At a time when coronavirus safety precautions have prevented choirs from singing at Catholic churches and when many Catholics have not been able to attend Mass in person, an archdiocesan and a parish choir in the Washington area produced music videos on YouTube featuring songs to connect with the faithful and offer them hope in the Christmas season.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s Gospel Mass Choir produced what is called “a Christmas card to the faithful,” with about two dozen members singing “Come Lord Jesus” based on an old gospel hymn, and a similar number of choir members from St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, Maryland produced a video featuring the traditional Christmas carols “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World.”

“With all that’s been going on in the pandemic, all the brothers and sisters in the archdiocese, in the family of faith, needed healing,” said Lynne' Gray, who with Henry Herrera directs the Archdiocese of Washington’s Gospel Mass Choir.

She added, “This is a time to connect with our brothers and sisters in the archdiocese and offer a healing balm to let them know all will be well.”

Gray, the director of the music ministry at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Washington, D.C., has served there for nearly four decades and also teaches at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts. Herrera is the longtime adult choir director at St. Thomas More Parish in Washington. The Archdiocese of Washington’s Gospel Mass Choir they lead performs annually at the archdiocese’s Mass in January honoring the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Mass in November for Black Catholic History Month. That choir also sings at the annual East of the River Revival in Southeast Washington and at the social justice conference sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Gospel Mass Choir’s Christmas card features 22 singers appearing in individual squares as if in a Zoom call, with Herrera conducting the choir.

Henry Herrera conducts the Archdiocese of Washington's Gospel Mass Choir as members sing the song “Come Lord Jesus” in the YouTube video. (CS screen capture/Andrew Biraj)

Gray explained that first instrumental tracks were recorded, and that, along with a video of Herrera conducting the choir, was sent to the individual singers, who uploaded them on their computers.

“It was a process. We couldn’t have rehearsals,” Gray said. “They watched the conducting video and (listened to) the instrumental track and sang along with that.”

She explained that the choir members had to record themselves, in a well-lit place with a simple white background, wearing black as that choir traditionally does, so the individual videos would maintain a visual unity as the squares of the singers appeared side-by-side on the frame. 

Gray laughed and noted, “Not everyone is tech savvy,” so some of the choir members had help from grandchildren or other family members as they recorded themselves singing. She also noted, “You never see behind the scenes… Our homes are not studios.”

The Gospel Mass Choir’s co-director also emphasized that “you never know the gifts you have in the ministry until you ask,” and choir members Octavia Jackson did the editing for the video and Chris McDonald did the sound engineering.

Everyone involved in the production felt happy and honored to participate, Gray said, adding, “It was a gift… What a blessing it was to give (that) to the Archdiocese of Washington community of faith, the brothers and sisters.”

Members of the Archdiocese of Washington's Gospel Mass Choir are shown singing the hymn “Come Lord Jesus” in the Christmas YouTube video. (CS screen capture/Andrew Biraj)

The song “Come Lord Jesus” is from an arrangement by Stephen M. Lee, based on the old gospel hymn, “Precious Memories.”

The song’s message was especially meaningful for the Christmas season in this pandemic year, Gray said, adding that to her it meant, “Come Lord Jesus, enter our hearts, remind us of all you can do and all you will do, and all will be well.”

The video noted that the song by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Gospel Mass Choir was “dedicated to the memory of our dear brother Kenneth Louis.”

Louis, a nationally known composer and director of African American sacred music, died on Nov. 18 at the age of 64. He directed the music ministry at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington for about three decades, and he also taught music at Archbishop Carroll High School. For the last five years, he served as the director of liturgy and music at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Atlanta.

“He was like a pioneer for all of us,” Gray said.

The Christmas song recorded on YouTube by the Archdiocese of Washington's Gospel Mass Choir was dedicated to Kenneth Louis, a nationally known composer of Black Catholic sacred music who directed the music ministry at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish in Washington for about three decades. He died on Nov. 18. (CS screen capture/Andrew Biraj)

An obituary about Louis in the Georgia Bulletin newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta noted that he was the first African American graduate to receive a bachelor of arts degree in ethnic (gospel) music studies from the University of the District of Columbia in 1992, and that Louis played music at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Center in Washington, and for Pope Francis when he visited the nation’s capital in 2015. 

The “Lead Me Guide Me” Black Catholic hymnal includes some musical compositions by Louis, who recorded and composed music for GIA Publications and World Library Publications in Chicago. The “Mass of St. Cyprian” by Louis features the songs “Jesus, You Brought Me All the Way” and “I’m Willing, Lord.”

Gray said Louis had a “keen understanding of Black sacred liturgy and the Black Sacred worship experience. He understood how to fuse music into that experience.”

She added, “What a mentor he was, what a role model, always kind and helpful. He knew how to bring out the best gifts in everyone.”

The Christmas card to the faithful from the Archdiocese of Washington’s Gospel Mass Choir closed with words offering congratulations and blessings to Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington who was elevated to the College of Cardinals by Pope Francis on Nov. 28, becoming the first African American cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Remi Bauer, the director of music at St. Rose of Lima Parish in Gaithersburg, said the choir’s YouTube video of the Christmas carols “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World” was the group’s third video in recent months.

“Our choir has been so blessed to serve in a new way,” she said. “Through this video, we wanted to give everyone a sense of home, since so many have not been able to return to church.”

Like the video produced by the archdiocesan Gospel Mass Choir, the one from St. Rose of Lima’s choir started with musical tracks, the organ music for the Christmas carols, sent to the 24 singers who recorded videos of their individual singing. The carols also featured musical accompaniment by a woman playing a flute and another woman playing a violin.

Also like the Gospel Mass Choir’s video, the video from the St. Rose of Lima choir drew on the technical talents of two of its choir members – Aiden Teter who did the audio mixing, and Josh Derby who edited the video.

Bauer noted that to give the St. Rose parishioners and other viewers a sense of home, images on the screen showed scenes of St. Rose of Lima Church. She said at the parish’s livestreamed Christmas Eve Masses, as a surprise the video for “O Come All Ye Faithful” will be the opening song, and the video for “Joy to the World” will be the closing hymn.

“It’s our gift to the parish,” she said of the music video featuring those Christmas carols.