If a potential client of mine had not referred me to a revival going on at a once proud Catholic church in Omaha that had fallen on hard times but is now undergoing a revitalization, I wouldn’t have known about it. This despite the fact I often drove past this church. The story I wrote about the transformation going on at St. Peter Catholic Church in Omaha originally appeared in El Perico. I applaud what the pastor there, Rev. Damien Cook, and his staff and parishioners are doing to infuse new life into the church by going back to the future in a sense and restoring the sacred to celebrations that had been stripped of solemnity and pageantry in the post-Vatican II world. On this same blog you can find my story titled, “Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite,” and other Catholic-themed stories, particularly two dealing with the recently closed St, Peter Claver Cristo Rey High School and several dealing with Sacred Heart Catholic Church, including one focusing on the church’s inclusive spirt and another on its Heart Ministry Center.
Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Just east above a stretch of I-480 stands St. Peter Catholic Church at 27th and Leavenworth. Its classical Greco-Roman facade is unlike anything in that sketchy near downtown Omaha district. Amid ramshackle urban surroundings the stone edifice is a solid, substantial front door for a poor, working class area made up of transients, bars, liquor stores and social service agencies as well as light industrial businesses, eateries, artist studios, apartments and homes.
When St. Peter’s pastor Rev. Damien Cook arrived in 2004 the church teetered on its last legs.
“It was a dying parish,” he says flatly.
He says before the Interstate came in the parish thrived but when homes were razed for the road-overpass construction, parishioners scattered to the far winds, leaving a psychological scar and physical barrier that isolated the parish.
From the pulpit Fr. Cook saw few pews filled in a sanctuary seating 800. The membership rolls counted only a small if dedicated cadre. With the school long closed and most old-line parishioners long gone, things looked bleak.
Seven years later, however, St Peter is enjoying a revival– “the numbers have vastly gone up” — that has its roots in demographics and faith. As the parish celebrates its 125th anniversary this spring and makes plans for an extensive interior church restoration there’s a resurgence afoot that belies the forlorn neighborhood.
“It’s a big year for us,” Cook says.
Always a mixed ethnic district, the Hispanic population was growing when Cook came, but has spiked since then. Many more began attending after St. Anne‘s closed. Now the church is predominantly Hispanic, though there’s a sizable non-Hispanic base as well.
Several Spanish Masses are offered each week. Quinceanera ceremonies occur there. A Spanish school of evangelization holds retreats in the old school building.
Where the congregation was decidedly aged before, it now over-brims with families, many with young children. Catechism classes serve more than 300 youths.
Perhaps most impressive, Cook says, is that the majority coming to St. Peter today don’t live within the parish boundaries but drive-in from all across the metro, making it a true “commuter parish.”
Fr. Damien Cook, left
Why are folks flocking there?
It seems Cook has struck a chord in the effort to, he says, “restore the sacred at the church.” It trends with a national movement aimed at returning to a more traditional liturgy that expresses the awe, majesty, splendor and reverence of communal worship. He says many people tell him they were missing what St. Peter provides.
At St. Peter restoring the sacred means:
• integrating Latin into elements of every Mass, both English and Spanish
• performing traditional sacred music and chant
• using incense
• worshipers receiving communion at the altar rail
• multiple clergy and altar boys participating
Additionally, St. Peter offers daily confession and chanted vespers. Each spring it conducts a festive Corpus Christi procession that follows a 1.4 mile route. As a canopy covered vessel containing the Eucharist is carried, children strew the path with flower petals, music plays and prayers are recited aloud. It all culminates in fireworks, song, food and thanksgiving outside the church.
Cook says parishioners embrace these rites and share their enthusiasm with others, which in turn helps St. Peter grow attendance and membership.
“I just feel really blessed,” he says. “There’s always been faith here, and I inherited that from the priests who went before me. Even if the congregation was smaller the people here were really receptive to the whole evangelization process — of going out and telling their friends, ‘You should come down to St. Peter’s for Mass. Just try it once.’ And once people do they get kind of hooked.
“So the people themselves are the greatest gift to me. They really want to know more about the faith, they really do want the sacred and are excited about restoring the sacred.”
He says his congregation’s thirst for solemnity and spiritual nourishment is part of a universal yearning.
“If you look at every culture and religion in the world there’s a desire for the transcendent, for the sacred,” he says.
Challenges remain. Cook wants St. Peter to better link its English and Spanish-speaking parishioners.
“I don’t sense any hostility between the two different cultures. We come together on various parish projects, but it’s still been very difficult. I’m still trying to learn the magic, the grace, the appropriate way to unite the two, because I don’t want there to be two different parishes. We’re one family of God. But the language difference is a reality. It’s just natural people feel more accustomed among their own.
“I sense unity here. but if we could only find the bridge for the Spanish and English-speaking segments to create that one parish.”
He also wants St. Peter to minister more to its distressed neighbors.
“We have everything from prostitutes at night on the corner to really inebriated people to aggressive panhandlers to shootings near us. We’re proud to be here as an anchor to the community. We’re privileged to serve the poor. We really do need to be out doing more evangelization because we have a whole neighborhood of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, to be invited.”
He hopes redevelopment happens for “the sake of more security, safety and opportunity” for residents. He firmly believes the area’s rich with potential, saying,
“It just needs people to realize that.”
- Saving sacred sounds (life.nationalpost.com)
- US Catholics win rare victories on church closures (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- On The Latin Mass (acatholicdad.wordpress.com)
Sometimes a writer can shed light on a little understood facet of society or humanity, and through the prism of a story perhaps bring some new clarity and insight to the subject. That’s the task I set for myself with this story about a community of contemplative nuns who after a very long presence in my hometown of Omaha left for another city. Few people had even heard of much less knew anything about the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Their neighbors could only imagine what went on behind their semi-cloistered compound. In truth, the sisters for some time now have led rather community-oriented if not public lives thanks to relaxed restrictions. When I heard they were leaving the campus they occupied not far where I lived and once attended church and school, I decided to explore for myself who these women were, how they lived, and what they did. In doing the piece I met an extraordinary woman, Sr, Cecelia Porter, whose formidable spirit and gentle soul impressed me, and if I did my job right will impress you, too. The story originally appeared in the New Horizons and I am glad to share its bittersweet tale here.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
With the departure of the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd in November, Omaha lost an exceptional group of older women dedicated to a regimen of prayerful meditation, hard labor and good will. Due to advanced age, ill health and depleted ranks, this once large Catholic community of nuns has moved to the Good Shepherd provincial colony in St. Paul, Minn. While the sisters are gone, the legacy of their amazing grace endures.
