Last March, the Notre Dame Celebration Choir visited the Westville Correctional Facility, an Indiana prison with thousands of inmates.
Sophomore and choir vice president Anna O’Connell said the experience was profound.
“To see the prisoners come in, it was a really cool thing because people in prison are definitely marginalized and forgotten about a lot,” she said. “… There’s not much excitement in their life, but we were able to bring some joy and some happiness. Obviously it’s hard to tell when you’re singing to people, whether it’s impacting them. But there was one guy in the front row. He was standing up and swaying.”
Service and community outreach are central features of the Celebration Choir, which was created in 1997 to accommodate campus visitors who could not fit in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for Mass on football Saturdays. Director Karen Schneider-Kirner said the choir regularly sings at correctional facilities, including Westville and the Juvenile Justice Center.
“I had some poignant letters from afterwards of the prisoners saying how much it meant to them that people were willing to do some outreach,” Schneider-Kirner said. “[The prison is] largely a forgotten place where most people aren’t going to go.
“When we went, we tried to have some interaction where we can talk with people, to show human compassion. We’re really trying to live out all of what [Pope] Francis has exemplified in his Evangelii Gaudium document, of bringing the joy of the Gospel to those who most need to hear it.”
Schneider-Kirner said the choir, in addition to singing at football Masses and prisons, also visits local parishes and dorms, goes on an annual tour with the Handbell Choir and performs at special events and concerts, often with other Basilica choirs. She said the choir has a diverse repertoire, ranging from traditional hymns to 20th-century compositions, with a variety of accompanying instruments.
“Catholic means ‘universal,’ so [we want to] be indicative of the whole universal church and sing in different languages and in different styles from different eras of music composition,” she said. “We enjoy doing gospel music as well as classical music. I’m also a published composer, so often I’m using the choir as a training ground for trying out new compositions.”
Schneider-Kirner said the choir welcomes students without much experience in order to help them develop their musical skills.
“We tend to be open to all,” she said. “We don’t put up any barriers. We want to meet students exactly where they’re at with their music skills.
“I realize, for instance, that a lot of — primarily — men may be used to, in high school, being pushed towards sports, but then they get to be college aged and realize they might want to develop those gifts, but then they haven’t really sung in a choir, haven’t played an instrument. I do some vocal coaching on the side just to help students with their skills.”
Senior Celebration Choir president Kenny Kraynik said the choir’s accommodation of beginner-level singers as well as the service component encouraged him to join.
“I wasn’t much of a singer before college, and I knew the Celebration Choir really welcomed new singers with not that much background, so that’s what I was originally looking for,” he said. “Then when I started to sign up, I started hearing about all the service opportunities they do – prison visits, visits to parishes that could use the help – it just seemed like a really good fit for me.”
Schneider-Kirner said the choir also acts as a “training ground” for students interested in getting involved as liturgical musicians, by incorporating lessons on planning liturgies, recruiting musicians and including Catholic Church thought on liturgical music into choir rehearsals.
“We’ve had a great number of students over the years who [may not] have gone on to careers in sacred music, but they still use their talents and skills,” she said. “Even though they may be lawyers or other things, they’re still actively engaged in music ministry. I think that’s a really valuable thing to be able to offer the Church.”
Sophomore Morgan Widhalm, the choir’s accompanist, said she was a member of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, when Schneider-Kirner, who is also the assistant director of the Folk Choir, invited her to audition as a pianist for the Celebration Choir.
“Playing in a different capacity, being the accompanist, it’s brought me a lot of blessings,” Widhalm said. “I’ve gotten to develop my skill a lot. I’ve never accompanied a choir like this before.
“I’ve done pieces with my choir in high school where I would do a piece, but it was more classical and I would just have to go with the sore. But here I’ve had to develop improvisation skills and other general accompanist skills that I would not have gotten without this position.”
This fall, the location of alternate football Masses changed from Stepan Center to Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC).
Widhalm said the location change adds to her experience as a liturgical musician.
“It’s such a wonderful space,” she said. “I actually wasn’t part of the choir last year when they played in Stepan after football games, but I know from what everyone else in the choir has said [that] it’s been an immense improvement.
“For me, just the experience in DPAC alone has been amazing. Playing on an amazing Steinway piano, seeing that beautiful hall fill up with people, it’s a really wonderful experience, and I think it’s something that not a lot of people get.”
In the upcoming semesters, the choir will go on tour, perform with various campus musical groups in an interfaith prayer concert and sing with other Basilica choirs in a Beethoven showcase. O’Connell said the choir will also go on an annual retreat, one which fosters the sense of community that drew her to the choir.
“Choir gives me a foundation socially,” O’Connell said. “A lot of my really close friends are in choir, which is really cool. I hope that it provides that community for other people. That’s something I’m working on as vice president, to make it a community where people feel totally welcome.”
More info at: ND Celebration Choir