Lessons & Carols

As the daylight hours diminish in the early days of December, faculty, staff and students are busy completing course work and special projects prior to the end of the semester. In the midst of this hectic time, the Office of the College Chaplains and the College Choir host the Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols, providing an opportunity to gather as a community and reflect-in prayer, Scripture and song-on the joyous message of Christmas.

By Pam Reponen
Photos by Dan Vaillancourt

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming

From tender stem hath sprung! ...

It came, a flow'ret bright,

Amid the cold of winter,

When half-spent was the night.


Thus begins the fourth anthem of Lessons and Carols, performed by the Holy Cross College Choir at the midpoint of the program-an invitation to experience ever more deeply the peace and hope of the Advent season.

Lessons and Carols-which celebrated its 35th year at Holy Cross on Dec. 6-is a service of Scripture and song performed during the Advent season, in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. The program itself is composed of nine Scripture readings (or "lessons"), each followed by a musical selection performed by the Choir that reflects on the message of the reading, a brief prayer and additional carols sung in unison with the assembly.

The program, which has its foundation in the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours of the Roman Catholic Church, was first introduced Christmas Eve 1880, in England by Edward White Benson, the first bishop of Truro in Cornwall. With the construction of a new cathedral under way and a wooden shed serving as the temporary home of Truro Anglican Cathedral, Benson, in keeping with the humble surroundings for the celebration, devised the simple order of service.

This format was adapted by Eric Milner-White in 1918 for the Chapel of King's College in Cambridge, England, where it has become an annual tradition. First broadcast from King's College by the BBC in 1928, Lessons and Carols quickly gained in popularity within the Anglican Church and among other Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church.

The program of Lessons and Carols is a popular winter tradition at many colleges and universities. It began at Holy Cross in 1978, as the result of collaboration between the late Rev. Robert Manning, S.J., who, at the time, served as a College chaplain, and the late Bruce Miller, then director of the College Choir.

"Fr. Manning initiated the conversation with College officials about the possibility of holding the service at Holy Cross before the students left at the end of the semester," recalls Rev. Paul Harman, S.J., who currently serves as vice president for mission and, in the late 1970s, held the post of executive vice president. "Once approved, Bruce Miller put together a small orchestra, the College Choir, and the Chaplains' Office provided the readers. At the time we didn't have the beautiful organ that is now part of the ceremony."

When he returned to the Hill in 2009, Fr. Harman was "overjoyed" to find that the service had not only continued, but grown. "Fr. Manning loved good sacred music, and he would be so proud to see how this tradition continued," he says. "Lessons and Carols provides an opportunity to share with the entire campus an ancient and wonderful tradition open to all, and, for Christians, it's a way to come together in anticipation of Christmas, which is celebrated when the students are away."

Paul Covino, associate chaplain and director of liturgy at Holy Cross, observes that, many parishes and a number of Jesuit colleges hold the Lessons and Carols service during the Advent season, although it is not an official liturgy of the Catholic Church-and, because of this status, program presenters are free to adapt it.

For this reason, too, he explains, "The director of the College Chaplains, whether ordained or not, male or female, leads the service as presider, providing an opportunity for the assembly to witness a layperson serve in this capacity." Current Chaplains' Office Director Marybeth Kearns-Barrett '84 performs this role.

The program traditionally starts with "Once in Royal David's City" as the processional and concludes with "Adeste Fideles." Other musical selections vary from year to year and conductor to conductor. "The readings show God's action in human history, from the beginning of time until the birth of Jesus," Covino says, adding that the cycle continues beyond the Christmas story "to present Jesus as having been with God from the beginning and continuing to pervade the world today as the Word of God."

The Holy Cross College Choir is composed of approximately 50 students, both music majors and non-music majors, who, for the past two years, have performed Lessons and Carols under the leadership of interim Choral Director Christopher Shepard. Also taking part in the program are the Holy Cross Chamber Singers, a select group of about 20 vocalists, directed by Shepard and chosen from the choir membership. Vocalists from both groups serve as soloists during the performance.

Next: The music is magical...

