It’s possible the worshippers making their way to a chapel inside St. Bede Catholic Church on Monday night thought they were hearing the voices of angels. The notes of “Oh Shenandoah” wrapped around the domed cathedral as four rows of teenagers blended their voices into a nearly seamless harmony. Nearly.
After 17 years of directing the Walsingham Madrigals, Teresa Yoder’s fine-tuned ear can pick a flat note out of the pack. “Let’s try it a capella again,” she tells her students and they start again, from the top.
The Madrigals are working harder than ever as they prepare for possibly the most important concert of their young lives. Twenty-one of Walsingham’s singers will perform five concerts in Italy this winter, including a performance for Pope Benedict XVI.
Through her connections with Pueri Cantores, the national student choral organization of the Catholic Church, Yoder was invited to bring the Madrigals to Italy to perform the Papal Liturgy. When she received the invitation in the summer of 2009, she thought the trip might be too cost-prohibitive at a rate of $4,000 per traveler. But her excitement at the prospect was infectious, and the Walsingham community decided the offer was too good to pass up. The Madrigals received a donation, which Yoder used to buy choir robes. The group didn’t own any, and would have been the only choir to perform without robes.
With more than a year to save, parents and students started setting money aside for the trip. When Yoder thinks about it, she says it shows the significance of the invitation. “People are making sacrifices for their children,” she says. “It’s a lot, but for us, because we are Catholic, it’s the opportunity to be in the same space with the Pope.”
Yoder was able to attend a service during a visit to Rome, and when the Pope turned in her direction to give a blessing, she says she felt as though he was looking directly at her. “I remember thinking I never expected I would feel like this,” she says.
The students, looking forward to the trip, say they expect it to be “cool,” “exciting” and “amazing.” Senior Matt Kincaid says his parents are calling it “the trip of a lifetime.” The Madrigals are looking forward to celebrating one member’s 16th birthday, getting lost in Charles de Gaulle Airport and of course, seeing the Vatican. In the meantime, they’re protecting their voices with cough drops and “plenty of Airborne.”
They’re practicing more than ever, adding Monday nights to their regular schedule of early mornings on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. St. Bede is allowing them to rehearse at night in their cathedral, where they’ll perform a concert for the community at 7 p.m. on Dec. 9.
While in Italy, the Madrigals will perform five concerts. On Dec. 31, they’ll attend the Papal Vespers, where they will perform with three other American choirs, accompanied by the Swiss Guard Band. On Jan. 1, they’ll perform at the World Day of Peace Liturgy for the Pope, and that evening, they’ll perform at the Church of St. Ignatius. On Jan. 2 and 3, they will perform for a private liturgy at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.
When Yoder looks at the lineup of choirs, which includes the renowned St. Louis Children’s Choir, she is stunned to be included. “We’re just a small school from Williamsburg,” she says. “Who would have ever thought we’d be doing the Papal Liturgy in Rome?”