Benedictines Of Mary, Queen Of Apostles . . . Mother Cecilia Describes What Is Deeper In Their Music
By PEGGY MOEN
(Editor’s Note: In the third week of February, Lent at Ephesus from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles debuted at No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Classical Overall Music Chart and Classical Traditional Music Chart. The album also earned the No. 49 spot on Billboard’s Top 200 Chart, the No. 2 spot on the Contemporary Christian Chart, and the No. 3 spot on the Christian Gospel and Internet charts.
(“We are amazed and humbled by the undeniable role of divine Providence in the success story behind the ethereal music from the monastic Benedictines of Mary,” said Monica Fitzgibbons, co-founder of De Montfort Music [www.demontfortmusic.com], which produces the albums.
(The Benedictines of Mary have two earlier albums: Advent at Ephesus and Angels and Saints at Ephesus, which were also chart toppers.
(The Wanderer interviewed Mother Cecilia of the Benedictines of Mary about their music, their vocations to the religious life, and their daily routines. The interview was conducted via e-mail. Following is the text of the interview.)
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Q. Tell us how your recording for De Montfort music first came about.
A. We began a novena to St. Therese after two Sisters read (unbeknownst to each other) that she came to the aid of other communities who were in need of financial help. It was during that time that we heard from Monica and Kevin Fitzgibbons from De Montfort Music. They had been given one of our self-produced CDs that we made for our donors, which sat in a pile for quite a long time. Their five-year-old pulled it out one day and asked to listen to it.
They liked what they heard so much, that they decided to approach us to ask if we would like to collaborate with them in order to bring this music to a wider audience. They had a great desire to bring the beauty of sacred music to our secular culture, and we were delighted to assist in making that happen, on the condition that our life of prayer and sacrifice would not be disturbed.
They have done an excellent job in carrying this stipulation out. It has been a collaboration that could only have been designed in Heaven!
Q. Did you have any doubts about making your music more widely available?
A. The only hesitation I had is precisely what I mentioned above, that is, if the music became a success, it might adversely affect our monastic life. But the guards were in place right from the start to keep that tightly in check, and life flows on here at the Priory just as it did before, with the happy addition that we are able to pay down our debt more quickly!
Q. What has been the most rewarding reaction you have received to your recordings?
A. We give the greatest thanks to God when we hear that a Catholic is inspired to return to the sacraments upon hearing our music. There is nothing greater that could come from this endeavor, except perhaps a non-Catholic being drawn into the Church!
In addition, many people have shared with us how much peace the music brings to them. It has often been a means of great comfort when a loved one is dying, or else a general sense of tranquility and aid to lifting ones thoughts and spirits to God.
Q. You have a following among classical music devotees as well as among people who love religious music. When you get reactions to your recording from the classical music fans, what do they typically say?
A. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could discriminate between comments from those who are drawn because of the religious aspect and those who are taken by the simple element of the classical genre. I think there is perhaps a sense of wonder that a recording done by amateurs could attract such a wide variety of music lovers. It seems that even the classical music aficionados can hear that there is something deeper in the music that makes it different. And that is our conviction, our unity, and the love for God that is foundational in all that we are singing.
Q. Have any vocations to your order been inspired in part by your music?
A. There have been additional inquiries since the release of our recordings, but we do have to filter out those who simply like to sing, and those who have a genuine vocation to seek a life of union with God, which entails a great deal more than making a recording!
Q. Your monastery is young — an average age of 29 among the 22 nuns, according to a recent report on Yahoo. What has drawn these young women to your monastery, and when was it founded?
A. Our monastery was founded in 1995 in the Diocese of Scranton, Pa. I think I speak for most of the Sisters here by relating my own desires when searching for a community about 11 years ago. As I will mention later, I had at that time discovered the ancient form of the Roman Rite, the Tridentine Mass, and knew that this liturgy must be an integral part of my religious life.
That, coupled with the chanting of the Divine Office in Latin, the faithful adherence to the Rule of St. Benedict, the wearing of the traditional habit, a strict horarium and the charity and the joy manifested by the Sisters were all primary factors in drawing me to this particular community, as I know they have been for the others in the community.
We had over 50 young ladies visit us last year to discern! There is such a hunger out there for authentic religious life, and God has not stopped calling souls.