The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is an international congregation founded in 19th century France by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier. The contemplatives, a branch of the Good Shepherd order serving marginalized women and children, maintained a presence in Omaha much of the past century. Originally called Sister Magdalens and, later, Sisters of the Cross, their first home here was on South 40th Street. They moved in 1969 to the former Poor Clare Sisters convent at 29th and Hamilton. When the huge old building became untenable a new convent was erected at 3321 Fontenelle Blvd.. Occupied in 1989, the new site was home to the contemplatives until last November. It is now for sale.
Consistent with the good shepherd mission, the sisters pray for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed or anyone else needing spiritual intercession. They accept prayer requests by phone and mail. All who call on them find refuge in their gentle house of hearts. From the quiet of their tree-shaded Omaha sanctuary, complete with chapel and dining hall, the sisters provided solace and support to countless petitioners. It is a mission they continue today from their bucolic St. Paul retreat.
Despite being an enclosed community, the sisters lead lives fully engaged with, not removed from, the world. Indeed, since Vatican II eased restrictions on religious orders in the 1960s, the sisters have enjoyed greater freedom. No longer a classically cloistered community bound by strict monastic codes of silence and isolation, the sisters have used the more relaxed rules to extend their grace to ever more souls. That has meant getting involved in the lives of persons pleading for help, including “adopting” families in distress and distributing food to the hungry.
Sister Barbara Beasley, RGS, an apostolic Good Shepherd leader in St. Paul, said, “If the contemplatives are really doing their job, which is all about spirituality, then they are connected with everything that’s going on. And that’s exactly the truth about these women. The proof of their contemplative life is that they are not turned inwards on themselves. They are the least turned-in people you can imagine. Their interests are outward. Before news of a crisis hits the paper they already know it because somebody has called up asking them to pray about it. They’re truly centered people. They know what they’re about. They know their calling is to pray for ministries, to pray for needs, to pray for everything. They are alert and responsive to what’s happening.” She said while there is no plan to do so, a small group of contemplatives could one day again be assigned here.
The oldest and longest professed member of the former Omaha community, 89-year-old Sister Cecelia Porter, CGS, finds people from all walks of life confiding in them. “They tell us many things. They talk on the phone for hours, especially people living alone. You’d be surprised who it is too. You can be rich and still be lonely. Sometimes it’s hard to listen. We have one sister, Edith (Hesser), who listens and listens and listens to every kind of problem under the sun and everyone just loves her for that,” she said. “One talent God has given me is to pray with others, and to pray with them in a way that they feel they are included in the making of the prayer. If I know your problems I can pray for you so deeply. I can pray almost out of your own hope. People tell me they feel encouraged and helped by that.”
A measure of the impact the sisters made here was the stream of friends and patrons stopping by the convent to say farewell and thanks in the days prior to the move. Denise Maryanski of Papillion spoke for many in describing the sisters’ amazing grace. “Nothing I do in my life, even raising four children, would be as hard as the work they’ve done and the dedication they’ve shown in their life,” she said. “These women are totally pure in spirit. It is perfection. They are as close to being saints on earth as anyone we have met. They just don’t seem to have ugly days. They deal with whatever they’re handed and they deal with it with this joyful spirit and heart. When you’re with them, you just smile. You can’t help it. Even in their darkest hours, dealing with life-threatening illnesses, the joy is still there. They accept the challenges God gives them. You never hear them say, ‘Why me?’ When life looks really ugly to me I think, ‘What would Sister Clare (Filipowicz) do? What would Sister Edith do?’ They’ve enriched our life and been an inspiration.”
As divorced Catholics-turned-Episcopalians, Denise Maryanski and her husband Tony cherish the unconditional love extended them and trace the success of their home construction business to the prayers granted them. “You don’t have to show your Catholic badge at the door. They’re not at all judgmental,” she said. “We know they’ve taken care of us too. Stressful things have happened in our family and in our business over the last two years and all we had to do was pick up the phone and say we were having some issue in our lives and they were right there praying for us. We attribute all our blessings to them.”
There is no limit to what the sisters pray for. “We consider ourselves responsible for the entire world, prayerwise, and we are very thoughtful to that,” Sister Porter said. “That’s one thing about contemplation — it widens the mind so much. We make our prayer fruitful by having an intention, a motive and a thought in mind. It can be a disaster, a tragedy or an accident or it can be people looking for better jobs or better marriages or better health. All of it is a matter for prayer. Whether we know the people or not, we put some spiritual power in their lives that wouldn’t otherwise be there. You never know for sure what your prayer does, but people do call and say, ‘Thanks, it happened.’”
Even with the world as their focus, there are special prayer causes. For example, Sister Porter prays for governmental leaders. And, as a group, they pray for their fellow religious. Sister Eileen Schiltz, RGS, an Omaha counselor who often attended Sunday mass with the contemplatives, said, “At mass they always remember all of our Good Shepherd sisters and ministers all over the world.”
For years, Rev. Lee Lubbers, SJ, of Creighton University, took turns with other Jesuits saying mass at the convent and has relied on the sisters’ mediation for various Jesuit-related endeavors. “It was important for me to count on their prayers for the non-profit educational satellite network (SCOLA) I started in 1981. I kind of count them as the founders of that whole operation, which has become a big network worldwide. I keep them praying for every development. I count on their support constantly,” he said. Typical of the sisters’ caring, he added, was their desire to visit SCOLA and minister to its staff, which they did every year. For him and others the sisters represented a comforting presence where “the important things in the universe were in touch at least, someplace, all the time.”
Rev. Lee Lubbers
In her work counseling abused women and children, Sister Schiltz often calls and asks the contemplatives to pray for her clients and senses a genuine interest in their plight. “I have never been let down. They always ask how the woman or child they’re praying for is doing.” She said the sisters have even taken under their wing children whose parents are imprisoned or deceased — sharing mass and meals with them. She said the sisters have not only provided a prayer-line, but a lifeline to those in need. “I wish I could find a donor for an 800 number so people could call them up in St. Paul and still have their prayers answered in Omaha.”
In a culture like ours, where tangible results are held sacred, something as ephemeral as prayer may seem like wishful fancy to a cynic. For Sister Porter, it is an article of faith. “You can’t see it. You can’t prove anything. The only thing you can live by is faith. But the things we can’t see are so real. Look at your radio or TV. Their reception is based on signals and waves. You can’t see those things, but do you doubt they exist? Or oxygen. You can’t see it, but by golly if you didn’t have it you sure would miss it. Just like those things, you’ve got to have faith your prayers will be heard. I believe with all my heart it can and does happen.”
In a loud, hectic world muddled with distractions, finding the time and space for quiet reflection can be a challenge. It is all a matter of intent and focus. Likewise, being contemplative is more than taking a vow or mouthing words. It means embodying one’s faith and spirit through expressions, thoughts and deeds. “Your entire life has to have a contemplative stance in order to produce any real contemplative fruit, because your mind does not snap like that from one thing to another, usually,” Sister Porter explained, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “You can wear the habit and say all kinds of prayers and do all this stuff and not change your character one bit. To me, it’s more of a thing of opinions and dispositions and actions and priorities. You have to have the depth to know you don’t live here just to wear a habit. It’s how deep you think. How deep you live.”
