The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, are a young (founded in 1995) monastic order of sisters who sing together eight times a day as they chant the Divine Office in Latin. Late last year they found themselves collectively topping the Billboard Classical charts for more than a month with their Advent at Ephesus CD (which, in a bit of delicious irony, bumped the companion CD to the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey from the top spot). Released on May 7, a new CD, Angels and Saints at Ephesus, recorded in the acoustically sound environs of the sisters’ priory in Gower, Missouri, under the aegis of nine-time Grammy winning producer Christopher Alder (Advent at Ephesus was produced by Grammy and Oscar winning producer Glenn Rosenstein, who set up a mobile recording studio on the 260-acre property that is the sisters’ home and cut the album in three days’ time. Rosenstein, whose credits include artists ranging from Ziggy Marley to U2 to the New York Philharmonic, regards Angels and Saints as one of his Top 10 favorite recordings) and two-time Grammy-winning engineer Mark Donahue, is another otherworldly, meditative journey into the music that shapes the lives and spirituality of the Benedictines of Mary—“musically, it is our daily bread,” said Sister Scholastica Radel, Sub Prioress, Benedictines of Mary, in an exclusive interview via email with Deep Roots.
The new disc—the sisters’ fourth–features 17 selections sung in English and Latin, all associated with the feasts of holy saints and angels. It’s not all early music, however—this album includes a new original song, “A Rose Unpetalled,” by Mother Cecilia (it is credited collectively, to the Benedictines of Mary). At the early end of the spectrum are the haunting, beautiful fourth-century chant Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence and the 12th-century antiphon Ave Regina Caelorum, with its jubilant melody. From the Renaissance and Classical eras come the 16th-century Spanish motet Duo seraphim, by Tomás Ludovico da Vittoria, and the 18th-century hymn O Deus Ego Amo Te (“O God, I love you”). The opening track, O God of Loveliness, rooted in a Silesian folk song, was sung at the funeral for John F. Kennedy.
The Benedictines of Mary, Angels and Saints at Ephesus: about the album and the Benedictines’ life. Featuring Mother Cecilia, Prioress, and album producer Christopher Alder, a nine-time International Grammy Award winner.
Speaking to the Catholic publication Legatus earlier this month, Sister Scholastica said the album concept was a natural outgrowth of the daily worship at the Priory. “Gathering the hymns we have learned and loved, it seemed only natural to suggest the theme of the angels and saints, the heralds of God’s glory and grace for this album,” for this album,” she said. “Music is a vital part of our spirituality, and it has been a blessing to have it blossom and broaden in recent years.”
Reviews are almost irrelevant to the sisters’ larger purpose in recording CDs for commercial release (their De Montfort Music label is distributed by Decca)—“we only desire the salvation of souls, and that all be done for His greater glory and the honor of our Lady,” says Mother Cecilia—but they do serve the purpose of potentially generating album sales, the proceeds of which help defray the Benedictines’ debt. The sisters support themselves primarily by making priestly vestments. The mainstream media, which was so quick to embrace last year’s album, has been slow to recognize Angels and Saints at Ephesus, but it’s coming around. The reviews thus far are uniformly glowing, deservedly so for an album that is, as a writer identified only as Matthew at A Catholic Life observed in his review of April 18, “a dynamic yet pure fusion of their contemplative sound. The sisters call to mind the glory of the future vision of God in the company of all His angels and saints.”
Audio clip: ‘Oh God of Loveliness’ (poem composed by St. Alphonus Liguori +1787, Silesian Crusaders Hymn), from Angels and Saints at Ephesus
These are the yearnings of the ages, prayers and oblations that transcend language and even denominations in expressing civilization’s collective desire for, as Sr. Scholastica says, “God’s glory and grace.”
Angels and Saints is available at any of the links on the De Monfort Music website. A message on the Benedictines of Mary website appeals to visitors to purchase the CD directly from the website, nothing that “a significant amount of the proceeds will go directly to our community. The funds will assist us in alleviating our remaining debt, so that we can begin working on future projects on the monastery grounds. May God reward you!”
