Today’s Singing Nuns

Catholic Chant Tops the Charts for Christmas 2013

Americans are snapping up surprising new Christmas gifts this year, judging by the chart-topping albums of Catholic chant by some new superstars — traditional Catholic sisters!

The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in XYZ have released “Advent in Ephesus” to widespread acclaim…

…and the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Dominican Sisters of Mary have produced “Mater Eucharistiae

Both Orders’  albums have raced to the top of the classical Billboard charts. Both are up for Grammy awards.

In this exclusive Regina Magazine interview, Mother Cecilia, prioress of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles and Sr. Joseph Andrew, OP, Vicaress General, Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist reveal what it takes to capture the top of the charts – and the hearts of many weary Americans.

Q. Can you tell us about the impetus for the creation of your album?

Mother Cecilia: We were hosting a very dear priest friend of ours here at the Priory, a priest who is now dying. He had recently heard our self-produced CDs. He turned to me and said, ‘You really need to make an Advent CD.’

We had been contemplating the theme for a new CD, and his words sealed it for us. We, too, could perceive a need to restore the lost season of Advent.

Benedictines hold up the Liturgy as the “work of God,” and our primary means of sanctification. Giving attention back to Advent necessarily entails a more spiritual approach to Christmas. Some of the loveliest chants and hymns of the liturgical year appear during the season of Advent.

Sister Joseph Andrew:  Music has always been a large part of our community and our daily prayer and life of praise. When we were approached about releasing the music, which was already such a special part of our community, we took it to prayer.  

On the whole, when it is clear that something is guided by the Holy Spirit, we will, as St. Paul says, “lean forward” and take that act of Faith. We always try to be open to whatever God asks of us.  As is often the case when we give our FIAT, like Our Lady, there are many fruits which we could never have imagined which have resulted.  But our original decision to allow the documentation of the music of our community was only a desire to share whatever gifts God has given to us generously, as He has been so generous with all of us.

Q. How many sisters participated?  Was it fun?

Sister Joseph Andrew:  Oh, my, yes, it was so much fun!  There were 23 sisters who participated in the choir, and then I played the organ and chimes and Sister Maria Miguel played the trumpet.  We had a wonderful producer who helped keep us on track and after 2.5 days we had completed all of the recording for what is now Mater Eucharistiae

Mother Cecilia: Twenty of the twenty-two Sisters sang.  Our dear Sr. Wilhelmina is eighty-nine, and a sister stayed back to take care of her. Sr. Wilhelmina is our professional in prayer, and we could not have made the recording without her spiritual support!

The practices are always especially enjoyable for the sisters, simply because we are always happy to be in each other’s company. Our voices are truly an extension of our hearts, which we strive to keep united to the Heart of Christ. He is the One who takes our very different voices and melds them together so they sound very much as one.

The recording went very, very smoothly. Recording here in our own chapel also kept us very focused. We were still able to chant the Office the eight prescribed times on each of the three recording days. Rather than give our voices a break, we continued with the praises of God, and He Himself renewed them for the next session!

Q. How many sisters do you currently have?  Novices?

Mother Cecilia: We have twenty-two sisters at present. Four of them are novices, with a total of thirteen in formation.

Sister Joseph Andrew:  We currently have 127 sisters, including 18 novices and 20 postulants.  God is generous and continues to send us many wonderful young women!

Q. What is your Order’s charism?

Sister Joseph Andrew:  As Dominicans, our primary apostolate is teaching.  As we engage in the new evangelization, we are open to new forms of handing down the faith, and in particular, the work of catechesis. We are very much formed first in the Chapel and in the cloister as contemplatives; we are able to bring the Truth.

So we very much try to meet the culture and engage the culture through primarily education first and foremost- but when and where possible, and as Pope Francis has been witnessing and encouraging, we always keep an open heart towards answering that call that Bl. Pope John II called “The New Evangelization.” For our community, this music and all of the media and outreach which stems from it would very much be in line with that call.

Mother Cecilia: Our charism is prayer and sacrifice for priests, who are the dispensers of Divine Grace. It is at their hands that the Sacrifice of Calvary is presented once more, and beauty is restored to our souls.