Sister Schiltz feels these women remind us what our spiritual life can be. “I think they’re a symbol. We need those symbols of contemplative life more than ever now because we’re so rushed and hurried. A lot of people long for that because the world is so chaotic. The contemplatives show it can be done. But it’s hard to live. It’s a gift that God calls you to. Some choose to answer it and some don’t. Maybe we can’t do it ourselves, but it’s something we can strive for in our own way.”
Ultimately, a contemplative life is a calling. Sister Porter heeded the call as a young woman. “I didn’t resist it. I was looking forward to more of the deep mystery of spiritual life.” But the story of how she came to follow her calling, like the stories of her fellow nuns, is probably not what you would expect. Born Thelma Porter in 1910 Portland, she grew up in Seattle. Her family, she said, practiced no particular faith and were in fact hostile to Catholicism. Her mother died when she was young and her stern father raised her and her two brothers alone. Despite her father’s opposition, she had Catholic schoolgirl friends and came under the influence of local Good Shepherd nuns, whose flowing white habits made them appear “angels.”
At 16, she left home to fend for herself. She only completed a couple years of high school before going to work. By 19, she decided to become a Catholic. Even though she admits she had a rather naive idea of the commitment she was making, she decided to not only take up the forbidden faith but become a nun as well. When she told her father, he disowned her. In her youthful arrogance, she defiantly turned away from him too. They never saw each other again. She also became alienated from her brothers and extended family. The separation hurt.
“As years went by I knew I hadn’t done the right thing. I could have handled it differently. It caused me much suffering and much bitterness. I felt it was my own fault. I was pretty unhappy about that part of my life.”
It was only as she matured she came to terms with what happened. By then, however, her father was dead, the bad feelings between them left unresolved. Amidst the sweeping changes of Vatican II, when many religious reexamined their vows and dropped out, Sister Porter too had an awakening that helped her overcome the doubt and acrimony and rededicate herself to her vocation.
“At that time I rethought my whole life and I came to the conclusion this life has got to be a better one if I live it right because I feel drawn to it. It must be what I’m meant to do.I dropped all the bitterness I had about my family. I realized you can’t undo what you’ve done when you’re young, no matter how much you regret it. The Lord sent me so much satisfaction with my life as soon as I let that go.”
She flourished amid the new freedom Vatican II and modern feminism ushered in. “I just really sort of blossomed in so many ways. I made a lot of new friends. I began to paint. I began to do things and go places. I got elected to the order’s leadership council and went to Europe. I met Good Shepherd sisters aiding women all over the world. It gave me an experience of belonging to the entire world. It also made me realize so many women are not treated equally and are just used in so many ways.”
She believes the ensuing large exodus from religious life was not all bad, but instead a necessary, if painful, purge. “The truth is it needed to be done. There were lots of people in religion because mama wanted a priest and papa wanted a nun. If you kept the routine, that’s all that was required, really. It wasn’t a deep spiritual thing like it should have been.” She speaks from personal experience, having come to religious life with starry-eyed ideals that were soon dispelled. “I didn’t know how to be a Catholic much less how to be a nun. The reason I became a nun was because I thought, erroneously, living a contemplative life would be a religious equivalent to a studious life. That I would write and read and meditate and be untouchable by other things. It was a rather romantic, mystical notion. I never realized we had to work, we had to eat, we had to pay bills. I was the bookkeeper the last 30 years, so I’m very conscious there’s more to life than prayer.”
Besides her faith, music has been her refuge. A trained pianist and organist, she accompanied the sisters’ singing of the psalms since entering the order in 1936. She spent the first 30-some years of religious life in Denver and after the convent there closed in 1969 she moved to Omaha, where she remained active right up until the community’s departure. Her vocation has been both rewarding and trying. As she can attest, a contemplative cannot be an idler. It is a life of rigorous devotion and discipline. Little time is wasted. Scant thought given to personal needs. Orders must be obeyed. Sacrifices made. Slackers need not apply. An unbending routine of required daily prayers and assigned chores fill the hours. The routine used to be even tougher. Rising well before dawn, sisters followed a taxing prayer and work schedule. Until just a few weeks before their move, the Omaha sisters supported themselves working as seamstresses for clothing and fabric manufacturers and making altar breads for churches.
“Because we’re considered a relaxed community now, our day starts at 6 a.m. But when we were younger we got up at 4:30. In the old days the thinking went if you had any spare time you were not doing something worthwhile. You were supposed to be doing some kind of labor at all times. You were expected to just keep going, even if you were sick, until you couldn’t go another step. The harder you were on yourself, the better. That was the way religious life was. And, boy, it was hard,” Sister Porter said. “But after Vatican II we began to live more like the world lives. We didn’t have to work quite so hard. Our life was divided between work and prayer and leisure, but leisure was the thing that always suffered. Personally, as far this new thinking is concerned, I’m right with it. Why treat your body like that? And the fact I’m here at my age, and in good health, tells me it works.”
She feels past hardships likely contributed to the health crisis that beset several members of her community last fall. With the weakest unable to work (some were transferred months earlier to the St. Paul infirmary), the aging nuns, their ranks already depleted by illness or death, lacked the necessary vigor and numbers to maintain the Omaha facility. It was the final straw that broke the convent’s back.
“Four of them could hardly walk they were so old and tired. They were to the end of their strength. They simply couldn’t go on anymore. It’s just my opinion, but their life was probably too hard when they were younger. We were going to hang on here another two years, but things fell apart so fast we had to act.”
Leaving Omaha has been a strain on the sisters, all of whom are in their 70s and 80s and own deep-rooted ties to the area. Of their relocation, Sister Porter said, “You have no idea of the trauma it really was. I’m only now beginning to be quite accepting of what’s happened. I just need to forget it. I think I will. I always know I’ll have a lot of friends there who love me.” And there is the camaraderie among her sisters of the cloth. “The loyalty among us is something you can’t believe.”
The people they served so faithfully through the years remain close to their hearts. She said she and her fellow sisters appreciate the outpouring of support Omahans showed through donations of time, talent and treasure, whether landscaping the convent’s grounds or supplying the religious enclave with food or helping maintain financial records. More often than not, she said, these Good Samaritans became dear friends. She firmly believes such relationships marked the Holy Spirit in action.
“God has blessed us in so many ways with so many friends. Everything we ever needed seemed to show up before too long. Food and books and just about everything you can think of. In that way we got to know so many people. All of those people came to us by God sending them,” she said. “Somehow, our friendships with others seem to be founded more on deeper things in life. It often begins with us praying for them, and somehow the bonds just develop into something very personal.”
