In 1967, Choir Director Peter LaManna penned a report on the renowned SFDS “Schola Cantorum,” which offers a curious window into the last days of a more stately age!
LaManna recalled the long history of the SFDS Boys Choir, founded when the church was built in 1911, and reaching “prominence and recognition” under choirmaster and organist Mr. Albert Dooner. In 1956, when Father Angelo Della Picca took over as choirmaster, under Bishop McShea, “the choir took on the nature of a choirschool…The repertory was developed until it was recognized as one of the largest in the United States.” Peter LaManna came on board in 1961, and was proud that “The choir is unique to the archdiocese of Philadelphia, and there are only a few others with the same program and training in the Catholic churches in the United States…” The music was, of course, in Latin, classical, and ornate – and decisively pre-Vatican II. Among its many outside engagements, the choir also recorded with the Philadelphia Orchestra and sang with the Lyric Opera.
Running the choir was a major undertaking. LaManna reported that “The official size of the choir is twenty men and thirty boys…There is also a junior boychoir which has twenty-five boys, and which acts as a preparatory group for the senior boychoir. Two Sisters are appointed each year as ‘choir Sisters’ by Mother Superior. They have charge of vesting the boys before services, and accompany the boys on assignments away from the parish, i.e., Christmas programs, etc.” All the boys were chosen by audition from the Parish school (the boys who weren’t chosen became altar servers).
Each section of the group had its own rigorous schedule: “The men of the choir rehearse alone of Wednesday evening…The men rehearse on Friday evening with the senior boychoir, and again on Sunday morning forty-five minutes before Mass….The Senior Boychoir (Middle School boys at SFDS School)…rehearses every day from 3 to 4 PM…They also rehearse on most Saturday mornings, and with the men on Friday evening and Sunday morning before Solemn Mass. During the month of December they rehearse from 8 to 8:30 AM also. The Junior Boychoir…is chosen each year from the third grade boys, and acts as a preparatory choir for the senior boychoir. Most boys remain in this group for two years. They are in the processional and recessional at Solemn Mass, but they attend Mass in the pews rather than the choirloft. This group rehearses every day at 11 AM…They also attend a short rehearsal to go over the hymns for the processional and recessional on Sunday morning.”
The Solemn Mass every Sunday was a carefully-orchestrated production: “10:00 AM — Senior Boys report to be vested; 10:15 – Senior Boys and Men rehearse. 10:30 — Junior Boys report for vesting; 10:45 – Junior Boys, Senior Boys, and Men rehearse the hymns for the Processional and Recessional – organist leaves for choirloft; 10:50 – Line-up for procession; 10:55 – Procession – Junior and Senior Boys (Men on Major Feasts and Holy Days); 11:00 AM Solemn Mass – Senior Boys and Men upstairs, Junior Boys downstairs.” The elaborate musical program was always highlighted in the Parish Monthly Bulletin.
Was all the effort appreciated? LaManna admitted that “the attendance at Solemn Mass is very poor…” but “most of the parishioners brag about the choir to others even though they don’t come to hear it weekly…” What a shock to the system it must have been when the ultramodern plexiglass Venturi sanctuary was inaugurated to the squeal of electric guitars just a few years later!