On the Tuesday evening prior to the festival, the choir joins Shepard in the music room on fifth-floor Hogan for rehearsal. By 6:30, the students have filled almost all of the seats surrounding Shepard, who quickly engages them in the practice session with animation, energy, humor and good will. The strains of carols fill the room, as the students' voices capture the cadence and beauty of the time-honored hymns.

Among the students present are religious studies major Catherine Mikula '14, soprano soloist/semi-chorus in 2011 for the anthem "In Dulci Jubilo," and Elizabeth "Libby" Mazzeo '13, alto soloist for the past two years for "See Amid the Winter's Snow," which she describes "as a beautiful song that includes the whole choir and the chamber singers, tightharmonies, a cappella sections and powerful unison parts."

Mikula, of North Caldwell, N.J., says that she looks forward to the Christmas season and to participating in this celebration, as it provides an opportunity to sing carols that are less-well known. Mazzeo, who is a resident of Waterville, Maine, and a biology major with a pre-veterinarian concentration, expresses a similar view, adding, "It is wonderful having a chance to sing with a group of people our own age-and in the Chapel-and fun to return to the same pieces year after year."

For Lauren Kuehn '13, the opportunity to serve as soloist for "In Dulci Jubilo" during this year's program holds special significance. Relating that the anthem is a traditional Christmas carol with original text in Latin and German, the political science and German double major from Northport, N.Y., says the piece is a sacred part of the concert program, allowing her "the opportunity to sing God's word and connect with my German roots in the presence of the campus community." Noting that Lessons and Carols has always been an event she has cherished as a Holy Cross student and choir singer, she describes it as "encompassing the joys and spirit of Christmas" and awakening "the true meaning of Christmas in all of us."

Shepard previously served as director of music at Sydney Grammar School in Australia, from 1996 to 2008, and, prior to that, director of the choral program at the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. A graduate of the Yale School of Music in New Haven, Conn., he recently completed his Ph.D. in musicology at the University of Sydney. Shepard returned to the United States in 2008 to conduct the Worcester Chorus and the Dessoff Choirs in Manhattan.

Integral to the performance of Lessons and Carols is the instrumental accompaniment, provided for many years at the College by the Worcester Brass Consort, under the direction of Douglas Weeks, and, for the past four years, by Holy Cross organ scholar Jennifer McPherson '13.

"The brass ensemble's role is to accompany the carol singing and a few of the choral anthems," explains Shepard. "The wonderful David Willcocks' arrangements of Christmas carols, such as "O Come, All Ye Faithful," are made even more powerful by the addition of brass.

"And, the organ is the glue that binds the entire service together," he continues, "providing musical support for the congregation in the singing of the carols."

McPherson, a music major from Eliot, Maine, organ scholar for the Class of 2013 and recent third prize winner at the fourth Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck Organ competition in Amsterdam, has been the organist for Lessons and Carols since her first year at Holy Cross.

"The Lessons and Carols service at the Episcopal Church where I grew up was always the highlight of the Christmas season for me," she says. "I am so glad I've been able to continue celebrating by participating in the program at Holy Cross. My favorite moment is the last piece, 'O Come, All Ye Faithful.' We combine the brass, organ and choir-I pull out all the stops-and it gives me goose bumps! That's one of the moments I'm reminded of how much I love what I do and how I love sharing these experiences with so many other people."

Shepard praises St. Joseph Memorial Chapel as the location for the performance. "Because of the physical dimensions, the marble and barrel-vault ceiling, the live acoustics-organ music and voices-linger for a long time. The challenge for the choir is to strive for as much clarity as possible to ensure that the words are understood," he says. From an aesthetic perspective, he continues, "The magnificence of the organ in this setting adds a wonderful spirit to the celebration." 

Next: Readers reflect on the beautiful service...

In addition to involvement in Lessons and Carols as singers and musicians, members of the College community participate in the program as readers. Each year, according to Kearns-Barrett, a cross section of faculty, staff, administrators and students from different faith traditions is invited to serve in this capacity.

