40-member choir inspires deeper faith, celebrates liturgy

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2022

40-member choir inspires deeper faith, celebrates liturgy

Benny Rios, Spanish Associate Director of Liturgical Music at St. Bede-St. Denis Parish, 8200 S. Kostner Ave., leads a 40-member choir for a packed noon Mass on April 3, 2022. (Karen Callaway/ Chicago Catholic)
Benny Rios conducts the choir. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Andrea Nava sings lyrics from her cellphone. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Diego Partida plays the wood clave. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Alejandro Salgado cantors from the sanctuary. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jacob Rios plays a percussion drum during Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Benny Rio sings with the choir. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jacob Rios sings the Our Father with choir members. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
A choir member plays the drums. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Saúl Muñoz plays the bongos for one of the songs. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Juan de la Cruz and Mariana Díaz sing the Our Father. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Young members of the choir, Sofia, Juanpablo and Diego Partida play instruments and perform solos during Mass. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Esteban Soto plays congas during one of the songs. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The choir at Mass. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The packed congregation. Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Eric Campos did not really want to join the Spanish Mass choir at St. Bede the Venerable Parish more than a decade ago.

His daughter Giselle did, though, so he would drive her to choir practice and wait for it to end.

It wasn’t long before the choir director, Benny Rios, invited him to participate.

“He said, ‘You’re here anyway, and we need male voices. Want to give it a try?’” Campos said.

His daughter Giselle is in college now and no longer singing at Mass every Sunday, but Campos is still there, singing with his children Isabelle, 18, and Eric Isaac, 15.

They are among about 40 members of the choir that sing hymns from various Latin American countries at the noon Mass at St. Bede Church, 8200 S. Kostner Ave., now part of St. Bede-St. Denis Parish, said choir director Benny Rios. Smaller groups sing at St. Bede’s 6 p.m. Sunday Mass and St. Denis’ 9 a.m. Sunday Mass; on special occasions, all the choirs sing together.

Rios and his wife, Alejandra, welcome all singers to the choir, no matter their age or level of musical talent or experience.

“We accept everyone,” he said. “Everyone comes to sing to the Lord. If you’ve never sung or played instruments, you can come. What’s important is singing to God.”

That does not mean Rios does not have high standards. In addition to weekly choir practices, choir members are expected to practice at home with recordings that he makes available to them.

But Campos said Rios encourages his members, especially the young ones, by reminding them that they are not performing for their own glory, but singing for God.

“Benny has this gift,” Campos said. “He can make people believe in themselves. He expects people to do well. With the kids, they were given incentives to be better, to sing better to God and to express their faith and to grow in their faith. … For a lot of kids, it might be hard for them to sing into a microphone. Everybody has to have a chance to express that singing, what they have to offer. There are a lot of people who sing solos, not just one person.”

Anahi Mendoza, now a freshman at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, sang in the St. Bede choir for seven years, first going with a friend because her parents were not regular Massgoers.

“My friend convinced me to go,” she said. What convinced her to stay was the community the choir formed, with adults, teenagers and children all working together. Mendoza said she was afraid at first she would be criticized or even mocked because she was not fluent in Spanish. Instead she found people willing to help her.

“It was like a big family,” she said.

Her participation led her to grow in her faith, as well.

“It definitely opened my heart up,” she said. “At first, I was just singing to sing. It was a real eye-opener to feel the presence of Jesus when I was singing.”

For the Campos family, having their teenage children sing in the choir means its easier to keep them involved in the church, Eric Campos said. His wife is also involved in the parish, but does not sing.

Juan De La Cruz, a choir member for about seven years, has been involved in parish music ministries since he was in seminary as a young man, and he has sung professionally. It is unusual for a choir to be made up of such a variety of voices, he acknowledged, but it works.

“You have all sorts of different voices,” he said. “You have young girls and boys and older men. Most choirs have participants of the same gender and the same age range. My hat’s off to Benny for being able to pull this off with the grace of God and make it work.”

The choir, he said, provides a spiritual lift for the participants and for the congregation at Mass.

“Singing at church is praying,” he said. “It’s a different kind of praying. It’s a great experience when you see the community participating or you see a song during Communion really touch someone. It’s a connection.”

Father Carlos Arancibia, pastor of St. Bede-St. Denis, said he was gratified to hear the choir when he arrived at St. Bede five years ago.

“Good music is an essential part of the liturgy,” Arancibia said. “A good homily and good music make the difference. St. Bede is an amazing community, so it’s logical that they have this spectacular choir.”

Rios, his wife, and the rest of the choir members have been very involved in supporting the parish, including through the COVID-19 pandemic and the Renew My Church restructuring process, Arancibia said. When asked to recall a special moment with the choir, Arancibia said the choir surprised him on his birthday a few years ago with an arrangement of his favorite psalm, Psalm 31.

“They sang it during the liturgy,” he said. “It sounded fantastic.”

Finding new arrangements of music is nothing new for Rios, who goes well beyond the Spanish hymnals most commonly available in the United States. The choir sings music from all over Latin America, because the people of the parish come from several countries, including Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia.

“I try to take the best songs from these countries, from Chile, Colombia, Peru, and teach them to the choir,” he said.

Choir members learn and practice each song for about two months, Rios said.

Arancibia notices the difference in participation when the choir is singing, he said, and he hopes it inspires more people to return to Mass.

“The church is not the priests,” he said. “It is the community.”


  • music ministry
  • parishes

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