The MOSAIC Canadian Vocal Ensemble and the St. Michael’s Choir School alumni choir pose in front of the Church of All Nations in Jerusalem during their Holy Land tour. Photo courtesy Fabricio Lomanto

Canadian choirs make history in the Holy Land

By 
  • April 20, 2019

When Vincent Cheng closed his eyes as he sang, the walls of the Church of All Nations faded away and he imagined Jesus on His knees praying fervently before the Father hours before His Passion.

On the site of Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, the MOSAIC Canadian Vocal Ensemble and the St. Michael’s Choir School (SMCS) alumni choir became the first choir in history to perform at Jerusalem’s Church of All Nations.

“The effect of it was to be in the actual site where the Passion started and for me, I chose to sing instead of conduct,” said Cheng, the conductor of the SMCS alumni choir. “To do something like that really connected all of us together and it’s something that I think we will never, ever forget.”

From March 12-24, the two choirs, led by Cheng and MOSAIC artistic director Gordon Mansell, travelled to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jordan and many other biblical sites across the Holy Land.

Twenty-three singers (plus 10 pilgrims who travelled with the group) performed concerts in many historic sites, including the Basilica of the Transfiguration, the Church of the Nativity and the ancient synagogue at Capernaum.

Cheng and Mansell knew that the historic performance at the Church of All Nations would be one of the great highlights of the trip. Mansell said it took months of convincing for the Franciscans, who are the Custodial Curia of the Holy Land, to give them permission for the concert.

“They are for the most part very protective,” Mansell explained. “It was only through determination and a few drafts of the liturgy, coupled with the St. Michael’s Choir School reputation and its affiliation with the Pontifical Institute in Rome.

“Also, there was a pre-existing relationship between our tour guide and the Franciscans that after several months of pushing, both from me and the guide, that we were finally given the green light.”

Once they did get the green light, Mansell and Cheng knew that the only appropriate music to perform at the site of Jesus’ agony is the Tenebrae service.

“(The Tenebrae service) is such a tradition for us choir school alumni,” said Mansell. “The music is so powerful and we’re all connected to this since very young and here we are many, many years later.”

During Holy Week, the St. Michael’s Choir School alumni choir tour the Archdiocese of Toronto to perform the Tenebrae service written by the school’s founder, Msgr. J. E. Ronan.

The Tenebrae service is a special ceremony that dates back to the ninth century. A series of psalms and readings of the Divine Office are chanted according to simple Gregorian melodies, typically during the Easter Triduum. The psalms and readings follow the path of Jesus’ Passion. Fifteen candles are extinguished one by one after each psalm and reading to symbolize the Church entering into darkness.

“Being the first choir to do that is secondary to actually doing it,” said Mansell. “It’s nice that we broke new ground and it’s nice that we had the honour and privilege to do that. But to actually sing this work took the primary joy of the performance.”

The group sang everywhere they went. They sang when they waded in the sacred waters of the Sea of Galilee. They sang inside the Holy Sepulchre where it is believed Jesus’ body was buried. They sang just outside the synagogue of Capernaum where Jesus preached and performed miracles.

“Overwhelming is an understatement,” said Cheng. “It gave us a whole new depth of what we’ve been hearing all these years. To be on site, it’s so hard to even describe.”

Cheng said all 33 pilgrims will never be the same from their trip, mentally and most especially, spiritually. He said he has found friends for life.

“We all went out for coffee and we stayed for a long time because nobody wanted to leave,” said Cheng. “That’s the level of connection that we had and we’ve formed these lifelong friendships that we’ll never forget.”

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