the late Jesuit Pedro Arrupe, who once said, “More than the preacher’s word, it is the musician’s touch that brings the young to God again.” Judging from the number of white-haired people singing on their feet tonight, I think his truism applies to the old as well.

May 30

*Victoria to Seattle

  • Today has been a long day, with travel by bus, ferry, then bus again, which stretched from 8 a.m. to 4p.m. Along with seven or eight other hapless souls, I’ve been handed my “punishment” for being late to the bus a few days ago. “Punishments” consist of a multitude of embarrassing tasks to be carried out in public. My occupation-appropriate punishment is to conduct an interview — using a list of ridiculous questions provided by Barbie Sloan, the lively junior in charge of roll call — with a stranger on the ferry, tape recorder in hand.

Times like these remind me that these are 18- to 22-year-olds I’m traveling with, something one can easily forget when listening to them sing so soulfully and seriously and witnessing them praying and speaking so profoundly. But every once in a while the reminders surface, in the form of things like the “moratorium on smartass remarks” issued by their director as our bus approaches U.S. customs, or his injunction before a diocesan workshop: “No dozing off, no hand gestures to each other,” or in the form of a freshman’s diamond nose stud sparkling under the cathedral lights as she sings her solo, piously, sweetly and gorgeously. (When I told her afterward that her nose jewelry had glittered throughout her solo, her response was: “That’s so awesome!”)

May 31


  • By now, I’ve gotten to talk to many of my traveling companions about their real world aspirations after college. Many want to make a career of parish music ministry, as does Lauren Prieto, a sweet-faced, whip-smart 2005 graduate who spent the past year as a campus ministry intern. She tells me her dream job is to work at a parish connected to a Catholic school. “I really feel like this is the direction God is calling me,” she said. “I’ve been playing music my whole life in churches, but I never realized it could be a career.” Lauren is getting married in Houston in three weeks, and she tells me she and her fianc want to have lots of kids. “Maybewe’ll change our minds after the first one,” she says with a laugh. In the fall, she’ll begin a master’s degree in music and organ performance at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., a Methodist theological school housed on Northwestern’s campus. Lauren tells me she’s been reading books on Catholic apologetics in preparation. “I have to know my Catholic faith so I can defend it,” she says.

One of the more passionate, if sometimes irreverent, future music ministers is Eric Buehl, a boisterous, energetic, recent graduate from Troy, N.Y. Next year he’ll be working on a master’s degree in theology at Notre Dame while interning at a parish in Wilmington, Del. “I have always been a liturgical music nerd,” he acknowledges. (This is a self-identification that is easy to accept after observing him skillfully ad-libbing church songs during free time at most of our parish destinations.) “I took over the school choir when I was in 10th grade, and I had already been to three NPMs [National Pastoral Musician conventions] before I even got to college,” he says. I ask him to describe his dream job. “I would love to be in a kind of nitty-gritty place,” he tells me. “People always say, `It’s not going to be the same once we leave Notre Dame,’ but I want there to be this big vacuum so I can try to do something about it.”

June 2

*Seward, Alaska

  • We’re on the bus again for nearly three hours, this time en route to Seward from Anchorage, where we arrived close to 1 a.m. on a late-night flight from Seattle. Today is a free day set aside for a daylong boat trip of the Kenai fjords, a breathtaking vista of water, glaciers, mountains and wildlife that includes everything from sea lions to cormorants to humpback whales. Due to a late-night arrival coupled with an early morning departure, we spent last night on the floor of a high school library. Most people are fast asleep on the bus now, and tempers are short among those who are awake. Some anonymous culprit at the large-scale sleepover last night was snoring at startling volume, causing lots of sleeplessness for many during the night, embedded journalist included. (Around 3 a.m., someone who had obviously had enough jumped up in the darkness, yelled, “Jesus Christ!” and stomped out of the room in search of an empty classroom.) One senior tells me he only got 30 minutes of sleep. I’m surprised to see that Barbie, sitting next to me, has delved into reading that’s anything but light: Karol Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility. Her boyfriend has lent her his copy of the book, complete with his handwritten annotations, to which she’s adding her own. She pulls out her breviary from her backpack, and opens it in her lap. I want to ask her about it, but she looks like she’s about to begin morning prayer, so I decide to leave her alone.

June 4

St. Patrick Parish
Anchorage, Alaska


  • Today is the feast of Pentecost, and it’s a bright, sunny morning, a perfect day to be at St. Patrick, a light-filled church whose giant windows showcase a clear blue sky and an arresting view of the snow-streaked Chugach Mountains. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles seems especially fitting today in the presence of an ensemble that, not only during the past two weeks but throughout its 26-year-history, has sung in Spanish, French, Swahili, Gaelic, Latin and English: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim … each one heard them speaking in his own language.” During the course of this 11:30 a.m. liturgy we sing “Veni Sancta Spiritus,” “O Sifuni Mungu” — a Swahili version of “All Creatures of Our God and King” — and Psalm 104, the psalm of the day, punctuated by the rhythms of the Irish bodhran.


  • It’s the last concert on the last night of tour. Everyone is tired, road-weary, and ready to go home. But this is a nostalgic moment for the seniors — their last night singing with the folk choir. Tonight, all of the solos belong to them. I can tell from their wistful looks that they are trying to savor every last minute of singing. The penultimate song of the concert is “Lead, Kindly Light,” a poignant song based on the poem by Cardinal John Henry Newman. It’s a fitting, if unsettling, song for those about to head into the unknown. Lead, kindly light, amid the gloom of evening. Lord, lead me on! Lord, lead me on! On, through the night, on to your radiance! Lead, kindly light. Lead, kindly light. As I watch the seniors sing, I think of the stories they’ve shared with me over the past two weeks, and I know that at this moment they’re thinking ahead to their new apartments in Philadelphia and weddings in Houston and graduate programs in cellular molecular biology and opera and medicine, and they’re wondering what it all will hold for them. Then they reach the first verse: The night is dark, and I am far from home. Direct my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me. So lead me onward, Lord, and hear my plea. This is when the tears start. First I see the tears streaming down the young faces in front of me. A few moments later, there are audible sniffles and tissues unfurling all around me. It sounds like a clich, but there isn’t a dry eye in the place. Clearly, this song speaks to the trepidation so many of us feel throughout the many moments of transition and uncertainty in our lives. But everyone cheers up again during the last song, “Come to the Living Stone,” a rousing, joyous interpretation of the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter, punctuated by the sound of conga drums. Out of the darkness God has called us into light, a glorious light; once we were lost and alone in this world, now we belong to God! Two encore pieces ensue, and as people leave the church I witness 50-plus young adults form the closest thing to a mosh pit I’ve ever seen in a church sanctuary. There’s no need to save their voices for any more concerts now, and they’re clapping and dancing and singing so loud they’re almost shouting, the seniors enclosed in the middle of the circle: We are marching in the light of God! We are marching in the light of God! At the end, they collapse into a heap of hugs and tears and exuberance, pulling apart only when their host families come and tell them it’s time to go home. By concert’s end, it’s almost 11p.m., and as I follow all of them into the parking lot outside under the summer Alaskan sky, it’s still bright as day.

Rene LaReau is a freelance writer living in Columbus, Ohio. She was a flautist in the Notre Dame Folk Choir from 1992-96.

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Originally published by Renée LaReau (in the National Catholic Reporter) at on July 28, 2006.