Katherine Kiel, professor and chair of the economics department and a reader for the 2011 performance of Lessons and Carols, describes the deep sense of connectedness that she experienced during the program: "To be able to listen to the beautiful music, to sing with the organ playing and to share the feeling of joy with all the other participants was heart-warming for me," she remarks. "The program was a great way to take time to reflect on the meaning of the season, and to stop for a while and enjoy the spirit of the holiday."

Kearns-Barrett describes her role as presider during the celebration of Lessons and Carols as "a contemplative experience." In addition to overseeing the order of the service, the presider offers prayers and invites the assembly to enter into prayer as a community, she explains. "The prayers take what we heard in the readings and music and invite those present to reflect on it and offer a prayer to God.

"There is a 'back and forth' movement between the presider and the community throughout the program," Kearns-Barrett says. "It is this call to prayer and reflection that distinguishes Lessons and Carols from a concert or poetry reading."

In the days leading up to the performance, numerous members of the campus community are busy with last-minute preparations. Physical plant staff set up the risers for the choir in the chapel, undertake the work of suspending the Advent wreath from the ceiling and finalize the cleaning of the interior space. The readers join Covino for rehearsal in the chapel and then gather again in Campion the night of the performance for a quiet dinner with colleagues-planned as an expression of thanks by Kearns-Barrett on behalf of the Chaplains' Office and prepared by the student cooks who work there. The programs printed in Graphic Arts have been delivered to the chapel, and student greeters take their places at the entranceway to welcome early arrivals.

Of special significance among the seasonal decorations in the chapel is the Advent wreath. Covino, who conceived the idea of suspending a large, live wreath from the chapel ceiling more than a decade ago, says he was inspired by a design he had seen in a book about church decorating. Determining  the feasibility of implementing the idea, he spoke with Chuck Krikorian in the Holy Cross carpentry shop. Krikorian, with colleagues Arthur Allard, Dan Stewart and Ray Rheault, devised a pulley system that is still in use today.

"One of the men goes up to the walkway above the chapel ceiling, lowers the cable from the pulley and attaches the wreath to the cable," explains Covino, adding that four pieces of fabric-three purple and one pink, symbolic of the Advent season as a time of prayer and penance and, also, of rejoicing-are suspended from the cable, through the wreath, and extended to the columns on the sides of the chapel.

In addition, four brass candle stands are positioned beneath the wreath by the pews, and two are placed by the statue of Mary, which is encircled by a wreath of pink roses in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Covino also notes that, in recent years, two wrought-iron screens filled with candles are positioned behind the lectern, surrounding the readers with light-a symbol of the light of Christ overcoming the darkness.

Just prior to the performance, members of the choir gather in the Mary Chapel, wearing tuxedos and black formal dresses, says Pam Mindell, choir director at Holy Cross and lecturer in the music department from 2004 to 2011. "We warm up as a group and touch on a few last minute musical details.

"Then, as part of a long tradition, those who have been in the group for six semesters or more are awarded the College Choir pin to wear," she continues. "Finally, one of the senior members of the choir offers a prayer for the group before everyone lines up and heads up the stairs to the back of the chapel."

By this time, the pews are filled with members of the College community, alumni and their families, neighbors and friends, who have gathered to celebrate the Advent season. And, as Mindell explains: "The Chamber Singers begin the service with an a cappella version of 'Veni, Veni Emmanuel,' " followed by the College Choir processing down the long aisle onto the platforms, while singing "Once in Royal David's City." 

Noting that for some students, Lessons and Carols is their favorite performance of the year, Mindell describes its significance for her as director: "Part of the allure for me in preparing the students each year was to challenge them to go deeper into the music each time they returned to it, to make it more expressive, more nuanced." And, she adds, "I always loved hearing the full choir and 'audience' singing the well-known carols with the brass quintet, timpani drums and full organ all together in the adorned Chapel. There is a certain indescribable feeling which comes from this unity of spirit."

