One of the most noticeable changes that happened in churches during the Covid-19 pandemic was the absence of choirs.
But as more Vermonters are vaccinated and boosted and restrictions have relaxed, voices that are blending together in song again are lifting up congregations.
“Choirs enhance the sense of community; voices that are blending together in song can lift up the congregation,” said Celia Asbell, choir director/organist at St. Joseph Cathedral in Burlington. “Choirs celebrate the gift from God of the human voice. Choirs are important because they have worked to learn the music which is sung at Mass. They can lead and support the congregation in singing the Mass parts and learning new or seasonal music. The harmonies of the choral selections can inspire us to a higher level of worship.”
According to Josh Perry, director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Burlington, full choirs are allowed in parishes at the discretion of the choir director and pastor. “Some parishes have jumped at the chance to resume their music ministry while others have taken a more cautious approach to resuming full choirs at Mass,” he said.
At the cathedral, various choral groups resumed during Holy Week. “The congregation was happy to have everyone back. The choir members were happy to be singing together again; they had missed it,” Asbell said.
The choir at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church in Bennington resumed during Lent to sing the music of Taize on Tuesday evenings. “I was very moved by the enthusiastic responses I received” as about a dozen people came forward to sing in the ensemble, said Donald McMahon, director.
When the entire choir returns in September, he will resume music that they had begun working on before the pandemic.
“Choirs echo the voices of the saints and angels in heaven,” McMahon said. “Choral singing at liturgy brings the mind and heart into truer communion with Christ and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”
The choir at Conversion of St. Paul Church in Barton, part of Most Holy Trinity Parish, is scheduled to resume on Trinity Sunday, June 12, although it generally provides music only for the Christmas season, Holy Week and special occasions.
In the absence of a choir during the pandemic, a cantor was present at all weekend Masses to lead an entrance and a recessional song. No Mass parts were sung at first with the addition of the sung Gospel Acclamation and Lamb of God as time went on. The cantor has always soloed a communion song.
“Several parishioners have commented that they are anxious for the choir to resume during special occasions and for more music to be sung during the Mass,” said Madeleine Roy, choir director and director of music ministry.
Choir members consider the church choir a special ministry that they are privileged to partake in. “It is the perfect occasion for each member to give of his/her talent as God meant us to share. However, it is also our belief that we are not there to perform, although learning and singing the music to the best of our ability is important toward fulfilling that ministry,” Roy said.
“We hold to the fact that sacred music, well played and sung, enhances the liturgy. It is our mission to make each Mass more meaningful, inspirational and engaging for parishioners.”
Asbell asked choir members to wear masks when they began rehearsing but left mask wearing to their discretion when they sang at Mass because the balcony at the cathedral is quite large and open.
In Middlebury at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dr. Kevin D. Parizo, organist and music director, has not resumed the choir, instead has sung and played for all the services by himself. “Since our choir will not resume potentially until fall, I’m still alone in the choir loft and play and sing by myself,” he said.
“Our congregation has been extremely understanding and supportive that choirs should not resume until it is 100 percent safe to have choir members who have to sit in close proximity to other choir members and sing out loud,” he said. “Each church must decide for itself whether it is safe to resume choirs and base that decision on the latest medical advice, not just emotional desire. Not every choir loft can accommodate proper social distancing as well as having choir members wear masks.”
At the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, many of the choir members have medical issues or have a spouse or child whose immune system is compromised, thus they do not want to endanger themselves or anyone else to have choir, Parizo said. “Therefore, the decision made by the pastor and myself, as music director, was to evaluate the data as we approach fall and then make the determination when to safely resume. While all of us want things to return to ‘normal’ and forget the last two years [of the pandemic], we are not over this pandemic yet.”
—Originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.