Voices in the Desert

February 7, 2018

Much like the Church itself rising like an oasis out of the desert of this life, Mater Misericordiæ Parish stands as an outpost of Heaven in the midst of the sandy landscapes of Phoenix, Arizona. And if some of the most vibrant and colorful flowers grow in the desert, certainly the music of Mater Misericordiæ is a veritable garden, the parish’s talented choirs offering sung praise that is a fit offering for the King Who chose to dwell in the desert while on earth. We had the privilege of talking with organist and choir director Mr. Patrick Williams, who told us more about the programs in place at the parish and his own extensive musical background, and shared his advice for parishes starting their own choirs.

How long has the choir program been active and running in Phoenix?

There was a mixed choir (men’s and women’s voices) in the past, but it was disbanded in favor of having only Gregorian chant. The men’s schola has been chanting ever since High Masses started being offered by FSSP priests in Phoenix in 2005.

What kind of attendance do you have in each choir?

At present, we have twelve in the mixed choir. They practice an hour and a half each week and usually sing two or three Sundays per month plus holy days. The schola has seven men. I count myself too because I do sing along with them as a rule. Since there are so many chants to work on for anywhere from five to ten Masses per month, we rehearse up to two and a half hours a week, not including the warm-up immediately before each Mass. We have only one man who sings in both choirs. I don’t know what I’d do without him!

The children’s choir has eleven members ranging in age from 7 to 15. They sing once or twice a month. The combined choirs sing for the High Mass at least once every couple of months. That’s always something I look forward to, and it’s often when we receive the most compliments from the congregation.

How long have you been in the role of director, and what is your background?

I began at Mater in March of 2016. My last position was at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in Shreveport, Louisiana. After that, I went to Chicago to discern a vocation with the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius. I left on good terms and then went back to school for three semesters – one of them in Germany, which was a wonderful opportunity I never had in my earlier student days!

I have sung in choirs my whole life. Perhaps the most valuable musical training I had was singing in a boys’ choir in fourth and fifth grade. I learned rehearsal techniques then that I regularly use with my choirs today. As a member of the concert choir at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I had the opportunity to perform in Carnegie Hall and Notre-Dame (Paris), and to participate in two international competitions under a director who later won first prize in another international competition. I still enjoy singing under someone else’s direction and have recently joined the Phoenix Symphony Chorus. It’s also a good way to find extra singers for the church occasionally when some of my regulars are away!

Sometimes Latin Mass parishes/communities have difficulty getting music programs started, often due to lack of singers, or maybe lack of a choir/schola director. What is your advice for those who are trying to get something started? Is there a way to “start small,” then go from there?

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing most Latin Mass music programs is that many people live so far away from the church. At one time when I was a full-time student and not playing the organ anywhere, I was singing in a choir that rehearsed an hour before Mass and then, after Mass and a light lunch, another hour or so to prepare for the following Sunday. Cramming everything into one day is taxing on the voice and hardly makes Sunday a day of rest, but it was the best solution for that parish because we had people coming from 70 miles away. Even though our church is centrally located in downtown Phoenix, few parishioners live or work nearby. We try to schedule things to avoid rush hour traffic, which can get pretty bad in all directions in the evening.

As I mentioned already, the choirs don’t sing every week, only the men’s schola. When I was at St. John Cantius, even though the music program wasn’t in full swing during the summer, I found it interesting that they have multiple choirs that only sing once or twice a month. I’ve tried to implement that model here, albeit on a much more modest scale. Here on Sundays we have a 7:00 Low Mass without music, a 9:00 Low Mass with congregational hymns and organ music, and the High Mass at 11:00. It seems to work well.

Bulletin announcements were run several weeks in a row advertising the new choir and giving the date and time for the placement audition. Although we started working on a full polyphonic Mass almost immediately, I didn’t plan for the choir to sing it until months later. It all came together and they were ready much sooner than expected. I had aimed for a Gregorian chant Mass and one motet every other week, but they surprised me!

We have a large parish by FSSP standards, so I realize that other apostolates may not have the same resources in terms of singers, but there are a ton of free chant and choral resources available online now that one had to pay dearly for even a decade ago. It might not always seem like it, but we live in a great time to be a Catholic musician. We have access to so much wonderful music, the scholarship to understand how to perform it in an authentic manner, and the traditional liturgy to teach us how to do it prayerfully and with devotion.