‘The chant shapes our life and our spirituality; musically, it is our daily bread’
The Deep Roots Interview with Sr. Scholastica Radel, Sub Prioress, Benedictines of Mary
By David McGee
The beauty and mystery of Angels and Saints at Ephesus by the Benedictines of Mary raised more questions than could be answered by scouring reviews and reading liner notes and website entries. From the information thus gleaned, one could make an educated guess about the album’s larger purpose, but what was missing was the perspective of one or some of the principals. Via the Benedictines’ website I sent a request to interview any one of the sisters intimately involved in the musical direction of the album. A prompt response arrived from Monica Fitzgibbons, GM/CEO of De Montfort Music, which released Angels and Saints at Ephesus with distribution by Decca Records. It was to be an email interview, not a phoner, and she requested I send a set of questions to her, and she would forward them to the appropriate sister. Sr. Scholastica Radel, Sub Prioress, returned her answers in a week’s time. Hardly verbose but enlightening nonetheless, her words reveal the discipline, dedication and commitment that inform every aspect of the sisters’ daily lives and heighten the meaning of the music they offer on this new disc. Plus, we should add, her answers often reveal a sly sense of humor; and though they live cloistered lives the sisters are not without some marketing savvy: asked about the possibility of recording an entire album of original songs in the future. Sr. Scholastic offered a coy, “We cannot lay all our cards on the table at once, but will certainly include more on future albums!” On that note…
Audio clip: Christe, Sanctorum (Lauds Hymn for the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, September 29th; 6th Century Gregorian chant), from Angels and Saints at Ephesus
The oldest song on the new album dates to the fourth century, another is from the 12th century, others from the 16th and 18th centuries. Why do these songs retain such relevance in your lives today?
Funny, in a way a lot of the pieces actually sound modern to our ears. St. Benedict founded the Order in the 6th Century, and we have carried on the same chants he prescribed. This is Gregorian chant, which actually grew out of pre-Christian Temple chant. The chant shapes our life and our spirituality; musically, it is our daily bread. We pull out the more “modern” pieces to sing after Mass. Either way, we are carrying on the work of our predecessors in continuing to offer God beautiful music that stems from hearts that are at peace with Him.
How did this album begin in terms of discussing the approach you wanted to take this time? Was there any resistance to or wariness about the idea of doing some original songs along with the ancient texts?
Not long after Advent at Ephesus was released, we thought of doing something with a broader range. There were a lot of hymns to the Angels and Saints we knew well and had not yet recorded. The Sisters seemed enthusiastic about the idea when we talked about it. If anything, we had to pare down the selection of ancient and original hymns drawn up for the CD. Ancient or original, the music moves in one direction (up, we hope!)
The production team for this included Christopher Alder, a nine-time Grammy winner, and his engineer, Mark Donohue, a two-time Grammy winner. I assume Christopher was most involved in the conceptual planning. What did he bring to this project that proved most valuable or important to your group in achieving what you set out to do?
Christopher and Mark were both excellent. Christopher was not so much involved in the planning as execution. We all appreciated his training and his ear. He quickly grasped our capacity and how to get the best sound out of us, working very closely and very well with Mother Cecilia. Christopher made the recording sessions very peaceful and enjoyable.
How much rehearsal did you have before you started recording? Or were all these songs already familiar and part of your daily worship?
Most everything was already a part of us. Some of the arrangements were new to make the best of an all-female choir. We practiced for a few weeks beforehand, not too much because we have a lot of other work to do apart from chanting the Office, keeping up a farm, and sewing vestments.
A video profile of the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, keyed to the release of their first album, Advent at Ephesus
Being a very self-sufficient group, you all share in the job of deciding on and creating artwork, on the Latin translations, I assume on the content of the liner booklet or notes on the album sleeve, and regarding the arrangements. To whom do these duties fall? I’m especially interested in the arrangements, and how much time you spent working out these for 23 voices and who was in charge of that process.
It all took about two months of more intense preparation. Mother Cecilia is our arranger, drawing from her years of training as a professional musician. We all look to her as the spiritual leader of the community, and she guides our voices as well as our souls. I handled the booklet with the assistance of another Sister. We have proficient Latinists, a few artists and a lot of musicians in the ranks. We are very blessed to have so much talent under one roof, but we would rather be known for loving God (and one another as proof!)
Over the course of four albums, have you found singing for a recording much different than the singing you do, by all reports, eight times a day? Do you feel any pressure knowing you’re creating something for public consumption rather than as part of your daily worship?
Yes, it is different in the sense that our Office is all Gregorian chant. The other pieces in the albums are in parts or polyphonic, so we have to mentally shift gears. The free rhythm of Gregorian chant requires a different sort of vocal discipline. It reflects what we strive to live in communal life, to let our hearts be one with our voices and to sing with one voice. The first year in our community is spent just listening to the chant to absorb it. The personal slant must be restrained. Going from that to the other types of music then becomes a little easier in that we are already listening for each other, both as a whole and in a smaller group in individual parts.
A sister from another community commented on our singing, “You can hear the trust you have in one another.” That is the key to what welds our voices together, so that as a novice put it “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts!”
