Christmas Cheer: “Do you hear what I hear?”
A song, a song, high above the trees With a voice as big as the sea
By Christina Gray
The Advent and Christmas seasons bring many sensory delights, but few offer as much joy as music and song.
Churches and schools throughout the Archdiocese of San Francisco have been preparing for weeks for special Advent and Christmas musical programs (check your parish bulletin or website). Here are three unique musical opportunities from each of the three counties of the Archdiocese.
St. Patrick’s Seminary & University Chapel, Menlo Park
Once a year, a special choir is assembled for only one Advent performance at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University Chapel in Menlo Park. This year’s performance is Dec. 11 at 2 p.m.
The name of the group is Schola Seraphica. The theme for this year’s concert is “The Spotless Rose,” a musical homage to Mary, the Blessed Mother.
What makes this seasonal choir unique is that it is comprised of adults — mostly parishioners and teachers of nearby Church of the Nativity Parish and School — and teenagers from the chamber choir and string ensemble from St. Francis High School, a Catholic prep school in Mountain View.
Msgr. Steven Otellini, Nativity’s longtime pastor, is all in, too.
“He has a solo every year,” said Margaret Durando, choral director at St. Francis High School and a longtime parishioner. She started Schola Seraphica in 2006 because she wanted to form a local community choir that could include her students.
Msgr. Otellini suggested the name, Schola Seraphica, to honor the school’s patron, St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan order, which became synonymous with the Seraphic choir of angels.
“I just thought, let’s do this once a year at Christmas,” she said. Longtime Nativity music director Jill Mueller was, and continues to be, instrumental in getting the whole production off the ground.
What started as a benefit concert for the parish has morphed, Durando said, into a fundraiser that helps her offer her students musical performance tours around the world.
The call to join Schola Seraphica goes out to the wider community through various channels each year. There’s no audition or vocal requirements, she said, but it has historically attracted singers from Nativity Parish, St. Raymond Parish and even Stanford University.
“Every year, it changes,” she said, with people coming and going. Participation was impacted by COVID-19 the past two years, so it’s still working its way back up to its usual size of approximately 20 adults and 40 young people.
It’s a formal, family event, she said, with men wearing tuxedos and women gowns. Tickets include an after-concert reception hosted by Nativity parishioners Gene Kates and Katy Kelly.
Tickets are $20 for general seating and $15 for seniors or students.
Church of the Nativity sells tickets for the concert outside the church after Sunday Masses, but tickets can also be obtained at the door.
“Father Mark Doherty wants a full house this year,” said Durando of the St. Patrick’s Seminary & University rector.
ST. BRIGID SCHOOL HONOR CHOIR
St. Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco
“If you look at the students in the choir, they are the face of San Francisco,” said choir director Christoph Tietze of his fifth- to eighth-grade students in the St. Brigid School Honor Choir.
Tietze is the choir director and organist at St. Mary’s Cathedral. In 2009, the cathedral entered into a partnership with nearby St. Brigid School to establish a choir school. St. Brigid Parish was closed in 1994, but the cathedral staff has provided support to the school, which remained open.
The five-stage music program led by Tietze and St. Brigid School music teacher Marni Strome is designed to develop “musically literate” students.
Studies have shown that the study of music enhances the analytic development of the child, said Tietze.
“A lot of people think of music programs like they do sports, another fun activity,” he said. “But music can enhance overall academic performance.”
The Honor Choir and the more elite Chamber Choir sing for school, cathedral and archdiocesan events such as the Rosary Rally.
The St. Brigid Honor Choir will return for its annual “Cookies and Carols” performance at St. Mary’s Cathedral on Dec. 18. The popular family event features performances of seasonal favorites, followed by a cookie reception. The choir will also perform on Christmas Eve in a Carols concert at 5:30 p.m. at St. Mary’s vigil Mass.
“Choir has brought me closer in my relationship with God, and I appreciate everything it has done for me,” said St. Brigid seventh-grader Senai Gaime.
MOST HOLY ROSARY CHAPEL
St. Vincent’s School for Boys, San Rafael
Conservatory-trained cellist, pianist and vocalist Doug Harman has played at many concert halls and venues in his lifetime. But the Texan ranks the acoustics at Most Holy Rosary Chapel in San Rafael right up there with the best.
“The place has such a great sound,” said Harman. “The people who go to St. Vincent’s love the place. They just love to sing because the sound is so amazing.”
The imposing Hearst Castle-like chapel is the dominant feature on the grounds of St. Vincent School for Boys, a Catholic orphanage opened in 1853 following a cholera epidemic. Today, Catholic Charities of San Francisco continues to care for traumatized boys there by running a licensed residential therapeutic treatment program.
Harman and keyboardist and vocalist Debra Chambliss, former longime music director at St. Anselm School, play each Sunday for a congregation from all around Marin County and beyond at the chapel’s 9:45 a.m. Mass. The chapel is not a parish itself; it is under the auspices of the pastor of nearby St. Isabella Parish. You wouldn’t know it’s not a parish, though, judging from the full pews and how slowly the parking lot empties after Mass.
Longtime celebrants include Spokane Bishop Thomas Daly when he was at Marin Catholic High School and his successor, Msgr. Robert Sheeran.
Harman’s musical roots run deep. He remembers crawling under the family’s Steinway piano as a child to hear his father play. The piano arrived by train for his grandfather as a surprise gift from a member of the Steinway family who heard him play.
Harman and his wife Debra Couey played the Mass together until nearly four years ago when she died unexpectedly minutes after the recessional song.
For many years, Harman, his wife and son James Harman, the choir director at St. Anthony of Padua in Novato, presented Advent concerts together for Most Holy Rosary Chapel. Harman and his son have continued that tradition with a night of holy music.
He said these are not “concerts” and asks the congregation to withhold applause.
The applause might be harder to contain, though, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, according to Harman.
The music program both days will include classically trained jazz violinist Jeremy Cohen, a student of Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman. His son Gabriel Cohen, also a violinist, will join them.
Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.
Members of the St. Brigid School Honor Choir sing “We Three Kings.”