John Hoich was introduced to the sisters 11 years when, as owner of his own landscape and lawn sprinkler business, he gave them a bid on a sprinkler system. Hoich, a single lapsed Catholic at the time, soon found his life transformed.
“When the sisters got done with me I told them I’d knock the sprinkler system down to cost if they prayed for me. I installed the system at cost and, boy, did they ever keep their end of the bargain. They pretty much adopted me at that point and I just fell in love with them. I started bringing trees out and planting them. I donated money. Every time I’d come they’d sit me down and feed me. They constantly ministered to me too. They prayed for me. They prayed I’d get married to a Catholic woman and have a family, and three years ago I married Denise and two years ago we had healthy twin boys. I really believe Denise came into my life and my business grew due because of them. They’re powerful, powerful ladies.”
The sisters got to know Hoich’s wife and boys and even attended a pig roast he held on an acreage he owns. Along the way, Hoich, orphaned at a young age and raised in foster homes, gained a renewed appreciation for his faith and for the goodness of others. “They reminded me to keep my priorities straight. To keep God first, family second and business third,” he said, “They taught me the spirit of giving and caring. They walk and talk their belief, yet they’re down to earth.”
Friends like Hoich say the sisters may be gone but will not be forgotten. Letters and phone calls have already been exchanged. Visits have been made or are being planned. “We’ll keep in touch. This chain will not be broken. It is that much an integral part of our lives. They are our extended family,” Denise Maryanski said.
As for Sister Porter, she’ll be turning 90 soon but far prefers embracing the here and now to wallowing in the past. “Time doesn’t hang heavy on my hands and I don’t look back. I’ve had so much in front of me all my life I’ve never had a minute when I didn’t have something to do and there’s still a lot of things I want to do.” In February she goes to Atlanta for meetings of her order. In July she’s taking a month’s sabbatical in her birthplace of Portland. She is content with where her chosen path has taken her. “I made sacrifices for this life. I could have had a better education. I could have married and had a family. But I think I’ve done something extra special. My life has been worth something.”
- Lord, hear our prayer: Benedictine sisters cope with tragedy (beliefnet.com)
- Nuns embrace technology to help the needy (telegraph.co.uk)
- Janet Haag: What Is Prayer? A Conversation with Sister Joan Chittister (huffingtonpost.com)
- Omaha Address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega Sounds Hopeful Message that Repression in Cuba is Lifting (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Hope Lives, Hope Center for Kids in North Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Two Year Anniversary of ContemplativeChristians.com (contemplativechristians.com)
I was raised Catholic. Long after I became a lapsed Catholic, my mother and an aunt attended a church on the south side of Omaha that offered a Mass said in Latin. I am barely old enough to remember that Masses said in Latin, with the priest’s back to the congregation, were once the standard Mass of the church. Then Vatican II came in and the Latin Mass was quickly abandoned, as the church, to its credit, began opening the service up, through language and music and engagement, to make it a more accessible, welcoming, inclusive experience. The Latin Mass was relegated to fringe or alternative status, but its proponents, though small in number, were fierce in their devotion to it. When a priest friend of mine became pastor at the very church my mom and aunt attended, and he told me about the schism in his own church between the Latin adherents and the mainstream Mass followers, I felt called to do a story. The following story, originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is the result.
Devotees Hold Fast to the Latin Rite
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
There is a small band of tradition-minded Roman Catholics whose affection for the largely disbanded Latin Mass is so strong they endure a certain scorn to attend this austere, orthodox ceremony that, as local Latin rite worshiper Steve Mahowald puts it, “more effectively expresses the mysteries of the faith I believe in.”
The fervor that Mahowald and his fellow worshipers — who can be regarded as the fundamentalists of the Catholic church — have for the Latin Mass is what has kept this old sacramental rite alive amid these liberal times and made its followers a thorn in the side of church hierarchy, who view dissent as a threat to unity. While the Latin Mass is not officially disapproved of by the church, which effectively abandoned it in favor of the modern, vernacular rite — the Novus Ordo — in 1969, it has been suppressed in recent decades and its adherents have been made to feel like they stand uneasily on the fringes of mainstream Catholicism.
Starting in 1969, when decrees from the Second Vatican Council held earlier that decade replaced the heavy, somber Tridentine Mass said in Latin with the lighter, more upbeat Novus Ordo said in the vernacular tongue, the traditional Mass not only fell out of disfavor with the church but its celebration became an act of defiance against religious leadership.
Defenders of the Latin Mass and the traditions bound up in it openly questioned church leaders. Splinter groups within the church evolved, notably among followers of renegade French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X, who openly rejected the Novus Ordo, along with the modern trappings accompanying it, and instead continued embracing the Latin Mass and all other things traditionally Catholic. Lefebvre, who defied the Pope by consecrating four bishops to aid him in his crusade, was excommunicated.
Later, the Society of St. Pius X reached an accord with the Vatican that allowed the nearly schismatic group to provide the Latin Mass for those faithful still attached to it. For decades, Society priests have crisscrossed the country on an informal circuit to celebrate the Mass for devotees of the old ways. Often, these Masses are held secretly, in settings other than churches, because many bishops have been slow to recognize indults by the church granting permission for the Latin rite.
Local “Latins” or “Trads,” as they have come to be derisively called, petitioned then-Archbishop Daniel Sheehan during the 1970s and early ‘80s for permission to have the Mass at a local church, but their entreaties were denied. Frustrated by what they considered aberrations or abuses in the new Mass, including altar alterations and displacements, the introduction of non-sacred music and the use of laity as liturgists and extraordinary ministers, Trads solicited the Society of St. Pius X for priests to come and offer the Mass they knew and revered.
In Omaha, the Latins organized under the name St. Michael Chapel. The group furtively attended their outlaw Mass, not unlike the huddled few apostles in the Bible, at various locations around town — ranging from the Sapp Brothers chapel to Lil Willy’s restaurant to a series of motels before finally settling on the Ramada Inn Airport.
The group made regular pilgrimages there, where a large 5th floor party room was turned into a makeshift place of worship. An altar was cobbled together from tables draped in linens. The faithful, whose numbers ranged from 50 to 100, variously sat in folding chairs arranged in front of the altar and knelt on the floor. A closet was used as a confessional and a bar in the back for storing vestments. A member outfitted a suitcase to carry nearly everything visiting priests needed for saying Mass — the ciborium, the chalice, the cruets, et cetera.
