Taking it On the Road: The Cathedral Choir Tour of 2018

After two years of planning and preparation, the Cathedral Choir and some additional travelers will depart for Coventry Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.  Why in the world would anyone undertake such a project?

A choir tour is great fun for the singers.  It’s a chance to travel abroad, sing in wonderful places that you would not be able to sing on your own, and visit sights you would not see otherwise.  It builds camaraderie within the group.  It enhances the musicality of the choir.  It’s great for the choir.  But there are other aspects.  It’s a pilgrimage, a time for personal reflection and spiritual renewal.  Individuals are moved to depths they might never otherwise experience.  It also allows us to bring a bit of the US, Erie, the Episcopal Church and our Diocese to those who hear us sing.  We’re ambassadors, perhaps even evangelists! The majority of the music we will be singing is by American composers, including Harry T. Burleigh.  We’ll be bringing copies of our CD to distribute to share the story and music of Burleigh and his connection to our Cathedral and city.

Here are some quotes from individuals on our last two choir trips that illustrate the impact:

“It was the trip of a lifetime which we will always cherish.  It certainly left a mark on us spiritually and made us proud to be Episcopalians.”  “Much had been spoken in advance about the pilgrimage aspect of our trip but I was thinking of it only as a vacation.  However, our first night singing at Canterbury Cathedral it hit me during the anthem of what I was doing.  I knew that if I gave into those feelings I would not be able to finish the piece so in true “stiff upper lip” mode, I pressed on.  That was a moment I will remember for a long time.” 

On this trip, August 3-13, we have 24 singers, most of whom are regular members of the Cathedral Choir.  Our organist, Ethan LaPlaca, grew up in Erie, earned a degree in music education and organ from Duquesne and now teaches in Mt Lebanon.  He has been coming to Erie this past year to play for Evensongs as we prepared the repertoire for the trip.  In additional to the singers, we have family members and friends who will travel with us, bringing the total number of our group to 41.

We begin with a weekend in Coventry where we will sing for the morning Eucharist and Evensong.  Coventry is unique, having been bombed in WWII and later rebuilt, preserving the ruins.  Dean Witcombe writes on their website: “It is a wonderful and renewing place for anyone of any age to visit. The narrative of chaos and destruction being taken and offered back to God, issuing in resurrection and new life, is one that speaks into the reality of lives of many of our visitors. The Cathedral is a physical expression of hope, of love, and of celebration.” 

The majority of our time will be spent in Oxford, with the choir singing daily services at 6:00 pm from Tuesday through Sunday.  We also sing for Choral Matins and the Eucharist on Sunday morning.  And there will still be time for some touring each day before our daily choral services.

Dean Downey will be preaching at the morning Eucharist while we are in Coventry. He will also serve as the Officiant at Evensongs while in Oxford.  Deacons Dorothy Konyha and Richard Nygaard will be traveling with us, too.  Look for updates about our adventures while we are away. Please pray for safe travels and new encounters with God’s grace and glory.

Sharon Downey is Canon Musician for the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie. 

Hold On! Keep Your Hand On The Plow

The Cathedral Choir is about to introduce a new CD.  That sounds as if we do this often; we do not.  Our first and only other CD was recorded about 25 years ago.  This new one is a recording of African-American spirituals arranged by Harry T. Burleigh.  So why would the Cathedral Choir make a recording of African-American spirituals?  For us at the Cathedral of St Paul, it was quite simple: we wanted to bring the music and life story of this most remarkable man to the people of Erie, the diocese and beyond.  It is our way of “living history” and making it relevant in contemporary time.

Spirituals are a significant part of American choral literature.  The melodies are true American folk songs, passed on by oral tradition.  Burleigh’s arrangements transformed the simple melodies he learned from his grandfather on the streets of Erie into classic art songs and choral works using his distinctively American harmonic language.  Some are quite jazzy!  His music is especially important to us at the Cathedral of St Paul because of his connection to Erie and our church.  We have continued to learn more and more of his arrangements.  Some are fairly simple and some are quite difficult.  Following the celebration of the Cathedral’s Centennial  a few years ago, we were encouraged to make a recording of his music.  I was a bit hesitant to take on such a project.  Singing live is one thing; recording is quite another.   Live performances bring his music to life but in order to share it with a broader audience, we needed to record it.   And there was no better time or place to do it: we have an exceptional group of singers right now and we are in the very place where Burleigh first sang as a young boy and teenager.  He received the sacraments at St Paul’s and his musical foundation was formed in this building.  It just seemed right to move forward with the project.

We hired a local company and spent two days in March recording.  Over the next several months I worked with him on finding the best takes of the choir and soloists and came up with our final product.  Many hours were also spent finalizing the design and information to be included on the cover.  But we expect delivery of the final product this week!

