To say that many members of the adult choir at St. Mary Parish in Auburn have been singing together for a few years would be a bit of an understatement.
"One of the guys joined the choir the year I was born, and I’m 60. I’m one of the younger members," said Barbara Murphy, who joined the choir in 1973.
The 20 or so choir members have a combined total of almost 600 years in the choir, and the members joke that they’ll keep singing until they can no longer climb the stairs to the choir loft, Murphy said.
"It’s a formidable set of stairs," she remarked.
The choir is more than just another activity or commitment for its members, who look out for each other and often gather socially outside of practice, Murphy added.
"We’re family to each other," she said.
That’s not to say the musical family at St. Mary doesn’t welcome new members, however. Last fall the choir’s director, David Correll, retired after more than 30 years at its helm, and Colleen Liggett took over the reins. Since her arrival she not only has directed the parish’s adult and children’s choirs, but she also has formed a youth choir for teens and a chant choir, called Schola Gregoriana.
"The whole community has been enormously welcoming. It’s just so delightful to be at St. Mary’s," Liggett told the Catholic Courier.
Some might be intimidated by the prospect of leading four very different choirs comprised of people of all ages and skill levels, but Liggett takes it all in stride.
"It’s fun. It keeps life interesting," she said.
Liggett said she tries to stay in the moment and focus on each choir’s needs and abilities. When she’s working with her youngest singers in the children’s choir, called Choristers, she tries to help the children become more involved in their church while learning about music.
"I think it’s important to not only just teach them music, but also to teach them music skills. We have games that we play that teach them music skills. There are alternative ways of singing the scales that make it a lot more fun," she said.
If the opportunities are available for them, there are usually many children willing to sing with choirs, said Liggett, who previously was the choir director at St. Anne Parish in Rochester. Choristers is open to children in third through sixth grades, and in January Liggett opened it up to second-graders as well.
In early February she also invited young people in sixth, seventh and eighth grade and high school to join a new youth choir.
"I have great plans for the youth choir," Liggett said. "There are some very talented singers who are in that age group. I’m planning on really giving them some good, challenging music."
Schola Gregoriana is the only one of Liggett’s four choirs that doesn’t regularly sing for Mass at St. Mary. When Liggett arrived at the parish in the fall the pastor, Father Frank Lioi, told her some parishioners had expressed an interest in Gregorian chant, which is one of Liggett’s specialties. She studied Gregorian chant at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey and in 1999 founded Schola Feminarum, a women’s chant choir that is currently on hiatus. Liggett was pleased to be able to start another chant choir in Auburn.
"My goal is to offer the opportunity for people to sing chant. It’s open to Catholics and non-Catholics, anybody who wants to sing Gregorian chant," she said.
The name "Schola Gregoriana" is Latin and means Gregorian chant ensemble, Liggett noted.
"It sounds like a fancy name, but it’s really simple," she said.
Several members of Schola Gregoriana joined the ensemble because they enjoy the Latin language, while others joined because of the spiritual nature of Gregorian chant.
"Other people come because it’s their Catholic heritage, and some people come because it’s not a big commitment. It’s not required that you come every week. Come when you can when it fits your schedule," Liggett said.
In fact, singers are always welcome to join any of the four choirs, Liggett said. At least half a dozen people have joined the adult choir in the past few years, Murphy added. The choir regularly sings at Mass, but it also does much more, she said.
"We’ve sung for weddings, funerals. We’ve sung downtown at the mall for Christmas, and we’ve sung on the steps of City Hall after the Thanksgiving Day Parade," Murphy said.
The choir also has recorded two CDs of classical favorites and Christmas songs and even sang backup vocals on an album produced by Auburn-based heavy-metal band Manowar, Murphy said.
"We do a lot outside Mass," she said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information about Choristers, Schola Gregoriana, or the youth and adult choirs at St. Mary Parish, call the parish at 315-252-9545.