Vol. XX, No.7
Childhood Memories of Learning Chant and Praying the Divine Office
by Father Samuel F. Weber
The Benedictine Sisters of Saint Mary Priory, Nauvoo, Illinois
I was born in Chicago in 1947. In 1953 I began grade school at St. Columba parish, the Irish parish on the far southeast side of the city. Our pastor, Father Thomas J. Kelly (ordained 1925), fostered Catholic education, especially in the context of liturgical formation. He brought eight Benedictine Sisters (Saint Mary Priory, Nauvoo, Illinois) to our parish to operate the new school he had just built. The daily life of our school was centered on the liturgy. I remember so well the first day of school. There were more than 50 little six year olds in the classroom built for 45. Somehow there was always room for everyone. The bell rang at 9:00 a.m. Sister Germain signaled that it was time to be quiet.
She told us there would be a special visitor. Our principal, Sister Jane, then entered the classroom from the door in the back of the room. She was carrying a box containing little red booklets. Starting at the front of the classroom, she went to each student personally and placed in our hands one of the red booklets. I remember how she looked us in the eye and smiled as she gave each a booklet. Once each student had a copy, she returned to the front.
As she held up one of the last remaining copies, she said to us, “This little book contains our prayers. We call these prayers the Divine Office. Every day we will begin our school time with prayer. We will pray again before we go home for lunch, and then once more at the end of the school day. Sister Germain and all the Sisters and I will help you with these prayers. And now, I want you to repeat after me, ‘Why did God make me?’”
And we all repeated the words of the question. She then explained, “This is a very important question. I will now tell you the answer, and you repeat after me, ‘God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.’” Phrase by phrase we dutifully repeated the words. It was like a little game, so we enjoyed it. Sister Jane then explained that Sister Germain would be teaching us how to read during first grade. Soon we would know how to read all the words in the little red books. And then she said goodbye, and disappeared out the back door. Her visit had lasted only a few minutes.
Some 40 years later I was assigned to give the retreat to the Benedictine Sisters at Saint Mary Priory. I was never so frightened in all my life. Imagine. Giving a retreat to the very Sisters who had known you since you were six years old, who knew everything you had said and done during those years!
The retreat went well enough. At one point during a break I was having a cup of tea with Sister Jane. I asked her if she remembered that day in 1953 when she had come into our first grade classroom. “Oh yes,” she said. “When I was principal, I made a point of going to every first grade classroom on the first day of school and handing out the little red books for the Divine Office. I always did this myself. I wanted this important moment to be personal and special, so that every student would remember it throughout life.
“Our goal was to model Catholic education after the plan of Charlemagne and Alcuin: The love of learning is to be combined with the desire for God. And in a Benedictine school, nothing must be preferred to the Work of God! The whole point of life is to be happy forever in heaven with God. As I placed the little red book in each hand I offered a prayer that that child and I and all of us would meet again in heaven, and that not one of these precious children would be lost!” From the look in her eyes I could tell that she was still making that prayer every day for each one of us, and all of us together.
She continued, “The greatest gift we can give to our students in a Benedictine school is the gift of prayer and the sacred liturgy. That was our goal at St. Columba. Our prioress at the time, Mother Ricarda Gallivan, OSB, put a special stress on the importance of teaching the children in our schools to pray, especially to pray with the Church. So our plan was that each day we would begin with Terce in each classroom. Before lunch, we would all go together to the church for Sext. And then before heading home at the end of the school day, in each classroom the school day would end with the chanting of None.”
We then reminisced about those days, and the little red books from Our Faith Press, Benet Lake, Wisconsin, and how they soon became dog eared and the pages started falling out. Sister Anne, who taught music, use to patiently tape the little books back together again to keep them in service. We were following the Benedictine Office, so the Psalms were the same Tuesday through Friday. After a short time we had it all memorized and didn’t much need the books. The Sisters and older children took care of the proper parts for seasons and feasts. The Hours were chanted in English, recto tono. The Sisters taught has how to observe the pause at the asterisk, and bow for the Glory be.
