A song of farewell in Chicago

Wearing blue blazers, peering intently at the songbooks in their hands, the 20 men on the altar sing “Emitte Spiritum Tuum” (“Come Holy Spirit”). It’s a crowded recent Sunday Mass at Old St. Mary’s Church in Chicago. A half-century ago or more, when their hair was not gray or when they still had hair, when they were boys and sang soprano, this group regularly had sung that same hymn as proud members of “the world’s greatest choir.”

Their boyhood choir had sung for presidents and popes. At the White House and the Vatican. On television on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Their legendary choir director, Paulist Father Eugene O’Malley, was immortalized in the movies “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s.” The portrayal wasn’t accurate, but Catholics, seeing Father O’Malley, would instantly form a mental image of the collared Bing Crosby.

This was the final Mass for the Paulist Choir Alumni Chorale, formed a decade after the original choir disbanded. It was the end of an era, the final chapter in a part of our Catholic history in which our religious identity and sensibility were strongly shaped by the mode of worship and the ingrained respect for centuries-old hymns and liturgical practices.

“This is their last performance,” said Paulist Father Steven Petroff during the Mass, held Sept. 9. “But it’s not really a performance. It’s an art of worship.”

‘Majestic music’

Begun in 1904 at Old St. Mary’s by Paulist Father William J. Finn, the Paulist Choir famously sang the Latin Mass. It disbanded in 1967 after Vatican II changed the liturgy to English and Father O’Malley retired. The Paulist Choir Alumni Chorale formed 10 years later to sing at Masses, weddings, funerals and special occasions.

Both the original choir and the alumni choir sing some hymns in English — the processional and recessional songs, for example. But its calling card was sacred music in Latin.

“People heard majestic music,” said David Hoffmann of Chicago, 74, the director of the alumni choir, whose first stint with the group began as a 10-year-old soprano in 1953. “It was eight-part polyphonic music you couldn’t hear anywhere else. It lifted people’s spirits to experience something mortals usually didn’t get to hear. It was an other-worldly sound.”

“It was just an amazing sound. People would tell us they thought they were in heaven,” said Tom Nichol, 70, who traveled by commuter train and bus three times a week from his grade-school home in the suburb of Oak Park to the Chicago church for practice.

Forming young men

The choir typically had about 50 members; well more than half were boys while the rest were men or college-aged. They were an impressive sight in their white surplices and professional demeanor. Stern and demanding, Father O’Malley would have it no other way.

“He was a taskmaster. A perfectionist. A very strict disciplinarian,” Hoffmann said.

Even future cardinals distinguished by their piety could run afoul of Father O’Malley. The late Cardinal Francis E. George, OMI, served as archbishop of Chicago until 2015, and as a boy in the choir he displeased Father O’Malley with his singing. He was told to leave the altar immediately and go home.

“It was a Sunday, so that meant he missed Mass,” recalls Nichol with a chuckle.

Every boy in the choir knew the three rules: wear hats and gloves; don’t talk to strangers while traveling to practice or performances; and, to preserve the vocal cords, don’t ever shout.

The boys didn’t raise their voices when engaging in a spirited yet quiet snowball fight with the Vienna Boys Choir, admirers who came to hear them when they performed in Chicago. Another time, after practice, the boys had a pickup baseball game in nearby Grant Park. “It was really strange. It was a real quiet baseball game,” Nichol said.

Founding father

The rules came from a taskmaster who knew what he was doing. “He knew more about boys’ voices than anyone else, and knew how to train them,” Hoffmann said.

And he wasn’t the Bing Crosby version of Father Eugene O’Malley in the movies. “That’s just Hollywood,” Hoffmann said. “The movie is very loosely based on him. It borrowed the basic concept of the choir: kids from different neighborhoods — rough and ready kids — coming together to form a choir.”

Father O’Malley actually had been one of the first members of the choir. He joined it as a boy just after it toured Europe in 1912 under Father Finn, singing at the Vatican for Pope Pius X and establishing its reputation by winning an international choral competition of more than 600 choirs in Paris. Father Finn eventually left the choir to go to New York to form a choir, and, after his ordination, Father O’Malley succeeded him in 1928.

Father O’Malley died in 1989 in Chicago at the age of 87. By then all his boys had grown up, and his relationship with them had evolved. “He always kept his distance from us as boys,” Hoffmann said. “He mellowed quite a bit. The relationships [with former members] became more familiar.”

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Even so, the choir boys, learning under Father O’Malley, reinforced their own personal faith life as much as the choir fortified the faith of worshippers. Many choir members became priests or highly involved lay leaders in their parishes. Father O’Malley didn’t just teach music. “He talked to us every Saturday morning,” Nichol said. “It was almost like a sermon. He told a lot of stories that had a moral point.”

In recent years, battling death and aging, the alumni choir had dwindled to about a dozen regulars. So it decided officially to disband 50 years after its original end, though it will still sing on special occasions.

So, on this lustrous fall day, after Communion the choir sings “America the Beautiful” and, lastly, “How Great Thou Art,” Hoffmann, Nichol and the rest fold their songbooks and file off the altar as worshipers head home, sure to tell loved ones they witnessed the last performance of the world’s greatest choir.

Jay Copp writes from Illinois.