That bring us to the release of the CD, Hold On! Keep Your Hand on the Plow.  On Sunday, November 5, at 4:00 PM, the Sunday following All Saints’ Day, we’ll commemorate the life of Harry T. Burleigh with a traditional Choral Evensong followed by the singing of some of his spirituals and an opportunity to purchase the CD.  There will be a festive reception, and more Burleigh spirituals, as well as an art display by one of our choir men, Jon Chisholm.  He has donated several of his works of art for silent auction the proceeds going to help with expenses of the choir’s trip to England next summer.

I am thankful for the encouragement and gifts from the Cathedral Chapter and members of the Cathedral of St Paul that made the production of this CD possible.   Special thanks to AJ Noyes for the cover design and to Jim Steadman for the cover photo.  And I am incredibly grateful for the Cathedral Choir, their countless hours of rehearsal and their devotion to bringing this music to life for all to enjoy.

Sharon Downey is Canon Musician for the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie. 

Cathedral of St. Paul Source of Inspiration

It’s hard to believe that it’s already over two weeks since the North American Cathedral Deans’ Conference came to Erie. Without question, all our guests had a wonderful time; and as well as taking part in discussions and conference sessions, they showed enormous interest in the local community which was showcased beautifully in so many ways throughout their four-day visit. Under Dean Downey’s leadership, planning for the conference began well over a year ago, before the dean and Canon Musician Sharon Downey left for the 2015 conference in Jerusalem. So by the time the 2016 conference began in Erie on April 7th, a team of volunteers from the Cathedral had long been hard at work to make sure it would be the most perfect event in every way. The Cathedral of Saint Paul was to shine brilliantly for all four days.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 1.18.57 PMAs a conference and event planner, I know from experience what it takes to bring a major event to that perfect-opening-moment on site. But this was so different. Sharon had kept me constantly informed of the steps she was taking along the way, I knew everything was in place, every detail had been addressed. But the first thing I realized upon arrival in Erie was that the dedicated staff and volunteers of the Cathedral had completely adopted the conference and surrounded it with such love and warmth, it had a life of its own. This was not just business as usual, this event would share a message with congregations throughout North America and beyond, and it would be a reminder of how much we accomplish whenever we come together as Christians. Those attending the conference were welcomed like friends and family, and they were so touched by the warmth and hospitality of our Cathedral. It was an amazing, emotional and uplifting time. It had the personal touch and feel of everyone involved, staff and volunteers, who had given so much time to the planning. It was such a professional, well-run event, but at the same time there was a relaxing atmosphere of such ease and comfort. People were laughing about the freezing cold weather (not in the plan) while thoroughly enjoying the warmth of the welcome inside.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 1.13.54 PMJohn and Sharon Downey play important roles in the international organization of the North American Cathedral Deans – which is why the conference came to Erie this year. As many of us got to chat with our visitors, it became very clear that both the dean and Sharon are wonderful representatives of our church and diocese on the national front. One of the visiting deans mentioned that they were looking forward to finally hearing Sharon Downey play in her own venue for a change. Well she didn’t just “play” she played so splendidly it just took everyone’s breath away! The choir was simply amazing and several members performed separately during a tribute to Harry T. Burleigh. The hours of rehearsal for all of them must have been endless! But the church, packed to the rafters both Thursday and Sunday, felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and there was such gratitude, love and happiness in that beautiful House of God. The choir and entire congregation raised the rafters even higher as they sang so loudly proclaiming the gloriousness of the resurrection and celebrating the very presence of the Holy Spirit among us.   Never was the Peace of God exchanged so vigorously as it was that Sunday morning! Through it all, the magnificent old organ resounded so brilliantly I’m sure it was heard downtown as well, carrying our message of hope forward as the conference concluded.

12994463_1153312074701453_7107254429042034600_nCathedrals are usually in city centers and downtown areas and by nature have more transient congregations. The Cathedral of Saint Paul is no different in this, but we are extremely blessed to have continually attracted such amazing talent, not just to the music program but in leadership, teaching and most importantly what every church needs: a strong family of those who come to volunteer and serve the community, to do the work we are asked to do. It’s what we continue to do so well in our downtown Cathedral under the dean’s leadership. I’ve often heard Dean Downey mention the diversity in our diocese. Each church (including the Cathedral) has times of weakness and strength, we might worship and evangelize in different ways, but our goals are the same and in our diocese there is a healthy tolerance for diversity. So it was particularly meaningful, and quite humbling, when Bishop Sean told the deans in his welcoming speech, that the congregations of the diocese look up to the Cathedral of Saint Paul. That was such a meaningful statement. Growing up in England, cathedrals were always “ours.” Whatever your religion or place of worship, the great Cathedrals were the standard bearers of the Church of England and they were ours! They are rich with culture, history and great music. I hope the wonderful people in the Diocese of NWPA, will continue to look to the Cathedral of Saint Paul as a source of inspiration as we all seek to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in our corner of the world.

Diane Mitra