Church choir voices blessed with opportunity of a lifetime

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The chance to attend a papal Mass and sing in front of the pope inspired the 21 members of the Holy Name Catholic Church in Steamboat Springs to spend nearly a year planning, practicing and fundraising in order to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Most of our group had not been to Italy, or to Rome,” said Wendy Dillon, the Holy Name Catholic Church’s  director of music and choir director. “I don’t think any of us had ever been to a Mass with the pope, including Father Ernest (Bayer). This was our first time to be able to sing at St. Peter’s Basilica for a papal Mass — it was kind of a big thing.”

Dillon and the other 20 singers were joined by family members and other friends of the church for the journey to Italy.

“The idea was that this trip was a pilgrimage,” Dillon said. “We saw a lot of churches, and we saw the rise of Christianity going from the Colosseum, where Christians and a lot of other people were persecuted, up through St. Peter’s Basilica, where it is believed that Peter himself is actually buried.”

The choir sang as the group traveled.

“As we went along we had Mass every day. We stopped along the way at the Duomo in Florence, and we sang at a small chapel in Assisi,” Dillon said. “We kind of just sang along the way as we went.”

The group left Denver and spent six days and seven nights exploring locations in Italy, taking in world famous attractions like the Sistine Chapel, where the group  admired the ceiling created by Michelangelo. They also got to see David at the Accademia in Florence, and visited the Vatican Museums, where they were treated to a private tour and some of 70,000 works of art that can be found there.

“We were blessed to have a private tour of the Vatican Museums, where our group of 58 pilgrims were all alone in the Sistine Chapel,” Dillon said. “Normally visitors are kind of like cows, being herded through the Sistine Chapel with crowds of other people.”

Singer Jean Clougherty decided that this was a trip she wanted to make as soon as she heard about it early last winter. 

“I’m kind of the oddball member of the choir,” Clougherty said. “I’m not a Catholic, I’m not even a Christian. I had on a couple prior occasions sang with the Catholic church choir and so when I heard about this trip I thought, man, that’s an incredible opportunity.”

In fact, she saw it as an honor.

“Pope Francis is one of these people who has, because of who he is and what his priorities are, been in a position to kind of change the world for the better, and he can have a lot of impact,” Clougherty said. “Wow, singing for Pope Francis is a huge honor and I definitely wanted to be a part of that.”

Dillon said the choir, which was a multi-generational group, included Sarah Heckel, Susan Heckel, Soria Rabanal, Julie Rabbitt, Susie Bird, Holly MacKinnon, Kathleen Walsh, Giulia Costantini, Naoko Costantini, Maura Schmitz, Margot Schmitz, Greta Schmitz, Adelaide Schmitz, Ann Pawlak, Rozanne Steinhoff, Michelle Ruscito, Erin Kissane, Christina Hathaway, Joy Rasmussen and Jean Clougherty.

“We have whole families, moms and daughters, singing together. Our oldest choir member is in her 60s and our youngest choir member is in fifth grade — it’s a pretty cool situation,” Dillon said. “It was a great bonding experience for us, and pulling together to do something like this was a growth experience for the choir. To spend all this time together traveling and singing and to be in these old churches was a wonderful experience.”

Father Ernest Bayer accompanied the group as spiritual leader, and concelebrated the Mass with the pope. The chance to sing for the pope came about because of a friendship between Bayer, the pastor at Holy Name Catholic Church, and Johan Van Parys, who went to college together. Dr. Van Parys is the director of liturgy at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, and because of his connections to the Vatican was able to arrange an invitation for the Holy Name Church choir to sing during the Mass. The group from Steamboat joined other choirs from around the world and the Sistine Chapel choir.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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