Thursday, March 02, 2006

A hidden treasure: the St. Ann Choir, Palo Alto

Since I often complain here about things that are wrong in the Catholic Church, I'm going to take a break from that and mention a wonderful thing that has been going on here in Palo Alto for many years: the St. Ann Choir.

Every Sunday and on all the major feast days since 1963, the St. Ann Choir -- about a dozen dedicated men and women, with personnel changing over the years -- has provided Gregorian chant and one or two Renaissance motets for a Mass in our town. For many years, that Mass was celebrated at St. Ann's Chapel, a modern but rather attractive church built by Clare Booth Luce for Stanford University students in the 1950s. When St. Ann's closed a few years ago (it was ultimately sold to the Anglican Province of Christ the King -- more about that another time), that Choir moved to St. Thomas Aquinas, a gorgeous 1902 wooden Gothic revival church near downtown.

The Choir probably wouldn't exist without the tireless work of William Mahrt, a professor in the music department at Stanford. He's there almost every Sunday to sing and conduct, and to play the recessional on the little pipe organ in the choir loft -- usually something by Bach, Buxtehude, or one of the other baroque masters.

Not only do we get the Introit, Gradual, and other parts of the Proper sung in Latin, there's a little Mass booklet for the congregation, customized for each week, with the neume notation of the Gloria, Credo, and Agnus Dei, which we're encouraged to join in on. Scripture readings and much of the rest of the Mass are chanted in English.

At the Offertory and Communion, the Choir sings motets from the Renaissance or late Middle Ages -- Dufay, Byrd, Palestrina, di Lasso, and so on. There's another little booklet with the words to their entire repertoire, in Latin and English, so we understand what's being sung.

What a treasure!

It's safe to say that if the St. Ann Choir hadn't been there when I decided to return to the Church, I would have had a much harder time getting as far as I have. Everywhere else in this very politically and religiously liberal area, I would have encountered Masses stripped of all beauty, all good music, not to mention all Latin. I guess I've gotten to share in quite an unusual blessing!