Chicagoland

Choir immortalized in ‘Bells of St. Mary’s’ to sing final Mass

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
August 9, 2017

"Father O'Malley with 5 choristers" taken by Chicago photographers. Photo courtesy of the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Archives and Records Center

When the Paulist Alumni Chorale sings at the 5 p.m. Mass Sept. 9 at Old St. Mary’s Church, 1500 S. Michigan Ave., it will mark the end of more than a century of music.

The Paulist Alumni Chorale is made up of men who once sang in the Paulist Choir, immortalized on film in “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” The choir began in 1904 and was a Chicago institution until it disbanded in 1967, when its longtime director, Paulist Father Eugene O’Malley, retired, and the Mass was being celebrated in English.

After the choir disbanded, former members never lost touch. They began singing together again 10 years later as the Alumni Chorale.
Now, 40 years since that started, the numbers have declined to the point that the alumni group also will disband, said Dave Hoffman, the Alumni Chorale’s president.

For most performances, the Alumni Chorale has about 14 members; there will be more Sept. 9 as singers who have moved away return for one final Mass.
Hoffman, the president of the chorale since 1998, was a member of the boys choir from the time he was 10 until he was 22 in 1965. Then, in graduate school, working and married with kids, he had to take a step back.

“It took a lot of time, a lot of commitment,” said Hoffman. “When we were boys, it was four days a week. You couldn’t be in the choir and play on your high school football team or anything like that.”

Those four days included two after-school practices, Saturday mornings and Sunday Mass. Hoffman, like many members, had to take two buses and a train to make it to the former site of Old St. Mary’s Church, at Ninth Street and Wabash Avenue.

Hoffman remembered O’Malley, who died in 1989, as a stern, exacting taskmaster, but also someone who cared deeply for his choir members and instilled a sense of pride in them. He was the inspiration for Father Chuck O’Malley, played by Bing Crosby in the movies.

“It was kind of like the Marine Corps for kids,” he said. “We were formed into a band of brothers. The bonds that formed as a result were very strong.”

For weeks every summer, all the boys in the choir were treated to a summer camp, taking over a resort in northern Wisconsin.

“We rehearsed maybe once a day, but most of it was fun,” Hoffman said.

According to a 1985 Chicago Tribune story, O’Malley had one rule for the young singers: No shouting.

The Paulist Choir was known for decades as Chicago’s premier vocal group. On a tour of Europe in 1912, when the future Father O’Malley was a chorister, the group won a prestigious choir competition at the Vatican and sang for Pope Pius X. As a boy, Cardinal Francis George was a member.

During Hoffman’s tenure, the choir sang for all kinds of dignitaries who visited Chicago, including presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

The alumni kept up the camp tradition, bringing their families to northern Wisconsin for a week each year. That’s how Kevin Connelly of Schererville, Indiana, got to know the members so well. Connelly’s father, Jim Connelly, was the Alumni Chorale president before Hoffman. After Jim Connelly died, Kevin Connelly was voted in as the only non-alumni member.

The group still sings the arrangements of the traditional Latin music that were created for them by George Barrett, first the director of the alumni choir, a former chorister and musician who rearranged the old choir music from soprano-alto-tenor-bass — doable with a group of boys and young men — to first tenor-second tenor-baritone-bass, suitable for a men’s choir.

“It’s still acapella four-part harmony,” Hoffman said.

Connelly said the decision to bring the alumni chorale to an end was made about three years ago, as the average age of the members was 70 and fewer of them were available to sing.

“We still had a good sound,” he said. “So we decided to go out now, 50 years after the original choir disbanded.”

Once the final Mass is in the books, Hoffman said, the alumni will still stay in contact, and maybe sing together for the occasional wedding or other event for members’ families. They plan to keep having camp each year, although that tradition has been whittled down to a weekend in southwest Michigan.

Topics:

  • chicago history

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