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Catholic Gospel Music Thrives

February 20, 2006
By FRANCES GRANDY TAYLOR, Courant Staff Writer

Growing up in New Orleans, Donna Shears thought all Catholic churches had gospel music. It was only when she moved to Connecticut, she says, that she learned most don't. But that is changing, and gospel is working its way into the realm of sacred music for Catholics.

With Shears as choir director, the 100-member Archdiocesan Gospel Choir is bringing gospel music to a wider Catholic audience. During a recent performance at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, toe-tapping gospel added fervor to a Black History Month Celebration Mass. It was only the second performance by the choir, which the archdiocese formed in November.

"I think gospel music and Catholic liturgy is a good fit," Shears said. "We need to be shouting and singing praises to the Lord."

While gospel music was uncommon at the cathedral, a gospel choir sings every Sunday at 10 a.m. Mass at St. Michael's Church, a predominantly African American parish on Clark Street in Hartford.

"It's the kind of music that speaks to our hearts," said Shears, who also directs the St. Michael's gospel choir. "There is spontaneous hand-clapping and moving in your seat, really feeling the Holy Spirit. People are hungry to be spiritually fed."

She said the positive response to the choir has been inspiring in itself.

The idea of a gospel choir for the Hartford Archdiocese had been around for a while, and with encouragement from Archbishop Henry Mansell, all 210 parishes were notified that a gospel choir was forming. The archdiocese's Office of Black Catholics was flooded with responses.

"It's an opportunity to praise God in a way that frees you from any kind of embarrassment or restriction," said Deacon Art Miller, director of the Office of Black Catholics. "There is only one Holy Spirit, but it manifests itself in different ways. This is a way that is truly Afrocentric and recognizes the uniqueness of our praise culture."

The presence of ministries for Catholics from Ghana and Nigeria is also having an impact musically and liturgically. The Cathedral Mass included African drumming and liturgical dance.

"The roots of Catholicism includes North Africa," Miller said.

"The books we worship come from the Fertile Crescent."

The gospel choir is diverse, with as many white members as black members. It is a collaboration between Shears and Ezequiel Menendez, director of music for the Cathedral of St. Joseph, who also works with the choir.

"The energy coming from this choir I don't feel very often," Menendez said. "Many people love this music, but never had the opportunity to sing it and learn it. It calls people to prayer in a different way. Many people pray well through this music."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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