Choirs at St. Camillus Sing Music of the World

Wendy Healy Features

This is the fifth in an occasional series on music ministries around the Province. The previous music feature in the Dec. 8 issue of the newsletter profiled the music ministry of the Church of St. Mary on Broadway in Providence, R.I.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — The St. Camillus Church music ministry, in particular, the Multicultural Choir, is gaining a national reputation for its ethnicity, diversity and broad musical sound.

In addition to ministering at Mass and singing at all major liturgies and holy days, the Multicultural Choir is active with the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and other organizations.

The choir has sung at the Franciscan Symposium at Siena College, and it was one of four choirs selected to minister at the Papal Mass celebrated before 47,000 people during Benedict XVI’s first papal visit to the United States. It is regularly featured at the annual Ecumenical Advocacy Days national gathering and is often a favorite at events sponsored by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Tracy McDonnell, a District of Columbia native who spent much of her youth overseas, has been the full-time music director for 20 years. She said she strives for a varied sound with diverse instrumentation, where percussion is a vital part of the mix and includes African and Latin rhythms in addition to many other styles. The Multicultural Choir draws its music from the wide ethnicity of the assembly. The parish, the largest in the archdiocese and widely known for its multiculturalism, includes parishioners from more than 100 countries.

McDonnell leads the broad music ministry with the help of volunteer assistants, as well as several paid musicians. She usually can be seen conducting from the piano. Although she also plays the organ and guitar, her concentration in graduate school was in voice. She considers the human voice “the first and most important instrument.”

A Rainbow of Faces and Music
“In order to reflect the cultural richness of our community, we are called to do music in many different languages and styles, from Gregorian to Gospel,” said McDonnell, who holds a master’s degree in liturgical music from The Catholic University of America. “With the Multicultural Choir, you will see and hear a ‘rainbow’ as we sing music from around the world, with people from around the world. Parishioners can have an authentic immersion experience virtually any weekend at St. Camillus, depending on which Mass they happen to attend,” she added.

Of the eight weekend Masses and 10 additional weekday Masses, three are celebrated in Spanish and three in French. The local Swahili apostolate also celebrates liturgies for special feast days, as does the vibrant Bangla community. This has become especially well-known for their beautiful and reverent sacred dance ministry, according to McDonnell. Other choirs include Coro San Camilo, which ministers at the two weekend Masses in Spanish; Choeur de Marie Reine du Monde (French with a West African influence); the St. Camillus Gospel Choir, whose members also participated in the 2008 Papal Mass, and the renowned Multicultural Choir. Children’s choirs, handbell choirs, and young adult choirs round out the music program for holy days and other special occasions. At St. Camillus, where Michael Johnson, OFM, is pastor, all major liturgies and feast days are celebrated in English, Spanish and French.

“Here at St. Camillus we’re proud to have so many people involved in the music ministry,” said Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, guardian of St. Camillus Friary.

CD Recordings and the Oral Tradition
The Multicultural Choir has produced two CD recordings. Their first, released in 2004 and titled Soli Deo Gloria (To God Be the Glory), was recorded live at the Washington Theological Union in nearby Washington, D.C., and their new studio release, Beati Pacifici (Blest are the Peacemakers), came out last December. Sound clips from the latest recording can be heard on the parish website.

The CDs, sold at the church and at liturgical events, feature music in Spanish, French, English, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Vietnamese, Swahili, Zulu and Xhosa.

As the CD titles show, McDonnell considers Latin an important part of the multicultural mix. “We appreciate Latin now more than ever. From Ave Maria to Taizé ostinatos, Latin remains a crucially important part of our heritage and a tremendous source of unity, especially within a diverse assembly such as ours.”

Some of the most treasured repertoire, however, she said, has come directly from choir members. “A lot of this music isn’t even written down,” she says with a smile. “It needs to be learned by ear, in keeping with oral traditions.”

CamillusRMusic With an Ecumenical Influence
McDonnell said the breadth of her program has been influenced by ecumenical music from around the world, including the work of John Bell, a Church of Scotland minister and member of the Iona community; the Taizé community in France; C. Michael Hawn of Southern Methodist University, and Rufino Zaragoza, OFM, a well-known Franciscan composer in California with a special interest in intercultural worship.

“I am Franciscan in my heart and I resonate with the Franciscan spirituality,” she said. “The Franciscan charism itself draws a great many people to St. Camillus — there is a centuries-old tradition being lived out here which is deeply, deeply appreciated.”

While the music ministry is unique, McDonnell describes it as an earthy rather than a refined sound. “We represent the universal Church, so we try to do music of the world Church, and it’s definitely sometimes what you might call ‘rough around the edges’ – but there is an energy and a spirit there that is truly life-giving, and people naturally respond to it.”

The St. Camillus Music Ministry encourages all to sing and — should the Spirit move you — to dance. Indeed, according to McDonnell, the Multicultural Choir has adopted a well-known saying from Zimbabwe as its motto: “If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance.”

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor.