Sacred sounds soar to top of music charts

It’s not every day the general public acknowledges that a small group of Benedictine nuns in Missouri can out-sing Daft Punk, Black Sabbath or Kanye West.

But indeed, the general public has.

“If you put something out that is really beautiful and it is just pure and true then people will find it and will be attracted to it,” said Monica Fitzgibbons, who with her husband, Kevin, founded De Montfort Music, the record label for “Angels and Saints at Ephesus.”“The people will decide and it seems like they’ve made their choice.”

A chart-topper

The CD, recorded by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, and released May 7, hit No. 1 on Amazon’s top 100 list for all music in July, besting albums from aforementioned mainstream artists. As of Aug. 2, the album had topped the charts of Billboard’s Traditional Classical Albums for 12 consecutive weeks. In mid-July, it spent a week ranked No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s Classical Music Overall Chart.Competitors for the Billboard title were “Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album” and “Downton Abbey: The Essential Collection.”

The milestone reached by “Angels and Saints” is refreshing: the morally offensive novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the PBS period drama show “Downton Abbey” are wildly successful in pop culture. Yet, those albums fell behind “Angels and Saints.”  

“People have sort of been groomed to go down this other path of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ or whatever the marketing gimmick of the day is,” Fitzgibbons told Our Sunday Visitor. “This isn’t a gimmick. It’s something like a Michelangelo painting. You just want to put it out and share. You want people to experience it.”

De Montfort Music is busy right now, as they are slated to release another sacred music album “Mater Eucharistiae,” from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Aug. 13. The debut release will include original compositions reflecting the sisters’ Dominican spirituality, presented in English and Latin with modern and ancient hymns and chants.

Labors of love

The Fitzgibbonses have proved they are savvy in hunting out quality music with potential for success.

Dominicans
Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, were scheduled to release their new CD of hymns and chants, “Mater Eucharistiae,” on Aug. 13. Photos courtesy of De Montfort Music

“My husband and I were in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles,” said Fitzgibbons. “We’ve worked with some of the biggest names in pop rock music today, in mainstream music.”

But after a period of time, the couple began to feel as if their work and faith life were not in sync.

“The content of it started getting worse and worse, and we just didn’t feel good about promoting some of the music and films that we were involved in,” she said of their decision to start their own company, Aim Higher Entertainment, in 2007. De Montfort Music, a division of Aim Higher Entertainment, releases sacred music performed by religious orders.

The couple heard a simple recording the Benedictine nuns had created and, smitten by their seraphic melodies, traveled to Missouri to meet and listen to the nuns personally. “Angels and Saints” is the second album the Fitzgibbons have released for the nuns; they are in the planning phase of a third.

“The Benedictines of Mary are very holy and they are very charitable,” Fitzgibbons said. “They are very contemplative and quiet but at the same time they’re very sweet; they’re like the music.”

The nuns follow the simple Benedictine motto of ora et labora (“prayer and work”).

“The artists we worked with in the mainstream industry — their philosophy was ‘work and play,’” said Fitzgibbons. “This was one letter tweaked — and it’s ‘work and pray.’ That one letter describes the massive divide from the two worlds.”

The first track of the album, “O God of Loveliness,” lives up to its name, combining the clear sweet tones and harmonies of the nuns into a soaring hymn, fervent in its devotion and adoration.

“You almost feel like you’re eavesdropping on a relationship,” said Fitzgibbons.

A sense of the sacred?

Peter Jeffery, a Michael P. Grace II professor of medieval studies at the University of Notre Dame, said his parents met each other at a Gregorian chant rehearsal. Both parents were steeped in rich sacred music experiences that infused Jeffery’s childhood and now his adulthood.

“What I learned from my parents is that the Church’s musical tradition involves a lot more than music — it connects Scripture, the sacraments, prayer, spiritual formation, history and culture,” Jeffery said. 

His colleague, Margot Fassler, a Keough-Hesburgh professor of music history and liturgy at the University of Notre Dame, is establishing a children’s choir to ensure that youth continue to be instilled with an appreciation for sacred music.

“I am passionate about helping children get their minds well-stocked with music — the food for the soul for their lifetimes,” she said.

Even the generation expected to thrive on Kanye West is taking notice. Eric Peart, a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, sang in his school’s Catholic choir for four years. 

“Unfortunately, we sang very little chant, but the little we did sing, I loved,” he said. “I think the biggest reason many young people are attracted to more traditional sacred music, such as chant, is because they recognize that sacred music must be different than secular music — secular music exists to entertain the listener, while sacred music exists to direct the listener’s attention toward God.” 

Thanks to his Pandora station and iTunes account, “I find that listening to sacred music during the day reminds me to pray more,” Peart said.  “I also find that it can help me remain calm when I have a lot of stress.”

And to anyone who may still think that sacred music is only for listening to in church or another religious setting, Fitzgibbons begs to differ. The hymns speak to the heart on any day, at any time.

“It just feels like heaven,” she said. “I can’t describe any other way.” 

Mariann Hughes writes from Maryland