Members of St. Michael Chapel faced the odd dilemma of worshiping at what once was and what they still believed to be the one true Mass but having to attend that rite outside the confines of a church and without the permission of their own bishop. Timothy Fangman, a coordinator with the group, said at the time, “It’s very embarrassing and it’s very humiliating to attend Mass in a hotel room. Some officials regard us as renegade dissidents, but when in reality we have been more faithful to our religion than many of them.” A worshiper from that group who requested anonymity because she “doesn’t want to get into trouble” said, “I can’t say I felt embarrassed. We did feel persecuted in some ways. But, to me, it was such a relief to find this Mass and to find the faith still lives. Most of us were ready to put up with anything. Going through what we did made us appreciate it more, too.”
All during the time the local Latin community struggled to be taken seriously by the archdiocese, they had an ally in the Rev. Lucian Astuto, the then-pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in south Omaha. Sympathetic to the group and their convictions, he made his church a forum for the Latins and worked behind-the-scenes to validate their position and their passion. Finally, in 1984, Sheehan allowed the Latin Mass to be said, one day only, at St. Pat’s following a decision by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, which left the rite’s celebration up to the discretion of local bishops. In 1988, the Ecclesia Dei promulgated by Pope John Paul II further legitimatized the Mass and established an order of priests, the Fraternity of St. Peter, with a mission of ministering to the traditional faithful and celebrating sacraments in Latin.
According to Archdiocese of Omaha Chancellor Rev. Michael Gutgsell, the Pope’s action wasn’t done merely to placate “a certain group or devotion of people, it was a public and universal recognition of the legitimacy of the 1962 Roman missal and a matter of the unity of the church. The schism of Lefebvre is, of course, the backdrop for this particular permission of the 1962 missal. Rome devised a means to safeguard the unity of the church by providing this special fraternity with an authorized missal and other sacramental rites to allow priests to exercise their priesthood in union with the Pope.”
An “unauthorized” Latin Mass is offered in Omaha at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, 7745 Military Ave. Gutgsell said the group sponsoring the rite, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, “is not in union with Rome. They have sort of created their own community. They do not recognize the Pope. They do not recognize Archbishop (Elden) Curtiss.” Officials with Mary Immaculate Church, however, assert they do heed Papal authority, just not its infallibility.
By the late ‘80s the Latin Mass was a fully-condoned fixture at St. Pat’s, where Astuto, now retired, celebrated the rite. In recent years St. Pat’s has hosted a Fraternity of St. Peter priest to serve the traditional faithful there. Although the Latin Mass is secure for now, Trads still feel marginalized in their own church and fear they may not have their beloved celebration much longer. They point to the fact their Mass is confined to only one church, that services are relegated to inconvenient times and that vigorous promotion of the rite is at least implicitly discouraged by the church’s ruling class. “It is though they’re keeping us in check where we can’t do a lot of damage,” said one worshiper who preferred to remain anonymous. Another worshiper who also requested anonymity, said, “You get the feeling, even if you’re not paranoid, that they don’t like you.”
As confirmation of that, Rev. Eric Flood, the Fraternity of St. Peter priest stationed at St. Pat’s, said, “I’d say at best we’re tolerated. I think we’d fit any sociological analysis done on a minority group. We’re often scared, thinking that we can’t speak our own mind or proffer our own opinion because what we say may take away the good things that have been handed us. I, myself, have been ridiculed when I’ve given talks about the Fraternity. I’ve been scolded by people who say, ‘You’re not with the church — get out of here. You’re the one causing the problems.’ In some churches Latin rite priests hide their missals from the pastor. I do know of some places where we’re not even allowed to advertise in the diocesan newspaper or even put out a sign saying, ‘Latin Mass here.’”
He said such reactions stem from a widely held misconception the Mass is forbidden, “I think it’s fair to say maybe half of all Catholics don’t even know there’s such a thing as a Latin Mass or they think it’s not allowed. There are others who think the Latin Mass is just here temporarily. That in another 10 or 15 years it’ll die out. But, in fact, we see the trend is that won’t occur.” He estimates 100,000 Catholics attend the Mass in the U.S., where more than half of all dioceses have it, and the Fraternity’s seminaries, including a new one just outside Lincoln, Neb., are filled to capacity.
St. Patrick’s, 1404 Castelar Street, continues as home to Omaha’s lone sanctioned Latin Mass. The faithful attending the rite there — 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 8:30 a.m. on Sunday — are drawn by a common set of beliefs and an overriding desire to keep this core sacrament of Catholicism free of what they regard as not only cosmetic changes but fundamental deviations in the way the mainstream Mass is said today. Here, in this tiny brick church, both the profound presence of silence found in long stretches of the Latin Mass and the strange but sublime sounds of Gregorian chant sung during many intervals of the rite set the other-worldly tone for the sacred proceedings.
The priest, garbed in full vestments, is a figure of reverence in the restrained way he moves, in the fact he keeps his back to the congregation and in the quiet way he recites the long litany of prayers that are the foundation of the Mass. The faithful, ranging from silver-haired seniors to a surprising number of families with young children, display a reserved, pious countenance, with much bowing and genuflecting, and little talking. As was customary before Vatican II, women are veiled in head coverings and wear loose-fitting clothes revealing little more than their submission.
Latin rite followers flock to the traditional service because, for them, it retains a sense of sanctity and wonder they find missing from the new Mass. “I guess it comes down to the reverence — the fact that I feel God is here,” Marcia Hardman said after a recent Sunday service. “You go to the others (English Masses) and you get a lot of music, you get a lot of entertainment, you get a lot of whoopdedo, but you don’t get much else. You’re looking for God all the time and you’re just wondering where He is. I think we’re mainstreaming people right out of the church.”
Maurcicio Abascal, a native of Mexico City who moved with his wife and five young children from Texas to Omaha two years ago, said, “I find with this Mass (the Latin) we can worship with more reverence, with more dignity, with more devotion. It is respectful and it leads people to really understand they are present on Mount Calvary.”
For the faithful few that attend, the Mass is a sanctuary from the unending changes they feel have been made to this most solemn expression of their faith. As Hardman said, “I watched the changes come and I didn’t like the changes. I think it was change for change’s sake. That’s not a good idea.” Sharon Cooney, who regularly attends with her husband Tom, said that before the Novus Ordo, the Latin Mass provided a constant source of identification for her faith. “Wherever you would go, all over the world, there used to be a Catholic Mass you could go to and it would always be the same.”
Then, when the new Mass arrived with much of the old rite’s rituals stripped away, she felt the underpinnings of the sacrament undone. “I felt crushed. Church was not a worship place anymore. It was more of a meeting place. The Mass lost its sacredness. I call it a production now. Our church is built on tradition. The tradition started with Abraham when God spoke to him and he built an altar to worship God. Our Mass has developed from Abraham to Jesus at the Last Supper to all down through the line. Well, every church now has their different service. The priest doesn’t even follow the same words. You’re not sure what you’re supposed to say in responses.”
