Queen of Martyrs children’s choir heads to Rome

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, January 2, 2011

In the Pazienza household, Dec. 26 could not come soon enough. For the last 13 months, the Pazienza children — sixth-grader Matthew, fourth-grader Alex and third-grader Elena, all students at Queen of Martyrs in Evergreen Park and members of the parish’s youth choir — anticipated their post-Christmas gift: a journey to Italy with 16 other members of the Queen of Martyrs youth choir and a performance for Pope Benedict XVI.

“My mom hadn’t even finished saying the words and we all got excited,” middle daughter Alex said of first receiving the news. “What a great experience for us to go to Italy and meet the pope, especially at this age.”

The Queen of Martyrs youth choir was one of 21 U.S.-based choirs making the trip to Rome and the lone representative from the Archdiocese of Chicago to participate in the 36th International Congress of Pueri Cantores, a gathering of youth choirs held every five years in Rome. St. Mary’s Children’s Choir from West Chicago was the second Illinois choir in attendance.

Singing Christmas selections and liturgical music, the Queen of Martyrs choir was expected to join with over 4,000 singers and 90 choirs from around the world to perform four concerts over four days, including the World Peace Day liturgy inside Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica and a gala concert on Dec. 29 broadcast on Vatican TV and radio. The 21-choir U.S. contingent also was scheduled to sing at a special Mass at the historic basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls.

The highlight for many, however, was the international choir rehearsal at the papal audience hall attended by Pope Benedict XVI, a noted fan of liturgical music and its role in Catholic worship.

“I know what one great voice sounds like, but multiplying that by thousands singing in concert personifies faith and inspires me,” Queen of Martyrs music director Carole Prendergast said. “Pope Benedict has said that faith is revealed through music and I believe our kids understand that music is a form of praise to God.”

A goal realized

When Prendergast arrived at Queen of Martyrs six years ago as the parish’s music director, one of her long-term goals was to join Pueri Cantores, an international Catholic choral music association headquartered in the Vatican. Though the singers would have to learn challenging music to gain admittance into the esteemed association, they earned the honor by Prendergast’s fourth year in command.

Pueri Cantores, which means “Little Singers,” was founded internationally in 1944 and established a U.S. presence nine years later. Currently, there are 150 U.S. youth choirs representing 72 Catholic dioceses with membership in Pueri Cantores.

In November 2009, Prendergast first received news of the opportunity to join the Pueri Cantores group in its Roman celebration.

Though hesitant at first given the costs, the demanding musical slate and the choir’s foremost responsibility to Queen of Martyrs’ liturgical celebrations, parents and children responded with a can-do attitude.

“I wasn’t sure how this would play out, but the parents and students were determined,” Prendergast said.

The choir endured hours-long after-school practices each Wednesday for over a year, learning to perform both the Creed and Gloria in Latin. Meanwhile, numerous fundraising ventures, including a rummage sale, St. Joseph’s Table, and candlelight bowl, as well as individual contributions, including a $200 donation from Cardinal George, lowered the costs from $2,500 per child to $2,000.

 “The amount of lead time gave us the time to do fundraisers,” Prendergast said. “I told everyone who contributed that they would get special prayers in Rome.”

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

The Queen of Martyrs contingent, which consisted of 50 individuals, including the 19 singers between third and seventh grade, departed Chicago on Dec. 26 for their weeklong journey. While the trip included a series of concerts and rehearsals, plenty of time was devoted to visiting Italy’s hallowed grounds — travels to Assisi and Florence among the group’s stops.

For many in the Queen of Martyrs contingent, the trip became a family voyage; the three Pazienza children, for instance, were joined by their parents and an aunt.

 “Going to Italy is not something everybody gets the opportunity to do, so we were all excited to get over there and experience this together,” Matthew Pazienza said.

 Added younger sister, Elena: “Being with my family and singing with all the other children makes me so happy inside.”

Before departing for Rome, Prendergast shared her hopes for the trip, a journey shared with thousands of others in the swelling youth music movement.

“I hope the trip deepens [the students’] faith and their commitment to faith. I want them to seek beauty in liturgical music,” she said, soon adding: “And I hope they have fun, too.”