The St. Cecilia Choir rehearses at the parish before Christmas. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

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Parish choirs practice for weeks to help people revel in the joy of Christmas

Christmas is nearly upon us, and soon you’ll hear and sing along to the joyful, glorious songs of the season at Mass, particularly on Christmas and Christmas Eve.

That music could be considered a foreshadowing of Heaven. It’s part of a divine dialogue at Mass between God and his people, said Marie Rubis Bauer, director of archdiocesan music and director of the St. Cecilia Cathedral Choir.

Parish choirs “prepare in the most intentional way” for Christmas, Rubis Bauer said.

Marie Rubis-Bauer directs the St. Cecilia Cathedral Choir in the days leading up to Christmas. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

In all its splendor, the music they sing elicits reverence, awe and even some tender tears. But the choir members know they aren’t performing and the music is not about them. It serves a much higher purpose.

“Our job is to walk with people on their journey, giving them inspiration for their heavenly journey,” Rubis Bauer said.

Mary Levesque would agree. She’s a member of the adult choir at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Omaha, as well as its former director and an accompanist at the parish.

“I figure the biggest thing is not to show off,” Levesque said. “So while we try to work on getting the right notes and having it sung accurately … it’s to bring in the congregation to help them participate more in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”

WEEKS OF PREPARATION

Though the music may seem to flow effortlessly, choir directors like Rubis Bauer and the parish choirs they lead have been practicing for weeks.

In early fall – and sometimes well before then – the choir directors start rummaging for Christmas sheet music.

That music is quickly shared with accompanists on instruments like the piano or organ. They need enough time to be well prepared for when a choir sees new music for the first time.

Then the choir rehearsals for Christmas begin, even as the musicians also practice for Sunday Masses and other services during ordinary time and Advent.

The choirs fuss over every detail. Do the words sound crisp? Does the singing flow?

The choir, or a section of the choir, might sound a little off on a line. They try it again – and again.

The preparation can be hard work, but for choir members like Greta Wooldrik of St. Mary Parish in West Point, it’s a labor of love. Wooldrik, a senior at Guardian Angels Central Catholic in West Point, is a member of the St. Mary High School Choir, which sings every year at Midnight Mass and for other special occasions.

“Probably one of the times I look forward to the most is getting into the Christmas songs,” she said.

The high school choir members “absolutely love the Christmas music,” said Bill Stokely, the choir’s director.

“As soon as I bring it out, there’s squeals of excitement,” he said. “Honestly. It’s funny because for high school kids to get excited about anything, sometimes it’s not so easy. But pull out the Christmas music and they start squealing.”

The music “brings them joy, and then they remember it forever,” he said.

DEDICATION

Levesque has been involved with the St. Wenceslaus Adult Choir for 37 years. She sings as an alto. Her husband, Bob, is a tenor in the choir.

Their years of dedication are typical for the adult choir, which has been around since 1981.

Members have watched each others’ children grow up and now have grandchildren in the pews as they sing.

The adult choir is a seasoned, committed group, said Mary Alice Laferla, the group’s fifth director over the years. The accompanist, Shari Kawa, has been with the choir throughout its existence.

“When you have that kind of stability and talented people,” Laferla said, “you can take the things you learned in the past and add to those pieces of music.” 

The choir covers a wide variety of music styles but doesn’t succumb to “the flavor of the day” in liturgical music, she said. 

During practices for Christmas, the choir has aimed for a smooth flow of a melody, being careful not to over-accent some parts, Laferla said. “They’re really, really sharp at picking that up, the picky stuff.”

“They’re very good,” she said. “They may not have it on the first try, but it rarely takes a third try.”

This year about 25 members of the adult choir will sing at the 6 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass at St. Wenceslaus and during a 30-minute choral prelude.

They expect to lead a thousand or more people in prayerful songs in the largest Catholic church in the state.

“It will be one of those events when you really want it to be wonderful for people because the church will be full,” Laferla said.

The choir will sing standard carols along with less familiar choral arrangements. A couple of selections will combine two songs into one.

In one piece, the men sing “We Three Kings” while the women harmonize with the “Ukrainian Bell Carol,” also known as “Carol of the Bells.”

Another song is a variation of “Silent Night” in which the assembly sings the standard version of the carol while the choir sings a newer accompanying song, “Night of Silence” by David Kantor.

“It’s a lovely combination,” Laferla said. “With a thousand people, it should be pretty cool.”

ST. CECILIA

Mass-goers will arrive at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha at least an hour before midnight Mass. That’s when they’ll be treated to an hour-long Christmas Concert with the St. Cecilia Cathedral Choir.

St. Cecilia Cathedral, as the mother church of the archdiocese, goes above and beyond for Christmas, Rubis Bauer said.

Like the Catholic faith it’s based on, liturgical music should exemplify what is true, beautiful, excellent and praiseworthy, she said.  

This year the Cathedral choir has 24 singers, about an equal split of men and women, and six instrumentalists. Many are in their 20s and 30s.

They’ll sing traditional carols and Mass parts people will know, mixed in with other less familiar music, Rubis Bauer said.

She said she typically chooses 40% new music and 60% familiar. 

For Wooldrik, daughter of Mark and Michelle Wooldrik of St. Mary in West Point, singing in the high school choir has been a family tradition.

Her older sisters, Anna and Evelyn, were part of the choir and will join in as alumni at midnight Mass and during a prelude.

Many parish families, including Stokely’s, have had all their children in the choir during its 20-year history.

“I don’t think we’ve gotten to any second generations yet,” he said, “but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s coming soon, if it hasn’t already.”

“I’ve got grandchildren who are going to be working on it one of these days,” he said, including a 4-year-old who was standing by Stokely as he talked on the phone.

REBUILDING

In previous years, the choir had nearly three-quarters of Guardian Angels Central Catholic High School as members, the choir director said, “to the point where we could barely squeeze into our choir loft.”

But membership dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“So we’re kind of in a little bit of a rebuilding process,” he said, “but we’ve got good kids who are dedicated.”

“This year’s going to be a little rough,” said Stokely, who’s also owner and funeral director at Stokely Funeral Home in West Point. “We’re going to call in some alumni” for the high school choir, as well as members of a former adult choir at the parish.

Thankfully, he said, he has a right-hand person in the parish, Patty Meiergerd, who accompanies the high school choir on piano and organ, helps get music lined up and “mothers everyone.”

Wooldrik began singing in the St. Mary High School Choir as a freshman. She sings as a soprano and descant for the group. In other words, she hits the highest notes.

The St. Mary High School Choir gathers for a photo at the church in West Point. COURTESY PHOTO

Her best choir memories, she said, have been singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.”

Another favorite song is “O Holy Night.”

Many people, including the students, love that carol, Stokely said. “It just makes for a big sound, and as soon as you get to the ‘fall on your knees’ part, boy I’ll tell you what, the hair is standing up on the back of your neck.”

This year the choir is keeping its focus on such traditional hymns and carols, he said.

The parish and West Point community always show their appreciation for the high school choir’s efforts, Stokely said.

“It’s amazing how it (the music) changes the liturgy to be something even more memorable. … It brings a lot of power to the liturgy.”

The music is especially impactful because the choir is young, he said. “It’s just very powerful coming from them.”