In addition, every day we studied Gregorian chant. This is how it worked: on Monday morning Sister Germain would write on the blackboard (at the very top) the new chant we would learn that week. She even used colored chalk for the initial at the beginning! Very artistic. First we repeated the Latin text after her. Underneath the Latin text, with a different colored chalk, she had written the English meaning. And she would explain that to us. Then we repeated the chant melody after her. Everything was done by imitation, as simply as possible. Explanations were kept to a minimum. We never did sol/fa or chironomy or anything like that. Just imitate Sister and let it slowly soak in. The practice sessions were short, but frequent. Frequent repetition was the key. Whenever we had a break, or would begin a new subject, we would start by singing the “chant of the week.” By Thursday morning we pretty much had it all memorized. On Friday afternoon around 2:15 p.m. we cleaned up our desks and the classroom. This included erasing the blackboard. So we said good-bye to the “chant of the week.” By this time we didn’t need to see it anymore. It had been planted in our hearts.
The Sisters had a progressive plan, starting in first grade and lasting eight years. We learned to chant the responses, then the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, etc. of the simple Masses, and then the more complex ones. We all learned the Requiem.
Seventh and eighth grade students took turns singing the funerals for the parish, always remembering the words of (now) Monsignor Kelly about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and the religious duty of all “to bury the dead.” In fifth grade we began to learn how to chant the Propers of the Mass, first recto tono from our Marian Missals, then in the Gregorian Psalm tones from Rossini’s Proper of the Mass, and on some occasions (a special treat) the full Propers from “the big book,” as we called the Liber Usualis.
That didn’t happen very often, however. Mostly we used very simple settings for the Propers. Nonetheless, the simple Psalm tones were very beautiful, religious, and inspiring. By the end of eight years, we were well educated indeed in the chant, its repertoire and spiritual meaning, and capable of singing the various Mass Ordinaries from memory, though we could always fall back on our Chants of the Church books from the Gregorian Institute of America in Toledo if our memories needed to be jogged. These books contained an inter-linear translation in red of all the texts, so we always understood what we were singing.
My Work Today: The Benedict XVI Institute , Archdiocese of San Francisco
As the Executive Director of the Benedict XVI Institute, Archdiocese of San Francisco, I have been given the opportunity to continue the work of promoting the sacred liturgy and Gregorian chant that the Benedictine Sisters of Saint Mary’s Priory, in Nauvoo, Illinois, began some 60 years ago in their parochial school ministry. The goals of the institute are to carry out the directives of the Second Vatican Council and papal documents regarding the role of Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony in the life of the Church.
To this end, I teach courses in Gregorian chant, liturgical Latin, and other pertinent topics in the institutions of the archdiocese, especially the seminary, religious houses, and parishes. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone also directed that a number of resources be prepared for the English liturgy.
The Hymnal for the Hours, containing all the Hymns for the Liturgy of the Hours in English with (insofar as possible with English words) their traditional chant melodies, and a comprehensive treatise on the history and meaning of hymns in the Liturgy of the Hours by His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke (now available on LuLu.com).
The Propers of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities for the new translation of the Roman Missal (Ignatius Press, spring 2015). This volume will contain all the chants for the Proper of the Mass. Entrance and Communion antiphons will follow the official text of the new Roman Missal. The Roman Missal does not contain Offertories. These I am translating from the Graduale Romanum. Four levels of settings will be provided: 1) complex through-composed; (2) simple through-composed; (3) simple settings using the traditional Gregorian psalm tones (this, when the accent patterns of the English text allow use of these tones); and (4) the antiphons set to very simple English psalm tone patterns. Organ accompaniment books in low, medium, and high keys are in preparation.
Available now from Ignatius Press is The Office of Compline. Cardinal Burke has written an inspiring introduction for this volume, explaining the meaning of the Office of Compline, and recommending its use, especially in parish and family life. I am responsible for all the chant settings for these books, and, where needed, I have provided translations, and prepared the design and typesetting of the books in Gregorian notation.
The Ignatius Pew Missal for 2015 is now out and being used in many parishes. This handsome volume printed in two colors provides Entrance and Communion antiphons in simple Gregorian or English psalm tone settings, a generous selection of English hymns (original wordings), and an English chorale Mass setting by Healy Willan. Sunday and weekday readings and a selection of devotions (e.g., Stations of the Cross, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament, etc.) are included. Organ accompaniment and cantor book is also available.
Fr. Samuel F. Weber, O.S.B. is Executive Director of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, Archdiocese of San Francisco. Recent publications for the sacred liturgy include the Hymnal for the Hours (available on LuLu.com) and the Ignatius Pew Missal 2015 distributed by Lighthouse Publications. The Propers of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities will be available from Ignatius Press in 2015.