A joyful sound: how liturgical music unites us and points us toward the divine

by Joan Kurkowski-Gillen

North Texas Catholic

Choir members sing the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Arlington on Sunday, March 3. (NTC/Kevin Batram)

Choir members sing the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Arlington on Sunday, March 3. (NTC/Kevin Batram)

Choir members sing the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Arlington on Sunday, March 3. (NTC/Kevin Batram) Check out more pictures here ->


Singing is a gift that can express joy, trust, repentance, and love. It elevates the soul, making it “more sensitive to the voice of the Spirit,” Pope Francis told the Alumni of Heaven Choir Association during the group’s 50th anniversary celebration last year. “Music and singing are capable of transmitting the beauty and strength of Christian love.”

In the Diocese of Fort Worth, diverse, dedicated parish choirs express the Good News in song and enhance the liturgy for Catholics across North Texas. The harmony of voices helps parishioners experience a holy moment in times of celebration, grief, and contemplation.

SUNG PRAYER SPEAKS TO THE SOUL
“Most of the time, you don’t know what people come to Mass with, regarding their emotions and mindset. We hope to uplift them in whatever situation they are in,” explained Freda Breed, the director of music and liturgy at St. Maria Goretti Parish. “Sung prayer is just close to the heart. It’s a different avenue that speaks to the souls that gather to celebrate.”

The traditional, 38-member Choro di pace (Choir of Peace) is one of three choirs leading liturgies at the Arlington faith community. Dressed in red robes except during Advent and Lent, the eclectic mix of vocalists move from the sacristy to the choir loft in back of the church at the start of the 9 a.m. Mass, “so their voices are among the rest of the people during the gathering hymn,” the director continued. Wearing robes creates a sense of both outward and inward uniformity.

“We’re always working toward unity of sound,” Breed pointed out. “Dressing alike represents how important that is. There’s a unity in their sound, mission, and ministry. And there’s a unity in their faith.”

Hours of rehearsal are spent learning a repertoire of SATB (soprano/alto/tenor/bass) compositions from Gregorian chant to contemporary hymns, along with the theology behind the music chosen for a particular Sunday.

“We explore how a certain song reflects part of the liturgy,” she said, describing the faith formation aspect of the ministry. “The Psalms are reiterated in the songs we do.”

Parishioners sometimes approach the choir director to praise the choir’s artistry.

“If the music brings them joy, lifts them out of a dark place, or provides comfort, then I think our ministry is well received.”

SPANISH CHOIR GROWS WITH PARISH

Choir director Ruth Yammine conducts the St. Francis of Assisi choir during Sunday Mass April 7 in Grapevine. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Choir director Ruth Yammine conducts the St. Francis of Assisi choir during Sunday Mass April 7 in Grapevine. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Choir director Ruth Yammine conducts the St. Francis of Assisi choir during Sunday Mass April 7 in Grapevine. (NTC/Ben Torres)


Incredible voices, skilled instrumentalists, and musical compositions from different Hispanic countries make the Spanish choir at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Grapevine a vibrant one, said Denise Brooks, the parish’s longtime director of music and liturgy.

“The repertoire is very inclusive and the quality of the music itself is excellent,” she enthused. “It is uplifting, encourages active participation, and is open to different types of Hispanic language.”
Ruth Rodriguez Yammine grew up in the parish and started the choir in the early 1980s as an 18-year-old with help from her talented family.

“I learned a lot about liturgy,” Yammine remembered, recalling the early days of the ministry. “We would sing traditional songs familiar to everybody and things we knew. It was a labor of love because we all loved to sing and used songs our parents taught us.”

As proximity to DFW International Airport boosted the parish membership, more people asked to join the ministry and the choir changed and grew. Today, a 10-person group, accompanied by musicians on bass, congas, guitar, and piano, leads the congregation during the Sunday 1 p.m. Spanish Mass.

“We now use new, more challenging music that’s still friendly to the ear and catchy for the congregation,” said Yammine, who has served as choir director 37 years. “And we do a lot of styles — not just Mexican but Puerto Rican, merengue, Colombian, and Honduran. That makes it easier for people to participate.”

Singing along with the Spanish choir deepens the parishioners’ involvement in the liturgy. Yammine chooses music that relates to the Gospel and readings “to reiterate the message and prompt reflection,” she emphasized.

“We just lead. The [congregants] are here to help us,” she asserted. “The voices that respond are amazing! When you hear the congregation singing, that’s when you know you’ve done your job.”

