By Andrew Seeley
I hadn’t heard the St. Augustine Academy school choir for some time until recently, when I was blown away by this recording from their recent Dinner Auction. So I began an investigation into what has been going on musically there, which led me to the instigator of recent developments, Miss Laura Roberts. Laura, a long-time English teacher for St. Augustine Academy, was inspired by her participation in the Sacred Music Colloquium in 2008 to begin a sacred music choir at St. Augustine’s.
“When I returned to teaching, I began to notice what good voices some of my English Honors students had, and I thought we might be able to put together a nice choir for our weekly Masses. We started in Lent; the Headmaster liked it so much that we continued.” Emboldened by their success, Laura next proposed that they teach all the students to sing. She wanted a whole period dedicated to music training; she got 20 minutes three times a week, which has been enough to make a great change in the lives of the students, if not quite as much as she desired.
Previous attempts at starting a high school choir had failed because the boys did not want to participate. Laura’s suggestion that, following a local public high school’s model, they separate boys and girls in training has worked marvelously. Each of the four groups (elementary/high school, boys/girls) has a different faculty leader. “The kids are overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Even the boys can now be heard singing songs they have learned around campus.” When they brought the choirs together to practice for the Gala, “everything came together in a magical sense of harmony and well-being. We all realized, ‘We are making this beautiful music. Amazing!’ They all wanted to stay after practice just to sing more.”
The choirs have become a St. Augustine Academy outreach to the local community. “The boys choirs sang patriotic songs at the local Veterans’ home. They got to meet the vets and loved hearing their stories and their wisdom. The girls’ choirs are going to sing for a seniors’ home.”
Laura was moved by her own experience of the rich treasury of Church music she discovered through the Sacred Music Colloquium. “I wanted our students to feel what it is like to make beautiful music in harmony for God. Individually, choir members’ voices are often not great, but together they can be so beautiful. To feel that is magical, and especially when it is being offered to God.” Over the long term, Laura hopes that the students leave St. Augustine’s with the knowledge and desire to be strong congregational singers and perhaps join their parish choirs. Unlike other school choirs, which are performance-oriented, St. Augustine’s choirs are for worship. “We learn beautiful hymns, such as ‘Be Thou My Vision’ and ‘The King of Love My Shepherd Is’. We also work on polyphonic music like ‘Jesu, Rex Admirabilis’ and Vittoria’s ‘Ave Maria’. And we learn Gregorian chant, such as the Missa de Angelis.”
Laura received this musical direction from the Sacred Music Colloquium. “I was so moved by the experience. The music was sparkling; it brought tears to my eyes, and I was not the only one.” About 250 people from around the world participate in the week-long program. They are introduced to the variety and grandeur of Catholic music through different approaches to the celebration of the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. “The professors are volunteers; they do it for God, and it shows. Musica sacra offers so many materials for free, because they simply want to share this beautiful music with the Church.” Laura has definitely become an instrument through which this spirit is being spread to her students and, through them, to their future parishes.