As Benedictines, we strive to enter the very heart of the Church in her prayer, the liturgy. Offering beauty back to God and hidden there, we ask the Lord to strengthen each priest, the alter Christi, so he may labor courageously and perseveringly for the salvation of souls. There is no better exemplar in this than Our Lady, Queen of Apostles, especially in her hidden life at Ephesus. (This is the city in modern-day Turkey to which St. John brought her to live out her last days after the Ascension of her Son.)

We have the privilege of manifesting this charism in a concrete way by making vestments and sacred linens to be used for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Q. Mother Cecilia, I see that you have many young women and much interest in your small Community. This seems to be part of a national trend in America. To what do you attribute all of this interest?

Mother Cecilia: Perhaps this is an illustration of what St. Paul says to the Romans, “Where sin abounded, grace did the more abound.” The Lord seems to be seeking hearts to console Him amidst the continuing decline in virtue within our nation.

There is most certainly a new generation of Catholics steadily growing in our country, who are true seekers of truth, goodness and beauty. They realize the culture of death and sin that is foisted on us from all sides is a dead end, and brings about only unhappiness and a false sense of peace.

We see this hopeful trend, especially in our many seminarians and newly ordained priests, and of course the young women who come to visit us as well. We have had around 100 vocation inquiries this year alone. Truly, this is the work of the Holy Spirit!

Q. Mother Cecilia, when young women come to your Community with a vocation, what feelings do they describe?

Nearly all describe their initial shock the first couple of days. They say it takes some time to stop “thinking,” as they get used to the absence of so much noise that is everywhere in this modern world. They see clearly that there is a definite rhythm to our life, and they begin to discern in the silence whether this rhythm will be the underpinning for the Lord to orchestrate their holiness, and their path to Him.

Other things that young women have repeatedly mentioned are their attraction to the traditional liturgy, how intently we follow the Rule of St. Benedict, and our closeness to one another as a religious family.

Q. What do you tell them, to help them to discern?

Firstly they are told to be faithful in their vocations as sisters and daughters in the context of a family. St. Benedict bases a monastery on the structure of a family. If something is wanting in the natural foundation, the spiritual edifice that we strive to build on its foundation will be impaired.

They are also encouraged to become more familiar with the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. (The majority of aspirants already are, and feel called to offer themselves back to God through it.) In many ways the beauty of this Mass, at the center of our liturgical spirituality, speaks for itself. The rest of the Divine Office fits into it like spokes in the hub of a wheel.

Time must be set aside for silent prayer alone with God, in order to discern what it is He is asking in the depths of their hearts. Lastly, they must turn with steadfast prayer and fidelity to Our Lady, who always provides maternal strength and love for each vocation. She is our sure guide, as she will always counsel each soul to “do whatever He tells you.”

Q. Sr. Joseph Andrew, you oversaw all of the music and recording on “Mater Eucharistiae.” Your Order seems to garner a great deal of interest from the secular media. To what do you attribute this, in modern America? Is this part of the general thirst for the spiritual that seems so apparent?

We very much have been able to witness the thirst especially coming from the youth, for authenticity and meaning in life.  People want God, they want to have an encounter with Him in their lives.  

The arts through beauty are ways that Our Lord lovingly reveals Himself to souls.  When we recorded our songs, it was in our chapel with Jesus present in the Holy Eucharist.  There is something special in that relationship that shines forth from beauty, love and Truth, which evokes peace in any heart.  

We were all made by Him and for Him. Because this is authentically what the Sisters are experiencing as they are singing these songs, it truly has an effect on a world hungry for the contemplative and silence in the midst of all the noise and input.  

People have truly responded with great enthusiasm from all faith backgrounds.  The fact that the secular media has picked it up and covered our community is something only God could plan.  We just try to be as open as we can and always be ready to share our faith when called upon.  We have truly enjoyed these experiences engaging the media and so this music has been another opportunity for us to reach out to the culture.

The Lord seems to be seeking hearts to console Him amidst the continuing decline in virtue within our nation. There is most certainly a new generation of Catholics steadily growing in our country, who are true seekers of truth, goodness and beauty. 

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