Last December, Laura Taylor '11 and her mother, Orinda, traveled from Watertown, Mass., and East Hartford, Conn., respectively, to meet for dinner and attend the performance. "When I was a student, my family always made a point of coming up for Lessons and Carols," says Taylor, who had been a four-year member of the College Choir, its co-manager in 2010-11, and a three-year member of the Holy Cross Chamber Singers. "Even in the ice storm of 2008, they were there because, as my mom says, 'It's become a cherished part of our Christmas tradition.' So, when we talked about our plans for the season, there was no question about our going back." But the former English/psychology double major did so with some apprehension. "Although I was afraid hearing Lessons and Carols as an alum would be strange or uncomfortable, apart from the nagging compulsion to jump up and join in, it was exactly as I remembered," she says. 

Kate Faggella-Luby '98 and her husband, Michael '98, are also grateful for the tradition of Lessons and Carols at the College, with Kate describing it as representing "some of the most lasting gifts of our time at Holy Cross: spirituality, reflection, community and moments of quiet beauty."

The couple have attended the performance regularly since returning to Worcester in 2006, says Kate, who shares a special memory of the 2010 program: "I was nearly nine months pregnant with our first child, who was due (and then was actually born) on Christmas Day," she recalls. "Lessons and Carols that year was an amazing experience, sitting there with my husband, whom I had met at Holy Cross so many years ago, listening to the choir and Advent readings, full of hope and promise. I felt comforted and buoyed by the beauty and peace of that night, as nervous and excited, and hugely pregnant as I was."

The year 2011 marked the beginning of a new tradition in the history of Lessons and Carols at Holy Cross: live streaming of the program on the College website. "Staff members from Public Affairs, Development and Alumni Relations met to discuss the possibility of instituting a live broadcast of the program," says Christian Santillo, assistant director of public affairs for web communications. "Thanks to the work of the audio-visual and ITS staff and students-and the gracious consent of the Chaplains' Office and College Choir, allowing us to set up equipment in the chapel-the idea became a reality."

Receiving numerous requests from alumni for a live broadcast, Tom Cadigan '02, associate director of alumni relations and development, had contacted Public Affairs staff about the possibility of featuring the performance on the website.

Santillo notes that the production itself involved the use of five cameras, multiple microphones and mixing equipment set up prior to the performance and operated by staff from various departments, as well as students, dedicated to ensuring a seamless production. Feedback following the performance was very positive, he observes, adding, "More than 600 alumni, parents and friends viewed the webcast, representing almost all 50 states, several U.S. territories and 14 countries."

The inaugural online production of Lessons and Carols was welcome news to the leadership of the Holy Cross Club of Central New York, who conceived the idea of hosting a Christmas party for area alumni that would feature showing the live broadcast. Emily Cupelo '09 was the inspiration for the event, according to Deborah Dunn '85, who helped organize the Christmas social with then club president, Jim Sparkes '71, recently elected treasurer, Ted Camesano '68, and Cadigan. Thanks to their efforts, Dunn says, about 25 Crusaders, family and friends gathered at Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub in Syracuse to enjoy the live performance of Lessons and Carols.

"I am very proud that our Central New York group was the leader in this new Holy Cross cyber tradition," says Dunn, who was looking forward to celebrating the event in 2012, during the club's Christmas social at the Marriott Courtyard in East Syracuse.

"Lessons and Carols is a Sabbath invitation to the community to pause, be enveloped in the beauty of the music and the readings, which have stood the test of time, to ponder the mystery of the incarnation and to really celebrate Advent," says Kearns-Barrett.

At the conclusion of the program, the assembly rises to join the Choir in singing the age-old hymn 'Adeste Fideles':

O Come all ye faithful, Joyful and triumphant,

O Come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;

Come and behold him, Born the King of Angels:

O Come let us adore him ... Christ the Lord.


On these December evenings, the spirit of joyful anticipation fills the chapel, inspired by the heartfelt messages of hope and God's loving care, expressed in word and song. "I think that for all of us," former chorister Taylor observes, "Whether you're a student, alum or just stopping in for the evening, it's a wonderful opportunity to step back and take stock of our blessings, sharing in an hour of reflection and renewal of faith.

"It's hard to imagine one event bringing together so many different people, but I think, all in all, it's a testament, not just to this one performance, but to how well it represents Holy Cross and the ties of mission and value which bind this community."


Pam Reponen is the assistant editor of Holy Cross Magazine; she served as a Lessons and Carols reader in 2008.