Twenty-two years ago Marilyn Walker, the head of the music department at the University of Dallas invited twelve students and shortly after, my future wife, to be part of a new polyphonic choir. A friend of Marilyn's and the former choir master of Cologne cathedral, suggested that the choir be called the Collegium Cantorum.
The students involved had to give up two evenings a week for rehearsals and take voice lessons. During the first semester of the choir's existence they traveled to Germany and sang polyphony and chant in some of the most beautiful churches in Europe. They also traveled to Rome for the dedication of the new overseas campus for the University of Dallas.
I passed an audition my sophomore year and spent the next four years in the choir. We went to Hungary, Rome, Austria and several places around the US to sing during that time.
Last weekend that all came to an end. The University of Dallas had always been quite happy to use the choir for publicity but would never financially support it. When the private money supporting the choir ran out, the choir was no longer welcome as part of the school and had to relocate. Unfortunately, that meant fewer students joined and the choir wasn't going to be able to maintain its quality in the long term.
So this weekend my wife and I drove to Dallas for the final event of the Collegium Cantorum – the 70th anniversary of ordination Mass for the best friend of the choir and the priest who originally gave the choir its name – Father Ralph March.
It was a glorious weekend. One hundred and seventeen choir members representing every year of the choir's existence came and sang for the event. We spent all day Saturday rehearsing with a break for lunch and some time to meet with Father Ralph.
The rehearsal was amazing. From the first “loo” of warm-up to Marilyn's gestures and directing, it seemed that only a week had passed, not fifteen years. The bases even managed to mess up an entrance half way through Domine, Non Sum Dignus just like we used to. “Did you do that on purpose?”, she asked.
When the final note of our first rehearsal piece, Sicut Cervus died away, Marilyn said “That was far better than I expected.” It really seemed that, apart from some faces I didn't recognize, we were back in 1995. It is a testament to Marilyn's teaching that so many choir members who haven't looked at some of the music in over a decade (me) were able to step right back in without missing more than a couple of beats.
Our meeting with Father Ralph was fun but also bitter sweet. Father is now 93 and needs a walker. He joked about how God is keeping him alive for a reason in spite of how much he enjoyed his cigars and brandy. He did a quick rehearsal with his old chant schola for the Sunday Mass.
It was probably the last time we would be able to see him before we are asked to come back to sing a Requiem Mass for him.
That evening we had a delicious Italian dinner catered at the Mater Dei parish in Irving.
At the dinner we spent over an hour sharing memories and thanking Marilyn Walker for all she had given us. To me she gave the gift of teaching me how to sing sacred music. She also indirectly gave me my wife. You see, I got back from my Rome semester the same day that the choir was going to sing for the first (of sixteen) weddings where two choir members married each other. Paula asked if I wanted to go to the wedding with her since I was stuck on campus doing nothing except recovering from jet lag. We went to the wedding and the reception where she caught the bouquet. It was our first date.
I really can't over emphasize how much of a blessing Marilyn has been in our lives. I've posted the audio here from the final dinner. You don't need to listen to all of it but listen to some. Just pick any spot and listen to the gratitude. Also, be sure to listen to Marilyn's final comments starting at 1:30:00.
Some facts we learned (or relearned) about the choir during the dinner:
- There have been over 500 members of the choir
- Sixteen couples in the choir have been married
- The choir sang for 65 weddings in eight countries
- Fifteen choir members are either priests or religious
- We have the largest family of any choir members
- When the choir ended there were four members from one family together in the choir
On Sunday, after a quick rehearsal, we headed over to Cistercian Abbey's church for the jubilee Mass. Because so many choir members showed up, the abbey added an extra Sunday Mass. It was standing room only. Our program for the Mass was:
- Duo Seraphim (Esquivel)
- Sicut Cervus (Palestrina)
- Ubi Caritas (Durufle)
Processional – Ave Virgo Gloriosa (Dering)
Mass – Missa Brevis (Palestrina)
Offertory – Ave Maria (Bruckner)
- Chant by the men's schola directed by Father Ralph
- Domine, Non Sum Dignus (Vittoria)
- Ave Verum Corpus (Byrd)
Recessional – Salvum Fac Populum (Husen)
Right before Mass we were gifted with a recent addition to the Irving scene – a 3.2 earthquake. It didn't feel like I expected an earthquake to feel. There was a sudden noise like a semi had just slammed into a wall and the church felt like it dropped an inch. that was it, no shaking.
The Mass was beautiful and with a final chord of Salvum Fac Populum, the curtain closed on one of the best ambassadors the University of Dallas ever had.
Mrs. Walker, thank you for the gift of music you gave us all. We will treasure and share it as we move on.
He lives with his lovely wife and eleven kids in northern Colorado.
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