In the aftermath of the reform movement that swept through the Catholic church in the 1960s, heralded by the Second Vatican Council’s call for full active conscious participation by the faithful, the traditional Latin Mass was revamped all around the world. In America, this meant it was no longer said in Latin but in English or Spanish or whatever language predominated each parish. The priest, who out of reverence mainly faced the altar, began facing the congregation.
The altar itself, traditionally an ornate tabernacle at the head of the church, often got scaled-back and moved from its place of awesome prominence to more pedestrian settings in order to be closer to the people. The Gregorian chant sung by the choir was replaced with more contemporary hymns. Many of the prayers said by the priest in the old rite were eliminated and responses only uttered before by the altar servers became the new province of the faithful. Kneelers in some churches were removed. Instead of receiving the Holy Eucharist by kneeling at the altar railing, the congregation began received it while standing. The consecrated host, historically placed on the tongue, was now presented in open hands.
The decorum of the Mass dramatically changed too with the addition of the sign of peace before communion. Where before, no overt interaction occurred between worshipers, handshakes, hugs, kisses and words of peace are exchanged. In later years, the laity have played an ever bigger role in the liturgy — from reading scriptures to distributing communion.
As traditionalists rejected the new order of things, rifts developed — even in families. “When the new Mass was introduced it brought about a lot of confusion and hard feelings…Families were torn apart by it,” Mahowald said. “I‘m the youngest of nine children and my family now thinks I’m crazy for going to the Latin Mass. Some of my own children go to the Novus Ordo. Free choice. But they’re all going to Mass — I’m happy about that.”
Cooney added, “People sort of look down on you” when they hear “you’re a Latin riter.” As change upon change piled up, traditionalists were left feeling out in the cold — that their church was betrayed by “progressivists” and “modernists” in what amounted to “the Second Reformation.” In describing what it’s like to remain rooted, perhaps stubbornly, in tradition while the whole church around them is swept up in change, one believer said, “How did I get so wrong just by standing still?” Allied by their shared rebel status, believers have formed a close community. Many know each other by name and subscribe to publications like The Remnant that champion traditional Catholic practices.
Flood said many faithful feel uneasy with the laxness in the sacraments today, especially when priests go well beyond the intentions of the Novus Ordo to create something altogether new again. “The Mass has changed so dramatically and for reasons that are unexplained to the faithful that people are lost and question how they should worship God. Worshipers here are tired of changes in the English Mass. So many go from church to church and find so many differences that they wonder when it’s going to stop. So often with the new Mass it becomes what the priest wants to do. You don’t see that so much in the Latin Mass, outside the homily, because the priest is really structured. I am told where I have to keep my hands and where I am supposed to stand, and to not sway from that requires humility on my part. It requires an act of obedience to follow all the rubrics. For the faithful, there is a solidity in the Latin Mass in that it doesn’t change.”
According to Rev. “Roc” O’Conner, an instructor in the theology department at Creighton University, “the original idea” of Vatican II reformers was “that only sections of the liturgy would be done in the vernacular and then, what happened was, that goal was just kind of overrun because there was such an initial delight in having the Mass” in the native tongue.
He said those decrying changes made to the Mass ignore the fact this rite has seen many revisions before, albeit not on so encompassing a level as those imposed by Vatican II. “There was great variety probably through the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century. Charlemagne was the first person to mandate a certain way of doing things for the sake of the unity of the empire. Then, with the Council of Trent in 1570, the missal of Pius X came to predominate.”
He said when it comes to the question of which Mass most truly reflects the faith, one must consider the Mass is a reflection of that “living-breathing organism” — the church — that has been in a process of formation for two millennium. “
There’s a battle of history in this whole thing. Is the Latin Mass used today something that’s been celebrated for thousands of years or does it really mainly go back to 1570? Which tradition do you want? It depends on your definition of tradition. Even things like “the Last Gospel” and the prayers to St. Michael the Archangel are accretions that got put in and became traditional. So, do you want to go back to the 4th century or the 9th century or the 16th century? It depends on where you want to land.” As he sees it, the church’s strength lies in the worshipful rituals that have evolved among ethnic groups over time to become standard. The church, he said, is “not just a museum piece. At the local parish level remarkable things come out of the people. It’ll be interesting to see what effect the growing Hispanic community has on mainstream practices.”
Steve Mahowald, whose personal faith journey has ranged from a traditional Catholic upbringing to spiritual estrangement to a reawakening while serving time in prison, said the new Mass has “lost its focus” amid all the change. He echoes the view of other traditionalists who feel the bright, shiny, noisy new Mass impedes reflection. “It’s forced the people into a position where they can no longer contemplate. They can no longer sit back and meditate on the mystery of their redemption, which is their role in the Mass.”
The role of prayer at Mass, O’Conner said, is not just an individual matter but a communal one, too. “Something the Council (Vatican) looked at is some movement towards a corporate sense of worship. We’re still far from that, I think. It seems to me people are still pretty passive in church.” He said the notion of how the church prays can be looked at from different vantage points. “Is it a lot of individual separated units each contemplating and therefore implicitly in community? Or is it people growing in a sense of themselves more explicitly as a community and then offering worship as part of that body? People go to where they’re being touched.”
O’Conner believes people today “are looking for more of an integration” of old and new. He said the problem in discussing the relative merits of the Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is that “you get an ideological battle. It’s either one or the other. And, to my mind, it’s more of an integration of the sense of the sacred and the community, instead of one or the other. I know a lot of parishes today are employing chant, either in translation or in Latin, at various celebrations. There’s also been a growing use of incense. I think we’ve learned something in the last 33 years, but not everything. It’s part of a development.”
Meanwhile, the Latins intend to remain true to their traditional beliefs. “I’m going to stay right here where I am,” said Sharon Cooney. “There’ll always be a remnant left.”
- Music and the new missal: a joyful noise? (beliefnet.com)
- Five False Myths About the So-Called Vatican II Mass (First in a Series) (catholicanalysis.blogspot.com)
- Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the Tridentine Mass privately, says head of SSPX (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- N.J. Catholic churches to begin using new translation of Roman Missal for Holy Mass (nj.com)
- Roman Catholic Church changes Mass to a more formal version (pennlive.com)
- The Story of My Dissent (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)
- Omaha’s St. Peter Catholic Church Revival Based on Restoring the Sacred (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vatican Says Latin Mass Shouldn’t Divide Catholics (huffingtonpost.com)
- New guidelines for Tridentine Mass – 10 key facts (catholicnewsagency.com)
The morning I went to interview then Salem Baptist Church Minister of Music Jay Terrell the first televised news reports of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were being delivered. The uncertainty and fear of those events cast a strange heaviness over our meeting, but we proceeded nonetheless. Later, I saw him lead the church’s acclaimed gospel choir in rehearsal and in performance. My story here, which appeared in the Omaha Weekly, tries capturing the charisma and energy and spirit of that choir. It’s the kind of writing challenge I much enjoy. I hope reading the piece gives you some joy.
