At Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish, the little children lead
by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — Starting a children’s “schola cantorum” at Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish here was a lot like convincing Dr. Seuss’ Sam-I-Am to expand his culinary repertoire.
“In a sense, it reminds me of the book ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ by Dr. Seuss,” said Lucas Tappan, parish director of music.
When first presented with the opportunity to sing church music, a lot of kids acted like Sam-I-Am. When they first heard it, they did not want to sing it here or there. They did not want to sing it anywhere.
Ah, but when they started to sing . . .
“They love it,” said Tappan. “Two of their favorite pieces are ‘Panis Angelicus’ by Cesar Frank and an English translation of ‘All the Earth’ by Johann Sebastian Bach. It really is widening their musical experiences.”
“Schola cantorum” is Latin for “school for singers.” In modern parlance, they are sometimes called choir schools, and are common in Europe.
In the United States, however, there used to be only two true Catholic choir schools for children: the all-boys Boston Archdiocesan Choir School and the mixed gender Madeleine Choir Schola in Salt Lake City.
Now, with the founding of the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, there are three.
“In the fall of 2008 at Most Pure Heart, I started a children’s choir,” said Tappan. “We realized that if we were going to have future musicians for the parish, we really had to begin training the young people how to be liturgical musicians.”
Each year, the choir grew a little bigger, and that got Tappan dreaming about establishing a children’s choir school.
“Right now, I’m finishing my doctorate in church music at the University of Kansas,” said Tappan. “The paper I’m writing is about choir schools in the history of the Catholic Church. It connects with what I’m doing at Most Pure Heart of Mary, because I was looking for the best way of training young people to be liturgical musicians.”
Having reached critical mass — and with the permission of pastor Father Brian Schieber — Tappan officially launched the choir in fall 2011.
“I’m really excited about having this at the parish,” said Father Schieber. “This is something that’s going to enhance our liturgies. . . . It’s a wonderful way to involve the children in the liturgy.”
“It’s stirred up excitement in the parish,” he continued. “There’s 40 kids in the choir loft singing at Mass. There’s nothing that gives a parent more joy than to know that their child is an integral part of enhancing the worship at the parish and participating in the Mass with excitement.”
In the schola, the children learn sight-reading, undergo ear training, and learn to become cantors in the context of a choir. They sing music ranging from chant to 20th century melodies.
The schola now has 35 children, ranging from grades three to seven. They are divided into 21 choristers and 14 probationers. The choristers are usually older children who have more developed skills, and they practice twice a week.
The probationers are usually younger children who are still learning their skills, and practice once a week. The choristers sing for all occasions, but the probationers only sing for the occasional liturgy or performance, and then only simple pieces.
“We have three or four students who are proficient enough on the piano that next fall they will take organ lessons,” he said. “We have a couple of students who’ve cantored at Mass by themselves. We already have students who, with a simple piece of music, can sing the first notes without me playing a key on the piano.”
What is exciting for Tappan is that not only are the students picking up on the music, they are also becoming theologically enriched.
“For example, [the responsorial psalm] we were working on for Sunday talked about the 12 judgment seats of heaven,” said Tappan.
“And a boy in the back row said, ‘What’s with these 12 seats? What are we talking about here?’ So we went into the Twelve Apostles sitting on the 12 thrones in the Book of Revelation, and heaven being the new Jerusalem.”
The schola sings once a month at a Mass during the school year and at one or two other special performances. The schola sang Lessons and Carols in December and at the annual Red Mass on Feb. 9 at St. Joseph Parish in Topeka.
Father Schieber hopes that as the children advance through the grades, there will be a high school schola. Eventually, the benefit of the schola will be felt far and wide, both throughout the parish and into the future.
“Not only does this enhance the liturgy in our parish, but it will produce cantors and musicians for the church of the future,” said Father Schieber. “These children in the choir school will be well- trained for whatever parish they go to.”