House of Brigid 2009-10

House of Brigid 2009-10

26 November 2009

Christ Our Light: The Journey Through Advent

November 6 marked another major milestone for the House of Brigid: our first major workshop for liturgical musicians of the Diocese of Ferns. The event was weeks in the making: we mailed press kits introducing the community and advertising the event to every Parish Priest in the Diocese, out into the wonderful vagueness that is the Irish postal system, with the certitude that, somehow, our letters intended for such specific destinations as "Fr. So-and-So, Parochial House, Bunclody, County Wexford," would find their way to the addressee. Not a single letter was returned unopened; our faith in the Irish postal system with its Harry Potter-esque addresses was entirely justified. In fact, a few weeks later, enquiries and reservations began to surface; the letters had been forwarded on to the choir directors and musicians. Word was getting out.
Our expectation for the number of attendees was guardedly optimistic; we t
hought we were being overly cautious by requesting more octavo packets than we would need from World Library Publications and GIA, who had graciously agreed to provide repertoire for our event. In the end, both publishers responded with generosity and unbelievable speed, and we had 50 complete packets of 9 titles ready for distribution. We ended up needing almost twice that many.
One week out, our workshop had around 70 confirmed reservations from all over the Diocese, with the promise from our parish supervisors that more would turn up without having contacted us, and turn up they did. A 2:30pm start time meant that most people showed up to register around 2:45 (in Ireland, all times end with "ish"), bu soon we had everyone sorted, and Fr. Denis began his introductions of the community shortly before 3:00.

Considering I was leading my first diocesan workshop, and considering this was the first official diocesan event sponsored by our fledgling community, I was nervous, wondering how the Irish would respond to us, and to the information and music we would present. In the end, all we could do was stand in front of them, and share with them the knowledge and experiences that have nurtured in each of us a real passion for liturgy done well, especially when enhanced by beautiful music. I needn't have been nervous. The groups was incredibly receptive, not only to the music itself, but also to my comments on liturgical music planning, Martha's comments on cantoring, and Chris's comments on the origins of certain Advent texts. I explained that, when you come down to it, our job as music ministers is to help the congregation pray well, in a way that brings beauty to the liturgy and honor to God. We can accomplish this by choosing music that reflects the liturgical action and season, music that is beautiful and worthy of a place in the Mass, music that inspires the congregation to participate with full heart and voice.
Following the workshop, the wonderful ladies of the Clonard Parish
community served a meal to the participants, and after that, we adjourned to prepare for our own Vigil Mass, where we were astonished to see that nearly 30 people had stayed to join us in song. It was overwhelming to see such enthusiasm, to meet and converse with so many people who want so badly to improve their liturgical music. There is a real hunger in this country for rejuvenation and renewal.
Most of the participants wrote encouraging compliments on the evaluations we asked them to complete. Nearly all of them found the information useful and the music accessible. A few stated that implementing our suggestions would be very difficult, given the small size of most parish choirs, the lack of people confident enough to cantor, and most of all, the fact that many people in music ministry here in Ireland don't actually read music. While these are difficult obstacles that we ourselves continue to encounter in trying to help others improve their liturgical music, I don't see them as insurmountable. Rather, I found many reasons to be hopeful in coming away from our first diocesan workshop: there are many people in this area who want to learn, who want to grow as musicians, and who want to be inspired in their ministry so that they, in turn, can inspire others to learn and grow in faith, hope, and love. Ultimately, I believe that it is their desire for inspiration that continues to inspire us in our own ministry as we strive to bring a renewed sense of joy to all whom we encounter here in Ireland.

18 November 2009

"Last Friday" masses with Kennedy Park

One of the most rewarding parts of our work here in Wexford so far has been our involvement in the two primary schools of Clonard Parish. At Kennedy Park school we’ve begun a program of “Last Friday” masses with individual classes. The three of us go into Kennedy Park once a week to meet with this month’s class to prepare them for a mass on the morning of the last Friday of every month. This allows us to pick a theme related to the month and help the class plan every aspect of the mass according to that theme.

October is the month of the Rosary, so with the first of the two fifth classes we planned and prepared a Marian themed mass. We worked with them to compose Prayers of the Faithful that were all related to qualities we find in our Holy Mother. For example: “Mary went to take care of her elderly cousin Elizabeth before John the Baptist was born. She took care of everyone in need around her. We ask that Mary will watch over our friends and family who are sick, and that we may be like her and help to care for them.” The class also presented gifts to the altar that represented things they wanted to thank God for in their lives. This included everything from an Irish jersey to schoolbooks to the Bread and Wine.