Salem’s Voices of Victory Gospel Choir Gets Justified with the Lord
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Weekly
The rafters tremble and the worshipers quake whenever the 110-member Salem Baptist Church mass choir, Voices of Victory, raises their collective voices to the heavens to sing, full-out, a soul-stirring, old-time religion gospel tune like Amazing Grace. Singing with gospel’s characteristic depth of feeling, the nationally renown touring and recording choir produces a big, rich, reverberating sound that, like a cascading wave, sweeps over the sanctuary, sends shivers down the spines of the faithful and spreads the Holy Spirit in every energized air particle in the place.
Voices of Victory is the signature choir among five resident choirs at Salem, 3131 Lake Street, a large, prestigious black church with a rich gospel tradition. Gospel is an integral part of the revival black church, whose energetic services are like choreographed musical dramas. The vibrant music is used as a resounding proclamation of faith and as a crusading tool for ministering to worshipers’ needs. It informs nearly every aspect of the proceedings, creating a mood in some spots and building towards a climax in others. It punctuates the minister’s charismatic spoken words. The music rises and falls, working folks into a fervor one moment and bringing them back down the next. With the robed choir positioned on a stand at the back of the altar, all eyes go to them. Their spirited singing, backed by idiomatic percussion, bass and keyboard, provides the impetus for the congregation’s praise and worship.
Besides being the heart of the black church, gospel is also a well-spring for other musical styles. Its influence can be heard in soul, rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll. Many of today’s artists — from Aretha Franklin to Whitney Houston — got their start singing traditional gospel. As the tracks between gospel and commercial music have blended over the years, crossover forms have emerged.
Through all the changes, Salem’s gospel foundation has endured. The church has been a fixture at the Gospel Music Workshop of America, the nation’s most important yearly gathering of gospel artists. Original compositions by past and present Salem music ministers are performed in churches nationwide. Salem choir recordings have garnered wide acclaim, including the 1978 Grammy-award nominated album I Don’t Feel Noways Tired (Savoy Records), which the legendary James Cleveland, often referred to as the father of gospel music, collaborated on.
Now, after a hiatus of some 20 years, Salem has revived its recording activity under Minister of Music Jay Terrell, completing a months-long live recording project that culminated in the October-release of the new CD, They That Wait (2001, Blueberry Records), featuring guest soloist Bruce Parham.
Referring to the CD as “a sleeper,” reviewer Stan North of GospelFlava magazine writes, “Solid material dominates this album, as amazingly, every song grabs attention and merits props for both ministry and musicality. On this version of the classic Jesus Saves (from Jay Terrell, Rudolph Stanfield and Todd Harrison), the power of Parham is complemented by some terrific choir parts. Parham appears on just the one song, and while it is certainly the high point of the project, there truly are several other peaks.”
According to Terrell, a co-producer on They That Wait and a composer-arranger for many of its songs, “Salem has always been at the forefront in gospel music. We’ve had a track record for years. Prior to my coming here 15 years ago, Salem and its music directors were always part of the workshop. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s every Baptist church in America was singing at least one or two songs off the No Ways Tired album. A lot of churches still sing the music that comes out of Salem.”
Formerly known as the Inspirational Choir, Voices is respected for its exuberance and excellence. Omaha Symphonic Chorus director Cina Crisara, who’s worked with the group, said, “I’m a huge fan of theirs. I think it’s probably the most sincere music that happens in this town in terms of their meaning what they say and their saying what they mean. It’s from the heart. They absolutely become that music. It’s a spirited group. They move every audience-congregation that they’re ever in front of. You can’t help, if you’re listening to them, to become completely engaged by them. And the choir members themselves are so warm and friendly, and they work so hard. They’re open to expanding their horizons and learning new things.”
President of the Omaha Mass Choir, Jesse R. Sawyer, said Voices stands out from other gospel choirs in town “because they have a style all of their own” and “a harmony that is outstanding. They really do. They have an excellent musical staff. Jay Terrell, their minister of music, is an excellent musician, conductor and teacher. And they’re a very versatile choir. It’s fantastic what that choir can do. They can arise to any occasion.”
Sawyer, who has closely followed Voices and other gospel choirs in the area, said Salem first reached prominence in the 1970s under the late Doretha Wade, whose father J.C. Wade was its longtime pastor. Sawyer said many of today’s leading Omaha gospel singers and musicians, including himself and Terrell, “came under” the Wades’ influence. “We all grew up in this gospel thing together. If you’re part of one choir, you’re part of another choir.”
Excellence is no accident at Salem. Terrell said the church invests heavily in music, maintaining a staff who write, arrange, perform and conduct much of the repertoire the choir presents. “Salem pays a lot of money here for music,” he said. “I would say about 40 percent of the music we do here is original music that I and my staff write. Most other churches are not blessed to have writers on staff.”
He said such an investment brings heavy expectations. “They don’t pay you to mess up. They’re a five-star church and the music needs to be at that level too. You can’t just kind of throw it together. I tell our choir it’s really important for us to work and to perfect our craft. Much is given and much is required.” Choir singer Billy Jordan said the expectations extend beyond singing. “We are really held in such high esteem that we know when we leave these four walls that people watch us. That holds us accountable and keeps us in line.”
Terrell feels the choir derives strength from the volunteers comprising it. He points to members’ “faithfulness, dedication, enthusiasm and spontaneity” and the fact that this choir, which is by-audition only, features the cream of the crop, vocally-speaking, around. “They don’t sound like a regular church choir. They sound like a professional community choir and what that means is you have picked voices, and when you have selected voices…it’s a different sound. And I think this particular choir does have a unique sound.”
He feels that sound results from the choir’s desire “to perfect the art,” adding, “That’s why they’re able to be a signature choir whose songs people sing all over the country.” That desire to get it right, Jordan said, comes in turn from Terrell, whom he describes as “a perfectionist,” adding, “He keeps us at it until we’re feeling what we’re singing. If we don’t feel what we’re singing, than we might as well stay home.” As Terrell said, qualifying for choir membership “isn’t so much, Can you sing?, as it is, Are you dedicated?”
Voices of Victory may indeed be the hardest working choir in town. In addition to singing twice every Sunday, at 8:30 and 11:30 a.m. worship services, the ensemble rehearses weekly and performs some 50 concerts annually, including statewide engagements for the Nebraska Arts Council and tour appearances outside the region.
Last summer, Voices performed in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. As a testament to its devotion and discipline, the choir recreates the same glorious sound whether singing at a Sunday morning service before a house-full of worshipers or at a week night rehearsal before mostly empty pews or at a concert hall before gospel devotees and neophytes.
