There were conspicuous signs that their singing at Mass was not just “background music” but had touched hearts:
• There was the thunderous ovation that erupted after fourth grader Celeste Pizzati’s strong rendition of the vocally challenging and tongue-twisting “Ave Maria.”
• There was the applause the whole choir received after singing nearly the entire Mass in Latin – from the “Sanctus” (Holy, Holy), to the “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) to the Communion hymn, “Panis Angelicus” (Bread of Angels).
• Then there was the teary-eyed congregant who ran up to the choir members after Mass to tell them that their Latin was “perfect” – exactly the way she had learned to pronounce it in school decades earlier.
Such compliments are becoming commonplace for choir members from Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Kenner. Earlier this month, the ensemble of second through seventh graders had the distinction of being the sole choir invited to perform twice at the 2016 Rosary Congress at St. Clement of Rome Church: first on Oct. 4, for a “Singing Rosary” in which the youngsters sang a different Marian hymn after each decade of the rosary; the other on Oct. 6, when the group from OLPH was the featured choir at the Rosary Congress’ noon Mass celebrated by Dominican Father John Restrepo.
“We have this goal of ‘CPR’ – we teach them to be ‘Committed,’ ‘Prayerful’ and ‘Respectful,’” said Christian Community Sister Christella Emano, the founding director of the four-year-old choir.
“Being in the choir helps them to be spiritual – their spiritual life is really improved,” Sister Christella said.
The choir members practice every weekday after school for 90 minutes, first stopping at their school’s on-campus adoration chapel. Sister Christella also has a small altar in her rehearsal room as a reminder that singing sacred music is a heightened form of prayer.
“We have a map in front of the altar, and the children select a country to pray for every afternoon,” Sister Christella said. “My children have become so dedicated to prayer! Sometimes when I forget to pray, they will remind me that we have to pray before we start.”
The choir’s performance venues include last June’s Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Church, celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Dominicans, nursing homes, the Roosevelt, Canal Place and OLPH Church.
A self-taught pianist and organist, Sister Christella said that as one of 14 children, her parents could not afford to give her formal music lessons.
“When I was in school, sometimes the Sisters of Mercy would be playing piano and I would escape to their classroom,” she said. “I would ask permission to go to the restroom and sneak to the music room. One of the reasons I like to help the children is because it was my dream, too, to be a musician.”
The choir director also encourages her students to “dream high” in life.
“One of our former choir members is now in college at Ave Maria University studying music,” Sister Christella said. “I tell the children, ‘When you finish here, you may also go to a university and be a musician!’”
Sister Christella, a native of the Philippines, said she has a unique perspective on the definition of success. She impresses upon choir members that they can do great things in life if they work hard and use the many gifts they enjoy as Americans.
“I tell them, ‘Here in the United States you live like a millionaire – you live in a house; and have a car; and the rich and the poor eat the same food. In my country the poor cannot eat what the rich eat,” Sister Christella said, singing the praises of music in schools.
“It really helps them with their math, reading, memorization and listening skills,” she said, “and they help mewith my pronunciation!”