By Becky Aubut
HYANNIS, Mass. — Choir students at St. John Paul II High School in Hyannis got an early Christmas gift when they were told that the choir would be singing at Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on February 26.
“We’ve been building the program steadily for several years, in quality and membership,” said Christopher Keavy, head of school at St. John Paul II. “There are 70 students in our concert choir and for a school of 275, that’s really quite a high number and a lot of participation.”
Annually the choir tours in the Cape Cod and New York area, “so there’s a tradition of going on the road,” said Keavy.
Past performances include singing for Rosary Hill Cancer Hospice in Hawthorne, N.Y., several Catholic schools and parishes, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral at the Solemn Pontifical Mass with Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Tours also include direct teaching from Broadway actors, directors and choreographers.
“It’s a spring event we’ve been doing for five or six years,” said Keavy. “The Rome concept is an outpost of that tradition.”
A professionally-made CD was produced that showcased the quality of the music and “it gave us good physical evidence of what the choir is capable of, and [school chaplain] Father Ron Floyd, who studied as a seminarian in Rome, was able to share our work and give first-hand testimony,” said Richard Fish, director of Performing Arts at the high school.
Father Floyd has accompanied the choir on many of their performances, even going so far as the tell Fish he felt the high school choir group “was the best choir on Cape Cod,” said Fish.
Father Floyd shared his personal opinion and CD with some of his contacts in Rome, said Fish, one of whom is the director of the Julian Choir of St. Peter’s. The group is overwhelmed and excited with 61 students making the trip accompanied by 28 chaperones.
“I approach this with a great deal of humility,” said Fish. “I really believe this is through the grace of God. We have prayed from the beginning, and continue to pray. The graces just keep pouring in, and it’s quite lovely and beautiful.”
Eighteen-year-old Mikayla Barreiro, a senior at the school and president of the choir, has been hearing about the possibility of the group performing at the Vatican long before she put in her four years into the choir program.
“I was only in seventh grade when Mr. Fish came to JPII, but my brother was in the choir from the beginning,” said Barreiro. “I remember hearing him say from the very beginning that Mr. Fish wanted to bring kids to Rome, and it was something I desperately wanted to do. When Mr. Fish told us that he had a special announcement for us, I actually made a bet with some of my friends that it was Rome. Still, having a sense it was coming didn’t make it any less thrilling. I was basically ready to cry, and certainly yelled.”
Among the songs Fish said the choir will be performing include the choir’s signature piece, “Thanks be to Thee,” by Handel and “Ave Regina Caelorum,” a required piece for the Vatican. Barreiro can’t wait to sing her favorite, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” by John Rutter.
“We did it my sophomore year as well and I’ve always really loved it,” said Barreiro. “It’s just so beautiful, musically and poetically. I actually started crying during our dress rehearsal last week because it was just so beautiful, and so relevant to life.”
The choir’s vice president and fellow senior, 17-year-old Sean Farrington, was also ecstatic when he heard about the upcoming trip, especially since he has never traveled outside of this country.
“I have always wanted to travel, but never got the chance to until now,” said Farrington. “Honestly, I thought it wasn’t even serious. I figured it was just an idea, and could never really be pulled off. It wasn’t until I paid the $1,000 dollars, I felt like this was really happening now.”
And while he will be surrounded by the rich history of the Church, he is keeping his expectations low and relaxed.
“I am not looking forward to seeing anything in particular because I do not want to be let down,” said Farrington. “I am just going to follow other people around and go to what they want to see, and just enjoy the experience thoroughly. It doesn’t matter what I go to. No matter what, I’m going to be walking around with my jaw down to my waist in awe of the amazing place.”
Sixteen-year-old Joshua Haven Flynn, a junior in school, and bass section leader and librarian for the choir, said he vividly remembers the moment Fish told the group the news.
“It was one of the best things someone has ever told me,” said Flynn. “During the day, Mr. Fish had said that he had a surprise for us and it was a great one. When he told us, it was like everyone had just won the lottery. There were smiles and laughter, and I was amazed. It was an awesome moment to witness. When I entered high school, I never dreamed I would ever have an opportunity like this, an opportunity to leave the country and sing at the Vatican. It will be something I know I’ll always remember.”
For 16-year-old junior Hannah Laird the thought of traveling to Rome and be able to sing in front of the pope seemed like a far-fetched dream: “When I first found out we were going to be able to have the opportunity to go on the trip to Italy, I was ecstatic. I never thought I would ever be able to travel to Italy on a trip like this, let alone be able to sing at the Vatican. This is truly a chance of a lifetime, especially with us being such a small school. It is a blessing and a dream come true to be able to participate in such a great experience.”
One song Laird is excited about performing is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
“I must admit,” said Laird, “it was quite a challenging song to learn at first. However, now that we have all gotten the hang of it, the song is really beautiful. All of the different parts of the song were very confusing at first, but the hard work has really paid off. It is a beautiful song and the difficulty of it only serves to bring out its magic.”
Fish said the better the quality and difficulty of the song, the more the students love singing it. The choir is comprised of 70 voices and “getting 70 teen-agers to do anything together is a monumental feat,” said Fish, adding the students have had to learn a tremendous amount of Latin. “They haven’t complained. This year we’ve had to learn more Sacred music versus years where I would try to mix it up. There’s hasn’t been a complaint about it; they’re just so up for it.”
The group is leaving February 23 and returning March 3: “The purpose of that was to bring the students to Rome and the Vatican right before Lent,” said Fish, “and have them there for Ash Wednesday; to have this be not only a choir experience, but a faith-filled experience — in a sense, a choir pilgrimage.”
The group has tickets to a public audience with the pope, Mass at the altar of St. John Paul II, a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica and tickets to Mass on Ash Wednesday.
“I’m excited about it,” said Fish. “I’m told that what we got for Ash Wednesday is extraordinary.”
Fish’s wife is one of the chaperones, and along with the occasion to experience Rome for the first time, Fish sees visiting the Vatican as an opportunity for the students to enrich their faith.
“This opportunity seems very much to be blessed by God,” said Fish.
Along with performing at the Vatican, the students will also be singing at the United States Naval Base in Italy. The cost is $3,200 per student, and the students have been busy fund-raising.
“What a special memory this will be for them. I’m proud of the program and I’m delighted for them,” said Keavy. “It’s amazing. They’ve worked their way to this — they didn’t win the lottery — they worked their way to this.”
For those interested in donating, visit to the school’s website: www.sjp2hs.org/support/.