A priest once told us “play for an audience of One.” If we keep our perspective, we don’t feel pressure or pride. What is more important is that God is listening to us everyday.
We music writers are big on asking artists about influences. So…are you aware of and/or influenced by the success of early music groups such as Anonymous 4, who draw from much the same well of material as the Benedictines of Mary and have received great acclaim for their “Mary” albums? Or other orders, such as the Benedictines of Notre Dame, or various other early music groups? Has the acceptance of these groups’ recordings encouraged your own interest in releasing your music to the public?
Many of us felt attracted to the chants of Silos before our entrance into monastic life. The Tallis Scholars are also a favorite. I confess we have not had too much exposure to Anonymous 4 and other groups (we recently learned that they too had recorded “Regnantem Sempiternam” which was on our Advent CD). I think our sound is very unique, in that we are projecting what we live in a way. It is distinctly American, young, and monastic with the sense that there is a life behind the music. That is the life within the music. We believe what we sing, and we love our lives, because we love the God Who has called us into it and believe in Him.
I wonder if you feel the spiritual battle being waged for our souls is any greater or lesser in today’s world than it was in the world of centuries past, when much of your repertoire was composed?
The devil seems to be more active these days, but in a more insidious fashion. We have to confront him with the most powerful tools we have available, the prayers and chants that have kept him at bay, crushed barbarism and Christianized (therefore civilized) Europe.
from Angels and Saints at Ephesus, ‘A Rose Unpetalled,’ a poem of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, set to original music by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles
I’m working without the benefit of liner notes, having heard the album only through a stream provided by your publicist. But I understand that there is an original song on the album. Who among the Benedictines of Mary is the songwriter, or are the songwriters, and which are the original songs on Angels and Saints at Ephesus? Will you ever consider doing an entire album of original songs?
We actually do have four songwriters and also lyricists in the ranks. Of course, Mother Cecilia is the most proficient and prolific. Sometimes we will write songs and sing them as a surprise for her, but it is harder without her help! “A Rose Unpetalled” was an original written nearly nine years ago in honor of St. Therese, with lyrics by the saint herself. Another part was added for this recording. There is usually one or two composed each year by the Sisters. Some originals are meant for the devotion of the community and not for the public, much like Fra Angelico’s frescoes at San Marco. We cannot lay all our cards on the table at once, but will certainly include more on future albums!
Do you have personal favorites among the songs on the album? Why are those songs–or that song, if it is only one–so meaningful to you?
Duo Seraphim is everyone’s favorite, mine too. The word painting is exquisite. The echoing parts capture the idea of the Seraphim crying back and forth to one another, and the change in rhythm musically illustrates the Trinity. Part of our fondness for it is also association. When we first sang it, it was after the Investiture of our three novices. We were all so exuberant for their sakes and their putting aside their bridal gowns to take on our religious habit. I do not think we have sung it since with as much joy.
from their Yuletide album, Christmas at Ephesus, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Aposstles, perform ‘Adeste Fideles’
This publication is big on Christmas, and your Christmas album, Christmas at Ephesus, is one of the most moving among all Christmas albums of this type. Any chance you might deliver a Volume 2?
Yes, indeed, there is enough in our Christmas repertoire to deliver another Christmas CD. God willing, we will put another out in the future.
You encourage visitors to your website to buy the CD directly from the Benedictines of Mary. It’s more expensive to do so than, say, through Amazon. How do you use the money from CD sales made via your website?
There is a greater profit percentage yielded to us through the website. The funds are directed to the alleviation of our debt on our building, and will be used for future building projects (e.g. a bigger church!)
What do you hope listeners experience when they cue up this CD?
We pray that the music will lift their hearts heavenward, and experience even just a small taste of the tranquility and peace that is ours each day.
Are you ever going to take the act on the road?
Heavens, no! St. Benedict has us take the vow of stability for a reason. Home is where the heart is, and he would not have us getting distracted outside of it!
Called to embrace a liturgical spirituality, our lives literally revolve around Christ as a many-faceted jewel, manifesting His majesty through the mysteries of His own life, that of His Mother, and by extension through His holy ones, the angels and the saints. The feasts of the angels and saints reflect the Light of theWorld in their own way, reminding us to follow them, shining forth only insofar as we reflect Christ. At the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus, these interspersed feasts are especially commemorated in song. The saints and angels are honored either in hymns written for them or, in many cases, hymns written by the saints themselves. In this way, we can take up their own words to share in the eternal hymn they now continually raise to God. It is our hope that this music raised your hearts likewise to Him, that at the end of our life here, our souls may be prepared to share the company of the angels and saints when we behold God face to face. –The Sisters (from the liner booklet for Angels and Saints at Ephesus)