GOSPEL MUSIC INSPIRES WORSHIP

Our Mother of Mercy choir director Zenovia Collins plays a lively song at the end of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Mass in January. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Our Mother of Mercy choir director Zenovia Collins plays a lively song at the end of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Mass in January. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Our Mother of Mercy choir director Zenovia Collins plays a lively song at the end of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Mass in January. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


In southeast Fort Worth, the rousing music and arrangements featured in the Mass of New Beginnings empower the people of God to pray at Our Mother of Mercy (OMM) Parish. Composed by W. Clifford Petty, the gospel/jazz compositions create an experience of liturgical praise and worship welcomed by members of the predominantly African-American faith community.

“We’ve been using the Mass of New Beginnings for the past couple of years because parishioners really like it,” said Zenovia Collins, the choir’s pianist and coordinator. “We also perform it at the annual MLK (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Mass.”

Christian lyrics and an easy, lively tempo entice people to participate in the liturgy.

“For new members visiting the church, the music influences them to return,” the choir director explained. “It’s upbeat and everyone in the church sings.”

During the Christmas season, the choir performs traditional African-American carols like “Mary Had a Baby” and “Prepare Ye the Way” — a hymn by jazz composer and former OMM music minister Terry Hutchinson. The 15 vocalists and musicians that form OMM’s choir gather each week at the 10 a.m. Mass except for the fourth Sunday of the month, which is reserved for the children’s choral group.

Collins appreciates the bonds of trust and friendship that have grown between choir members over the years. “They’re a dedicated, friendly bunch of people.”

Hearing the sound of gospel music at Our Mother of Mercy is an experience everyone should have, Collins said effusively.

“It’s very inclusive and rhythmic,” she added. “We do different kinds of songs so everyone will hear something they’ll like.”

A GIFT OF VOICE AND SONG

 

Sixty families at St. Michael Parish have ties to Tonga but many others have come to appreciate the island nation’s music and traditions, thanks to a 5 p.m. Mass celebrated on the first Sunday of the month. A choir leads the congregation in Tonganese melodies and songs composed by the late Sir Sofele Kakala. Pope John Paul II named the renowned choirmaster to the Papal Knighthood of St. Gregory in 1986 for this service to the Catholic Church. 

 “We sing a cappella. There are no instruments,” explained Deacon Sangote Ulupano who serves as a coordinator between the Tongan community and the parish. “It enhances the liturgy a lot for them because the songs are in a familiar language. The Tongan choir is a gift of voice and song.”

Formed in the early 1980s, the choir has 30 members and adheres to a four-part harmony. On Christmas and Easter, the group dons native apparel including the ta’ovala — a mat worn around the waist to show respect to God and authority.

“When people hear them sing, they are just blown away because their sound is amazing,” said Joanne Werner, St. Michael’s director of liturgy and music. “They sing full throttle, unaccompanied.”

Because choir members don’t read western musical notations, they created their own musical notations for rhythms and pitches. A lot of parishioners call the church office to find out when the Tongans are singing.

“They don’t need any instrumentation because their voices are their instruments,” Werner observed. “People are moved by what they hear.”

SONGS, TRADITIONS BOND GHANAIANS

Agatha Agyemang, left, and Nichole Dadzie, sing and dance during a song by the Ghanaian choir during Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Arlington, March 17. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Agatha Agyemang, left, and Nichole Dadzie, sing and dance during a song by the Ghanaian choir during Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Arlington, March 17. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Agatha Agyemang, left, and Nichole Dadzie, sing and dance during a song by the Ghanaian choir during Sunday Mass at St. Joseph Parish in Arlington, March 17. (NTC/Ben Torres)


Visitors to the 1 p.m. Sunday Mass celebrated by the Ghanaian Catholic community at St. Joseph Parish in Arlington, clap along to the lively, spirited music resounding in the chapel during the offertory. The choir, outfitted in maroon robes edged in a vibrant kente strip, sways to the beat of a tambourine as it leads the congregation down the aisle toward the collection basket.

“God is good. God is kind. God is wonderful. Those are the words to the music you hear that brings us together,” said a parishioner. “Whatever you are going through in life, it teaches you something.”

The Ghanaian Catholic community has been a vital part of St. Joseph parish for 40 years. The Catholic Church is strong in Ghana, and coming together to sing native songs is central to fellowship for parishioners, according to choir member Philip Baiden.

“Everyone feels at home,” he pointed out. “Ghanaians are excited they can come and listen to songs and follow worship like we did in Ghana. It brings people to church so it’s a form of evangelization.”

Although Ghana is a multilingual country, Twi is the language used to celebrate Mass. Waving a white handkerchief during the Sanctus is one of the African customs enriching the liturgy.

