Diocesan News

Singers Say Churches Are Hitting The High Note By Bringing Choirs Back

Director Ryan Dodge (seated at piano) and the St. Matthew’s Church choir wasted no time getting back into the spirit of things when churches fully reopened. (Photo: Paula Katinas)

CROWN HEIGHTS — At St. Matthew’s Church, the calypso beat is back! 

The reopening of churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn and the return to normalcy after COVID-19 means that choirs are back, too.

St. Matthew’s serves a large Caribbean community and its choir is once again singing to the beat of a steel drum at Sunday Mass. There is also a large African-American presence in the parish and many of the hymns the choir sings have a Gospel feel.

For soprano Joan Greenidge, it’s not a moment too soon. 

“It’s a pleasure to be getting back and singing again,” said Greenidge, a member of the choir for 10 years. “Since July we have returned, and it has felt so good. Praise God for life, that we were able to be alive and return to singing, to praise God.”

Rita St. Louis, an alto, agreed. “We’re enjoying every moment of being back together,” she said. St. Louis, too, has been singing in the choir for a decade.

When churches closed last year due to the pandemic, choirs were shut down. Many churches were able to livestream Masses. But there were no choirs present, only an instrumentalist — usually an organist — and a cantor. Churches reopened in June 2020, but they did not return to full capacity — without social distancing rules — until the May 22-23 weekend of this year.

Ryan Dodge, music director at St. Matthew’s, said choir members stayed in touch during the shutdown, asking him periodically when they could sing as a group again. 

“The type of people that are in your choir are usually the type of people who are involved in other ministries as well, or are just very passionate about the church to begin with. They were constantly asking me. ‘Ryan, do you think we’re going to sing soon?’ I had to keep telling them that we should pray and just see what happens and see what the diocese says,” he said.

As soon as they got the go-ahead, music directors got busy organizing rehearsals to make sure the long layoff didn’t adversely affect their choir members’ voices. 

When everyone was set, choirs returned to Mass.

The choir at St. Matthew’s is back — albeit with some safety precautions.

“We have the choir back in the choir area, especially for those members who have been vaccinated already. I don’t demand to see their card or anything but I just tell them that we have an overflow area that’s more socially distant where the non-vaccinated members can sing,” Dodge said.

Most Precious Blood Church, Astoria, is also once again filled with the sound of music, thanks to its many choirs. The church has Croatian and Filipino parishioners, Spanish-speaking churchgoers, and congregants who speak English. Each community has its own choir.

Music is an important part of the Mass, according to Father Sasa Ilijic, the parochial vicar, who is in charge of the music ministry.

“It is a way of bringing people closer to God. And it lets people in the choir use their special gifts in a way that serves God,” he said. “Music is ministry. It is not a performance. I always tell the choirs, ‘We are not here to perform. We are here to serve.’”

Joseph Murray, co-music director at St. Martin De Porres Parish, Bedford-Stuyvesant, said his choir members are excited to be back. 

“They couldn’t be happier. My co-director, Joan Delahunt, and I enjoy watching them be in their element. This is their calling to ministry. They’re really grateful, hardworking, and very, very positive about the whole experience,” he said. 

The parish comprises three churches — Our Lady of Victory, St. Peter Claver, and Holy Rosary — and serves a community for whom music is a vital part of the Mass.

“Our majority demographic is African American, Caribbean American, and African immigrant,” Murray said. “For black Catholics, music is essential. And it goes hand-in-hand with whatever is going on on the altar.”

Karen Caponiti, director of the music ministry at St. Athanasius Church, Bensonhurst, could have been speaking for many parishes across the diocese when she said: “It’s so nice to have everybody back. We did have a presence online, on Facebook. We had the livestream Masses, which we still have. But it was much better when everyone was allowed to come back. It’s no contest.”