By RANDLE CHRISTIAN
COLUMBIA — St. Joseph Church is quietly humming with activity on this chilly Sunday afternoon in December. While musicians tune their instruments, the pews quickly fill with people and the overflow crowd lines the walls. Member or visitor, they have come to hear the parish’s choirs and readers recount in soaring harmonies and biblical verse the greatest story ever told.
The lights dim and the church is illuminated by candles flickering on the altar and lining the center aisle. A hush falls over the audience as the first plaintive strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” flow from harp and flute. The notes gently fade away, replaced by the clear a cappella soprano of Jenny Hubbert singing the first verses of the traditional hymn, “Once in David’s Royal City.” She is soon joined by over 100 voices from the adult and children’s choirs, their song gradually swelling to fill the church as they process to the altar. St. Joseph’s 17th Festival of Lessons and Carols has begun. During the next hour and a half, carols and hymns interspersed with readings from the apostles Matthew, Luke and John will transport the audience back to that first Christmas when, without tinsel or fanfare, God sent his Son to save the world.
Ginger and Tom Hamblin have come to every festival for the past 15 years to take that journey. “It kicks off the Christmas season and put the spiritual side in perspective for us,” Ginger Hamblin says. “Each year, we say, ‘This is the best year yet.'” As each of their children have gotten older, they have joined their parents for the service. This year all three, Mary Clark, Will and Sarah are with them. “It’s a tradition in our family,” Hamblin says.
Whenever they’ve performed the Festival of Lessons and Carols, listeners have asked them if they can buy recordings of their music. Until this year, the answer was no. “We’ve always talked about a CD, but the opportunity never presented itself,” said choir director Teresa Riley.
That changed when choir member Tom Moore asked his friend, Jim Blakeslee, an SCETV engineer who had often expressed his admiration for the choir, if he could help them with the recording.
“I have access to some real good engineers where I work,” Blakeslee said. He convinced co-worker Bill Easterling, an audio engineer, and Beth Rickenbaker, to help with recording and mixing. He also was able to get his hands on some top-notch digital recording equipment. Over three nights last April, St. Joseph’s adult, youth and junior choirs produced their first recording of “A Festival of Lessons and Carols.” They also recorded enough music for a second offering, “Sundays at St. Joseph Church,” to be released in spring 1998. Both performances are available on CD and tape.
Recording in the church was important to Blakeslee. “I wanted to capture not only the spirit of the choir, but how it sounds at Mass…. When we went into this project, I was absolutely determined that it be good — I promised myself I wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfect … and we did it,” he said.
It was a special labor of love for Blakeslee, whose little daughter, Anna Marie, was an avid choir fan. “The whole inspiration to make the CD was from her — her love off the choir and mine, too,” he said. A brain tumor took Anna Marie’s life in October 1996. “A Festival of Lessons and Carols” is dedicated to her.
Riley hopes the recording will inspire all those who listen to it, which is why she included the text of the readings and the words to the songs. “I don’t want this to just be background music for people. I want them to sit down with the book and listen and read. This should be a spiritual meditation because it tells the whole story.”
The idea for “A Festival of Lessons and Carols” originated with Archbishop Benson of Truro Cathedral in England. It became a popular yearly event in England, especially at King’s College in Cambridge. It was at King’s College that Fred Riley, Teresa Riley’s husband, first attended the service while stationed nearby during a stint in the military. He was deeply moved by the festival and later suggested to his wife that she create a similar program for St. Joseph. The first year, the festival was performed by the children’s choir; since then it has grown to include four children’s choirs, the adult choir and three handbell choirs.
Msgr. Charles Rowland, pastor of St. Joseph, said the service acts as a unifying force for both the parish and the larger community. “It brings the parish together for a celebration of God’s presence in our midst. It also brings together people from all around the Midlands. Music helps us tremendously to worship,” he said.
Riley, who has been directing the choir for 17 years, says the group owes a large part of their success to Msgr. Rowland. “We couldn’t do what we do without his support. He’s helped us get bigger and, hopefully, better.”
The festival has become a highlight of the Christmas season for many in the Midlands thanks to the choirs who perform the hymns and carols with an artistry and spirit that has earned them widespread recognition. For most of the last 10 years, the adult choir has performed at Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, performing such works as Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass,” the “St. Cecilia Mass” and the “Chichester Pslams” by Leonard Bernstein.
At Christmas in 1993, they sang at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II and appeared on Italian television. In June 1996, they gave concerts with Christ Our King Church of Mount Pleasant in Prague, Vienna and Salzburg. They also gave concerts in town and around the state with other churches, both Catholic and Protestant.
The 50-member adult choir is diverse in age and occupation but united in their love of music and the church, Riley said. Their commitment comes shining through in their performances. “The uniqueness of this choir is that spirit — they have an intensity, an aliveness that people notice.” Though their singing is a gift to the community, the members derive personal benefit as well, Riley said. “Choir is good for your soul. You have to all blend together and be of one voice and one spirit.” And in spite of their growing renown, they keep their eyes focused on a single purpose, she said. “We never do anything without prayer. Our biggest prayer is that we sing for the Lord’s glory and honor and not ours.”