A typical rehearsal finds Terrell working over and over on the smallest details of songs with, at first, sections of his choir and then the entire company until getting it right. “Worship him, you ought a worship him. In B-flat. One more time, go. Worship him, you oughta…Good job. Now, the altos. Sit tall, sit tall. I need some intensity. Right now, from the top. Worship…C’mon, put something into it. Help me out, help me out, that’s all I’m saying. Thank you. Now, sopranos. From the top…pull it, pull it, pull it. You’ve got to worship…One more time. We’ve got to get this for Sunday. C’mon. Whoa! Good job. Have a seat.”
Omaha Symphony Orchestra resident conductor Ernest Richardson marvels at the choir’s “flexibility” in quickly adapting to other musical styles. At, say, a symphony Holiday Fanfare concert, Voices may perform everything from patriotic tunes to hymns to gospel songs to operatic selections and do them with equal aplomb. Making that versatility all the more impressive is the fact the choir learns and performs music using rote memory rather than sheet music.
More than a powerful performing-recording musical ensemble or a means of punching-up Sunday liturgy, the choir is a vital instrument in Salem’s evangelical ministry that seeks to save, embolden or otherwise heal penitents and is a showcase vehicle for representing the church and its mission in the community. Choir members take their music ministry role seriously, too.
As veteran or “seasoned” choir member Betty Hughes said, “Our responsibility as a choir is to help draw the people into the service. People come to church with many different problems. They come looking for refuge or just looking. They may not even know what they’re looking for. We’re not there to put on a show. We’re the vehicle that leads them into the service. The music sets the tone for the service. It sets the background for the minister. That’s why the music always comes just before he comes. And there’s a certain way you have to bring that music in for people to be ready for The Word. Sometimes the music just flows perfectly and goes right into the message and enhances the message and helps drive that fire home to the hearts of people.”
Or, as choir member Michelle McCain put it, “It’s all about ministering to the soul — feeding the soul with what it needs through song.”
Inspiration is the essence of gospel. As McCain said, it’s all about stirring the soul, opening the heart and lightening the load. The music, which developed out of slave chants, and found refinement in the meter hymns, spirituals and call-and-response traditions of the Pentecostal black church, is at its core a call to Christ and an expression of thanksgiving.
“It’s good news,” Terrell said. “Gospel music means good news. It’s a celebration of life. It’s going to inspire you, it’s going to lift you up, it’s going to bring you joy. It’s a music that will basically give you goose bumps. It’s going to leave you with a smile on your face. And if it doesn’t do all that, then it’s not gospel music.”
Because gospel is vital and life-affirming, it leaves plenty of room for expressiveness and spontaneity. Terrell, who describes himself as “very open and unpredictable,” encourages his choir to move as the spirit moves them. “I would say our choir is really spontaneous because we allow the spirit to come in and take control. We can plan to do a song a certain way but after we get into it and see how it works, and with the Holy Spirit guiding us, that can then take it to a whole other place. I hate a choir that does not grab me, whether vocally, visually or with their delivery. I need all that in the choir. I need all that energy.”
It all starts with feeling. “You can’t sing it, if you don’t feel it,” Hughes said. “As my minister used to tell me, You can’t talk about a place that you haven’t been and you can’t talk about a person you haven’t met. And, so, you can’t sing gospel songs if you don’t feel them.” Billy Jordan said, “If you’re just singing and there’s no feeling there, you’re not ministering — you’re just doing something for show.” That feeling, according to Salem singers, is an individual’s faith-based response to the message in the music. “There’s a message in every song,” McCain said. “I can always go to that music and find a song that’s going to minister to me and to help me make it through whatever it is I’m going through. A song like What A Friend We Have in Jesus comforts me because it lets me know that, even when I feel like I don’t have any friends, I always have a friend in Jesus.”
Choir member Charnella Mims said, “When I’m in a song and I really feel that song, It takes you to a different level and you forget about all the people watching you or sitting around you. It’s just me and my Lord. For me, the tears come, and it’s not tears of sadness — it’s tears of joy, tears of understanding, tears that reinforce the fact I do believe that I am saved.”
Sharon Reed, another choir member, said, “Especially in this time of uncertainty and fear that we’re going through now the music kind of gives us peace inside. When I reflect on a song like Trust in the Lord I’m not fearing what’s going to happen next. I’m not worrying about it. I’m putting my trust in the Lord and I’m going on with my life.”
Reed said when the music becomes a personal expression of faith it resonates with a vigor unlike any other music. “You have to apply it to your own life and then it becomes meaningful to you and then once it’s meaningful to you that feeling is expressed in a sound that touches hearts because it’s already touched your heart.” She said it’s precisely when she and her fellow choir members give in to this heartfelt emotion that the songs develop a life of their own and the singers become vessels for whatever the songs impart.
Before moving people, Terrell said, “you’ve got to get people’s attention.” In a big church like Salem, where a single Sunday service draws 1,300 worshipers of all ages, that means performing a repertoire ranging from old-school gospel to contemporary gospel as a way of trying “to reach not only the grandmothers but the kids.”
He said gospel has undergone “major changes” in recent years with the advent of “crossover” gospel, a movement perhaps best epitomized by Kirk Franklin. “Now we have R&B gospel, jazz gospel, Latino gospel. I mean, choose any aspect of music and they have gospel in that same style now. Personally, I don’t like the flavor of real contemporary gospel music, but it has its place. Here, we do a little bit of everything. And if that means doing some rap or some rhythmic R&Bish songs or going back to some traditional songs for our seasoned people, then we do all of that to get everybody’s attention. We might even do some things where we’re clapping our hands, we’re dancing, we’re doing the whole nine yards.”
Terrell has little doubt his choir and the music it performs moves people. But he cautions his singers not to expect every audience to go into a charismatic fit. “I tell our people, Don’t judge your performance on the crowd’s response because different people respond in different ways. I mean, just because we clap and scream and holler over here doesn’t mean they’ll do the same at a Catholic church, where they’re more likely to sit there and cry on you and be in awe. Some songs will do that, too — they’ll just make you spellbound.”
Meanwhile, Terrell has big plans in store for his showcase choir. An east coast tour is scheduled next summer to New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C. and a new CD recording project is in the works. The choir will also be featured at a Salem musical arts seminar next year that will explore, among other art forms, gospel music.
Terrell only wishes more Omaha radio stations would play gospel to provide a larger forum for the music. “There’s a big community of gospel music here. There’s talented singers and groups. But it’s hard to get the word out because, unfortunately, we don’t have gospel radio here. Our CD gets air play across the country, but not here. I wish I could hear it here. That would help.”
- Video: Harlem’s “Gospel for Teens” Choir (cbsnews.com)
- How Sweet the Sound Church Choir Competition Returns to Verizon Center (therogersrevue.wordpress.com)
- Saturday June 18 Tribute To Gospel Music Legends Panel At Fellowship Church, Salute To Sam Cooke (chicagonow.com)