“We’re exalting God,” said choir director Ben Ababioh explaining the tradition. “The white handkerchiefs symbolize the greatness of God.”

Sixteen singers and musicians are mainstays of the choir but the ensemble can grow to 35 during the summer months, he added. Members of the Ghanaian choir join the parish’s Bakhita African choir for a quarterly Mass for Africa. The special liturgy prays for those suffering from poverty, war, and hunger on the African continent and draws worshippers from around the Metroplex.

INTRINSICALLY PRAYERFUL, MEDITATIVE

Cassie Martinez and other choir members sing during Mass at St. Benedict Parish in Fort Worth March 3. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)

Cassie Martinez and other choir members sing during Mass at St. Benedict Parish in Fort Worth March 3. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)

Cassie Martinez and other choir members sing during Mass at St. Benedict Parish in Fort Worth March 3. (NTC/Jayme Donahue)

Considered the first proper liturgical music of the Roman Catholic Church, Gregorian chant dates back to the first millennium. Today, the pairing of simple, monophonic tones with sacred text is an art form.

Gregorian chant is intrinsically prayerful, “so it helps the congregation get into a reflective mood,” said Ferdinand Velasco, a choir member at St. Benedict Parish where liturgies are celebrated in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Latin Mass). “What we are actually chanting are prayers of the Mass. It’s what is prescribed in the rubrics of the liturgy.”

Named after a pope, St. Gregory the Great, the melodic, almost mysterious sounds were a staple at Catholic Masses until the Second Vatican Council when the Latin Mass was changed to the vernacular of each country. Pope Benedict XVI ratified provisions for the regular celebration of the Latin Mass in July 2007.

Accompanied by an organ, except during Lent when Gregorian chant is sung a cappella, St. Benedict’s choir consists of four men with several women lending their voices to selected hymns.

Intrigued by its history, long melodic lines, and prayerful tone, Catholics are naturally drawn to Gregorian chant, said choir member Chris Winn. Musically inclined since his days in the Notre Dame High School band, the Wichita Falls native adds bass vocals to the choir.

“It’s very meditative,” he added. “In addition to a distinct liturgical function, Gregorian chant has a completely different cadence from modern music.”

The beauty of Gregorian chant lies in its simplicity.

“Both Masses at St. Benedict are crowded,” said Malinda Crumley, one of the parish’s female vocalists. “People like the music because it is solemn, peaceful, and reverent. Our first Christmas here was the most beautiful Mass I have ever attended.”

GLORIFYING GOD WITH MUSIC

The Suoi Thieng choir from Vieynamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington performs during a Sunday Mass March 24. (NTC/Ben Torres)

The Suoi Thieng choir from Vieynamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington performs during a Sunday Mass March 24. (NTC/Ben Torres)

The Suoi Thieng choir from Vieynamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington performs during a Sunday Mass March 24. (NTC/Ben Torres)

Bach Phan is a skilled composer, pianist, and guitarist, but he compares himself to a gardener when talking about his work with three adult, one teen, and two children’s choirs at Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington.

“Everybody’s voice is like a different kind of flower in the garden of sacred music,” he mused. “They are all unique and a gift from God. My job is to create a beautiful vase [of blooms].”

Deeply rooted in the culture, Vietnamese music often uses a pentatonic (five-tone) scale creating a distinct, ethnic sound.

“But it varies,” explained the parish’s music minister. “We also use Gregorian chant and are influenced by more popular melodies. It can be ethnic, folksy, or simple, and represents the people well.”

The recessional hymn is always a Marian song and reflects the strong devotion the Vietnamese have to the Blessed Mother.

All the choirs at Vietnamese Martyrs come together for three special occasions each year — Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving festivities celebrating the parish. Women dress in the Vietnamese national garment ao dai and the troupe sings chorale music by two of Phan’s favorite composers: the late Father Linh Duy Ngo and Hai Linh.

“Their compositions are geared toward the western SATB style but keep their unique, ethnic flavor,” Phan said.
Every August, the music minister leads a large contingent of parishioners from Vietnamese Martyrs to Marian Days in Carthage, Mo., where his adult and children’s choirs perform for an international audience numbering as many as 100,000 people.

“Everyone involved in the sacred music program at our church is a volunteer,” he enthused. “That’s our tradition. We do it to glorify our Lord. In return, He gives us blessings.” 


Singing is a gift that can express joy, trust, repentance, and love. It elevates the soul, making it “more sensitive to the voice of the Spirit,” Pope Francis told the Alumni of Heaven Choir Association during the group’s 50th anniversary celebration last year. “Music and singing are capable of transmitting the beauty and strength of Christian love.”

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