Each student had a special job during the mass either as a reader, a gift bearer, or a cantor. It was so wonderful to see Irish ten-year olds so excited about the mass! Giving them responsibilities really seemed to help them find ownership of the mass and of the entire congregation’s experience of the mass. Some of them were “a little nervous” but they all beautifully and reverently read the readings from the Book of Judith and the Psalms and sang their hearts out on some of the great Marian hymnody we’ve found in Ireland like “As I Kneel Before You.” The regular daily-mass goers also seemed to enjoy a little change of pace and some young life in the church and at mass.

In November we’re working with the other fifth class on a mass in honor of the saints, and we’re looking forward to many great “Last Friday” masses to come!

09 November 2009


     The apex of our American invasion week came on Saturday, October 24th. A couple of celebrations converged together on that weekend and the parish had a blowout celebration. The evening began with the normally scheduled Saturday vigil Mass, which is the one where we are in charge of the music. For this Mass though, the parish was celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the Clonard Folk Group and so all past members of the group were invited back to join with the current group in providing music for this Mass. The folk group is a dedicated group of singers and musicians who provide music for the 11:15 mass on Sunday mornings. They use everything from traditional hymnody and Irish "folk tunes" to recent compositions from Marty Haugen and our very own Cookie! It has been a great pleasure of ours to sing with this group since we arrived and to help with the planning of these masses, so it was an even greater pleasure to share this evening with them. Our commissioning and their 30th anniversary, all rolled into one massive liturgy (pun fully and unabashedly intended).

     Because this was both an anniversary and a commissioning, invites were extended to clergy from throughout the diocese as well as people connected to the liturgical scene in Ferns. The Mass was celebrated by the Most Rev. Denis Brennan, Bishop of Ferns, who just the day before had blessed our home. There were also six priests concelebrating, a choir of about 30 (including 2 of our guests), and one of the largest congregations we've seen since arriving here! The music stretched out over the 30 year history of the folk group, pulling from the early days of the group and from the more recent pieces that are used. The choir sounded amazing, there were all four parts present, and the congregation was singing along (not something we're used to over here). It was a great celebration of the ministry that this group of talented musicians has cultivated for three decades, and we are proud to be members of this beautiful tradition at Clonard.
     Following the homily (which was also amazing), we proceeded with the actual commissioning of the three of us and our mission here in Ireland. The Bishop invited us to come forward and then Mr. and Mrs. Calcutt came forward as the officers of 'The House of Bridget Inc.' to offer testimony to the Bishop of our willingness and ability to serve the Church in Ireland. The part that I loved the most was their testimony that the hardships we faced in coming over only served to make this program all the stronger and toughened our resolve to carry out this mission. Bishop Denis then asked Fr. Denis if the parish was willing to take us on and support us in our mission. (What would have happened if he said no? We'd already been here two months!) The questions that Bishop Denis asked were not just of a liturgical and musical nature, but also that the parish would help to actually immerse us in the culture of this place so that we can better serve the people of Wexford and the Irish as a whole. It was a subtle and powerful reminder that we are not here to just come in and take over like Americans are sometimes want to do. Instead, just as we discussed when we formed in the spring, we are here to meet the Irish where they are and then to guide them to a fuller understanding and appreciation of the Church through music, liturgy, and friendship. Upon receiving the parish's consent, the Bishop then asked us if we were willing and ready to take on this responsibility. I would like to share with you all the promise that we made in front of God, the Bishop, and our family and friends:

I promise to offer my time, talents, and skill, for the enhancement of sacred music and liturgy,
in the parish community of Clonard, for the good of all God's people and to the Glory of God.

Having made this promise, the Bishop blessed us and our mission, sending us out to serve the people of this parish, the Diocese of Ferns, and the Church in Ireland. We were then presented with a beautiful copy of the Book of the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. This is one of seven volumes that are being put out by St. John's College in Minnesota and they are the new "St. John's Bible". It is a truly amazing project and we are grateful to the parish for presenting us with this volume, which now occupies a spot in our prayer room at our house.

