Tag: choir

SFDS Boy Choir: Wheels of Change

Recently surfaced choir documents offer a glimpse back into the years when proudly magnificent SFDS Parish was pressed between the rollers of Vatican II, neighbourhood change, and the Baby Boom “youthquake” of the 1960s.

The first cracks showed in 1966, as English began to replace Latin in the Mass, and Peter La Manna, Director of the renowned Boy Choir, had trouble finding suitable new music. He wrote to Monsignor Mitchell: “My dilemma is that I can’t find Masses in English which can compare with those masterpieces…The men in the choir are so reluctant to making a complete switch to English because of the obviously lower compositional standards.”

Some of La Manna’s challenges seem odd today. In 1967, he wrote to Monsignor Mitchell: “One of the things which I have been begging for is the erection of two announcement boards for the numbers of the hymns. I think that it was feared that it would cheapen the architecture of the church. This is not necessarily true, and something in good taste could be placed on the two pillars along the front of the church. I have also asked for an announcement before Mass concerning the hymns at Solemn Mass and the fact that people should join in the singing of the Our Father and the responses. I have had no luck with that request.”

Money became tight as the parish shrunk and La Manna fought for funds to pay the Men’s choir: “For forty-five years the men of the choir have been paid…Bishop McShea…paid all of the men a uniform fee of $20 per month…to help pay for their carfare and gas expenses…” He also begged for new uniforms for the boys: “We have been asked to make a telecast on December 14 for KYW-TV. If we do this we will have to borrow cassocks from the altar boys again because ours are not fit for color TV.” Another time, he lamented that “For over a year I have asked for new cassocks. The ones which we have are in shreds...” and “these ragged vestments are not good for the morale of the group…” La Manna made the case that the choir was a critical “binding force within the parish. Many families have postponed moving out of the parish because their sons were members of the choir…” though he did admit that “the attendance at Solemn Mass is very poor...”

SFDS Boy Choir in 1965

As baroque pageantry gave way to 1960s streamlining, La Manna mourned the new simplicity. He felt that that people needed to “see evidence of their contributions…in the beauty of their church, in the flowers on the altar, etc. …I heard many remarks…that there had never been such a dull and unmarked feast of Christ the King at de Sales as there was this year. Also that there has never been a novena to Our Lady when her altar looked so bare. I know that these are small things, but when I came here Father Curran said to me, de Sales has won her reputation by making small things important, and by providing the parishioners with a liturgy which is edifying and beautiful.” La Manna felt some of this was due to a lack of continuity in the Rectory, where, until recently, “there were always curates here who were ‘trained’ under the programs and policy of the past.” He also gently suggested to Monsignor Mitchell that “when I first came here the homily was limited to seven minutes at Solemn Mass. Now it goes as long as twenty minutes. Our attendance has dropped drastically because we are sometimes in there an hour and twenty minutes, and it used to be slightly over an hour.” In La Manna’s view, shortening the processionals was not an option.

Changing priorities. In truth, the decorations, sermon length, and pageantry probably were of little consequence. Between 1963 and 1973 the number of parish families dropped from 4,233 to 1,232, and school students from 1,158 to 621, as the Catholic population citywide shifted to the suburbs. And there was also the famously divisive Venturi renovation!

Bruce Shultz arrived at SFDS as organist in 1969 and gradually, under choir director Dr. Michael Geheb, and then Rev. Hermann Behrens, an inclusive group of men and women (and choir babies!) built a tradition of excellence for a new era. Today’s choir family, under the direction of Isabel Boston, offers a diverse repertoire from Latin Chant to Spirituals, and welcomes new members.

Color OUR Collections: SFDS Coloring Book Goes Online Feb, 7-11

Every February, the NY Academy of Medicine invites archives around the world to share free coloring books online based on materials in their collections. This year’s SFDS Parish Coloring Book celebrates neighborhood businesses advertised in the parish bulletins of the 1940s and 1950s. Check out all the offerings – from SFDS, to Drexel University, to the Vatican Libraries, to the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, and beyond, starting February 7 at https://library.nyam.org/colorourcollections/

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SFDS Boys Choir

SFDS Boys Choir in 1965

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!

Peter LaManna

Musical Heritage

choir-singer-md

In many cultures, minstrels and griots sing ballads that preserve and tell history. In that spirit, did you know that our choir’s musical repertoire is a chronicle of our parish?