Q. What inspired the monastery’s move to northwest Missouri?
A. There were various factors that brought us to this little plot of ground a few years ago, beginning with [Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.] Bishop [Robert] Finn’s invitation in 2006 to come to this diocese. We lived in a convent that had not been used for several years next door to a high school, and it was not long before a couple from the city of St. Joseph offered to donate to us a large parcel of farmland, an offer we couldn’t refuse! We borrowed money to build on the property in order to live the more agricultural monastic life that we desired.
Q. What is a typical day like for your Benedictine nuns?
A. We rise every morning at 4:30 to begin chanting the first of our eight designated periods for the Divine Office, which serve as stepping stones throughout the day, and taking up between three to four hours. The rest of the time is filled in with Mass, mental prayer, rosary, meals, recreation, and manual labor, which includes such work as sewing vestments, farming, gardening, cooking, and office work.
We keep silence throughout the day, except for recreation of course, and only necessary questions or instructions during work time. This pattern varies little from day to day, with slight adjustments for Sundays and feasts.
Q. Do all the nuns participate in the singing and the recording of the music?
A. Our dear Sr. Wilhelmina does not participate in the recordings, but after over 70 years of fidelity to the religious life, she has earned a seat on the side to cheer the rest of us on! There is also a Sister delegated to take care of her during the time of the recordings — we term her Sr. Wilhelmina’s “angel.”
Q. Mother Cecilia, can you tell our readers something about how you realized your own vocation to religious life?
A. I understood at a very young age that God was asking something very special of me, something that would involve the complete and unreserved gift of my entire being. I cannot explain exactly how I knew, though it originated from nothing external, only a deep awareness within my own heart. It was always there with me throughout my teenage years, though in a dormant state.
I can directly point to two things that served to awaken this latent call in my soul, though there were many other lesser factors as well. The first was my introduction to early sacred music (at a secular university)! The music of Palestrina, Allegri, Victoria, and other Renaissance composers had a profound and captivating effect on me. The transcendental beauty of the harmonies reaffirmed in my soul that there was more to this life than can be seen with the eyes.
I began to search for a church that made use of this kind of music within the context of the sacred liturgy. That was not to happen until I attended my first Tridentine Mass in 2000. Without hesitation, I can say it was precisely on that day in December that my life changed entirely. I wept for nearly an hour as I witnessed for the first time the beauty of this Mass. I was swept away by the angelic sounds of chant and polyphony, the incense, bells, and ultimately the overriding sense of mystery and sacredness wrought by a profound reverence.
Without knowing Latin, I understood better than I ever had in my previous 22 years, that the Mass was truly the unbloody re-presentation of Calvary. I left the church resolved to learn more not only about this ancient and perennial Mass, but to learn more about my Catholic faith as well.
The continuing and steady encounters with this new-found beauty fed my soul, and awakened the call that had been hidden in my heart for so long. While in the midst of my professional career in an orchestra, I finally and unreservedly followed after this most patient Lord.
Q. How do you relate the release of your recordings to Pope Francis’ call for a year devoted to consecrated life in 2015?
A. It seems that perhaps these recordings are most Providential for the upcoming year for consecrated life, as they are a means of showing to many people who may not otherwise have realized, that young and thriving religious communities do still indeed exist within the Church!
Q. Describe your most recent release, the collection of lenten hymns.
A. It is a compilation of the most beautiful chants the Church reserves for the Passion of the Lord, intricate yet simple harmonies and rousing hymns of glory and redemption such as those from Palm Sunday. O Sacred Head Surrounded, made famous by Bach’s oratorios, All Glory Laud and Honor, the well-known Adoramus Te Christe, and the entrancing Improperia from the liturgy of Good Friday, and three original pieces are also featured among the 23 tracks.
Q. As Lent is approaching and your latest release is about Lent, what do you think people need to focus on most for worthy lenten devotions?
A. Traditionally, we are exhorted not only to corporal penance, but to the “tripod” of prayer, penance, and good works. There must always intensified penance, but it is most important to keep a spirit of joyful charity, as joy is the mark of acceptance of God’s will in every circumstance in a soul that truly loves Him. It is what the Lord Himself tells us in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, “not to fast as the hypocrites do,” but out of love.