     I'm getting very good at epicly long blog posts, so I should probably wrap this one up soon. The rest of the Mass was fairly normal, although the parish also had the Bishop bless two new stained glass windows "since he was here already." These windows commemorate the Wexford martyrs, a group of fishermen and bakers who were killed for refusing to sign an oath recognizing the British monarch as the head of the church. They are very beautiful windows and depict the martyrs as butterflies and doves, two Christian symbols for eternity. Following the mass there was a reception in the community centre with tea and biscuits, as well as a cake for both the folk group and ourselves. It was a great way to wrap up the evening and say thank you to everyone who has made our first few months here so much easier.
     Now the evening didn't entirely end there. It was after all, still the Opera festival, and during the festival they have a series of singing competitions called "Singing Pubs" which are held all throughout the town at the various pubs. Saturday just happened to be the night for Simon's Place, our establishment of choice and so following the reception we headed down for some good times at Simon's. It was insanely crowded and I spent most of the night standing in the entryway blocking access through that door (the bouncer was appreciative because he didn't want anyone going in that door anyway!) The singing was great, we were able to spend some quality pub time with the Calcutts and the London crew, and we even kept tabs on the ND-BC game on Mr. Calcutt's blackberry. Once we knew the final score of that, it was a celebratory round of Guinness, and then back home for the night. I want to personally thank Mr. and Mrs. Calcutt, Cookie and Mrs. Cookie, Hayley, Steph, Claire, and Dan for coming and sharing various parts of the week with us. You all contributed in such distinct ways to making this one of the greatest weeks, not only of my time in Ireland but in recent memory. And now that we're official...Clonard is stuck with us. What a beautiful relationship we have begun, may it continue to grow and bear fruit for many years to come.

02 November 2009

Opera Festivus for the Restivus

Let me add a hearty "ditto" to everything Martha and Chris have said recently about the incredible generosity of our Wexford hosts, and the wonderful opportunity we've had recently to pay that generosity forward, playing hosts ourselves to our American guests. The week that was was truly the "Best Week Ever." The food, the friends, the festival, the craic, and especially the prayer--everything that we experienced in that incredible week was literally underscored by music of every imaginable style. Even when it's not festival time, Wexford is an incredibly musical town. At the center of this, of course, is the opera house, but there are also several other places in town where music lovers flock to hear wonderful talent, and we've gotten to experience several of these "Fringe" events over the past couple of weeks.
The Monday after our first wave of visitors arrived, we wandered in to Green Acres while giving the first of many great tours of downtown. Green Acres is one of my favorite places--a wine store and bistro, which also has an attached two-floor art gallery. We wandered up to the second floor gallery, and there was a group of instrumentalists rehearsing Mozart's Clarinet Quintet, one of the greatest Classical pieces ever. It was so random to stumble into such a beautiful performance, but it was also another example of our randomly beautiful Wexford experience--we've found ourselves (often inexplicably) in the midst of some pretty amazing things since moving here, and every time it happens again, all I can do is revel in it and be grateful for the chance to be here.
Probably the best example of this random, beautiful, inexplicable Wexford experience happened last Sunday, when we attended the Festival Mass at Rowe Street Church of the Assumption. It's rare that we have a Sunday morning off, but since we had just had our Commissioning/Folk Group Anniversary/Stained Glass Window Mass the night before, we had the morning free. We hadn't even known about the Festival Mass until dinner at Fr. Denis's on Friday, when Fr. Martin and several other priests insisted that we had to make attending the Festival Mass a priority. Fr. Martin even promised to reserve seats for us, since this liturgy is always standing-room only.
By reserved seats, he meant pretty much the best civilian seats in the house.
We arrived with the Calcutts on Sunday morning, met up with Fr. Martin, who ushered us to the fourth row, right next to the chamber orchestra, with a perfect view of the 30-voice choir and 4 soloists. In the three rows ahead of us sat: the Lord Mayor of Wexford herself (wearing her formal mayoral garb), an Italian dignitary (who didn't say much, but looked practically regal wearing a sash bearing his nation's colors), members of the Irish Parliament (also decked out in their official garb), and people we surmised to be the producers of the festival's featured operas.
Mayor of Wexford, foreign dignitary, Parliament members, opera producers, and us.
Like I said, stumbling backwards into an experience so incredible it was almost laughable for the sheer good fortune and good people that brought us there. More than once Martha, Chris, and I found ourselves looking at each other with that joyfully bewildered "what are we doing here?" expression on our faces.
Not only were we more than a little humbled by being seated in such a place of honor, but I think all of us were overwhelmed to varying degrees by the sheer beauty of the liturgy itself. Once again, Bishop Brennan presided and delivered yet another eloquent homily, capturing the occasion perfectly. The soloists, choir, and orchestra provided the music for the elements of the Mass Ordinary: the director had chosen Franz Joseph Haydn's Theresienmesse, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the composer's death. "All Creatures of Our God and King" was the processional hymn, and "Thine is the Glory" was the recessional--the beautiful tune from Handel's Judas Maccabeus. Tucked in amidst all the fanfare was Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus as the Communion hymn, which never ceases to bring me to the verge of tears.
All in all, it was one of the most incredible culminations of music and worship it has ever been my privilege to witness. It would have been impossible for anyone to remain apathetic in the midst of such a Mass. The music lifted the hearts and souls of all present, inspiring the congregation to offer more heartfelt worship to the One God whose beauty was reflected in every note and present in every prayer.