Isabel Boston, Choir Director, notes that some of the choir favorites were written right here for our church. Albert J. Dooner, Choir Director and Organist from 1921 to 1957, composed a number of pieces: “Dooner’s beautiful Ave Verum Corpus is still part of our regular repertoire. Jubilate Deo is used occasionally as a postlude for a big event. We would have sung it for Monsignor’s installation had we been upstairs with the organ. We sang Dooner’s Mass to St. Francis de Sales for the 125th Anniversary Mass.

Bruce Shultz, who has been our Parish Organist since 1969, created the “Mass for John Paul II (our regular mass during ordinary time) and his Mass for Patience (usually sung during Advent).”  Also, “we sing ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ by Bruce’s teacher and mentor, Harry Wilkinson… and a few by Harry’s teacher, Harry Banks.

Some hymns have special connections: Isabel notes that “Eternal Father, which we sing each year on Memorial Day, holds an association to our Ninth pastor, Father Hilferty, and his naval career” and “The hymns ‘Alleluia, Alleluia, Let the Holy Anthem Rise,’ and ‘Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven’ remind me of Fr. Janton; he really liked those. Father Hermann Behrens, beloved Choir Director who passed away unexpectedly in 1996, was from Germany, so “Any good German hymn reminds us of Fr. Hermann, but especially ‘A Mighty Fortress’ and ‘Now Thank We All Our God,’ or the German choral version we occasionally sing, ‘Nun Danket Alle Gott.’ He also introduced many of the Bach pieces to the choir repertoire. Music is a continuing tribute.

Christmas music is rich with history: “Silent Night” and “Adeste Fidelis” have been sung almost every year since our church was built, and the “Halleluiah Chorus” is a perennial favorite. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is notable for its local roots: it was written in Philadelphia by an Episcopal minister, just after the Civil War.

The Second Vatican Council proclaimed sacred music “a treasure of inestimable value…” because it enriches the Liturgy. In our parish it also provides a living connection through 126 years of our parish story, from all  “those who have gone before us”  to the families in the pews today. Treasure, indeed.

A White House Invitation

white house

Long ago, in a pre-9/11 world, our parish choir treasured a thank you letter from the White House in Washington DC.

In December 1998 and again in 1999, SFDS Parish Chorale represented the Great State of Pennsylvania, singing a short medley of traditional carols one evening to White House visitors. Each state sent a diverse musical delegation, for a total of over 2,600 performers through the holiday season. Other Pennsylvania groups included Renaissance of Dover; LanChester Chorus of Christiana; The Eric Mintel Quartet of Morrisville; and the Rankin Junior Tambouritzens of Pittsburgh.

When our choir arrived on a chartered bus, they were ushered into “A Winter Wonderland” — announced by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the 1998 theme for the all-American holiday festivities. According to documents in The Clinton Library,  the Blue Room tree that year featured snowman ornaments “designed by artists, recommended by the governors’ spouses in each of the fifty states.” Members of  The Knitting Guild of America, from across the country, contributed little mittens and hats; and the Society of Decorative Painters crafted wooden decorations related to winter sports. An elaborate gingerbread house in the State Dining Room weighed over 150 pounds, and  featured miniature versions of the Clintons’ cat Socks and dog Buddy frolicking in an intricate (and edible) snowy landscape.

The East Room, where our choir sang, was “ transformed into an enchanted glittering wonderland…decorated with eighteen soaring conical trees…” The press department noted that “The traditional White House creche,” or Nativity scene, which formed “the focal point of the East Room, was made in Naples, Italy in the late 18th century. It features 47 carved wood and terra cotta figures. The creche…has been displayed each year at the White House since it was presented in 1967” (a tradition which continues today). A hand-crafted menorah was displayed in the West Wing.

Times were very different then. Security seemed minimal: choir members just submitted social security numbers ahead of time, brought identification, and observed the expected protocols. Fran Byers does remember a heavy presence of the Secret Service at one of the concerts – bringing their spouses and children, for their departmental family holiday gathering!

There’s a pleasant nostalgia in thinking about snowmen and Christmas carols in the heat of the summer, and recalling a more optimistic time. This year, Philadelphia hosts a political convention, and, hopefully, we can be as welcoming.