Saintly voices


POSTED: Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A choir of 68 singers rocked the rafters of a downtown Honolulu shoe store-turned-parish hall Thursday night, knowing that their voices will need to fill some huge, grand spaces soon.

Hawaii residents are blending their voices as the Damien Canonization Choir will sing in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Italy, next month. Unlike 500 other island residents headed for the Oct. 11 canonization of Father Damien De Veuster, it will be a working vacation for the volunteer choristers whose usual venues are Oahu parish churches.

The choir will sing in other majestic and historic churches in Belgium and Rome—a traditional Mass in St. John Lateran Basilica and a Hawaiian liturgy in St. Paul Outside the Wall, both in Rome. They will also perform in festivities at Damien's hometown in Tremelo, Belgium.

“;Make it sound like when your mother weeps,”; choir director Calvin Liu told the group at a recent rehearsal at Kamiano Parish Hall, the former Kim Chow shoe store, next door to the Our Lady of Peace Cathedral on Fort Street Mall. They practiced a lament, “;A Hea La I Kuu Halawai,”; dating from Damien's time.


A Latin hymn, “;Jubilate Deo Omnis Terra”;—sing to God, all the world—by Belgian composer Flor Peeters, contrasted with a joyous resonance.





» In concert: 7 p.m. Friday
        » Place: Our Lady of Peace Cathedral, Fort Street Mall
        » Admission: Free


New compositions will be debuted for a local audience in a free concert Friday. Robert Mondoy, who accompanies the choir on keyboard, composed “;A Faithful Son of Sacred Hearts,”; referring to Damien's religious order. Patrick Downes wrote “;The Heart of Damien,”; a modern person's prayer for what it takes to follow in Damien's path: “;increase my love, enlarge my heart ... embolden me to quell their pain.”;

The songs give a poignant vision of the desolate place Kalaupapa was when leprosy victims were first isolated there in the mid-1800s, and the love and compassion Damien brought as “;a servant of the poor, restoring hope in life itself and faith in God above,”; in Mondoy's words.

“;These hymns are not necessarily Hawaiian style, more of a churchy style,”; said Liu, the cathedral's choir director since 1991. Downes' song begins with a chanted tune familiar to Catholics from the Requiem Mass for the dead. “;Then it develops into a more Hawaiian sound, in a minor mode.”; Liu described Mondoy's work as being in the “;English hymn tradition you hear in the Episcopal church.”;

Liu said, “;Damien speaks of his first Mass in Hawaii, how wonderful it was to hear the kanaka sing.”;

“;Damien had three choirs in Kalaupapa,”; Mondoy said. “;In my mind, they would have sung this kind of music.”;

Many of the choristers have links to the settlement where about 20 former leprosy patients still live by choice. The cathedral choir gave a concert there in July, marking its 25th annual appearance. Several songsters from the St. John Vianney parish in Kailua visit Kalaupapa four times a year, singing for holiday services and undertaking projects including yardwork and painting for patients and the Catholic parish.

Cathedral choir member Piolani Motta said the trip to Rome “;is an honor for me, a small contribution in memory of my own grandparents, my uncle and an aunt who felt the pain and suffering and isolation of Kalaupapa. My connection to Damien is to honor all the families he blessed.”;

Sandy Padilla and his wife, Lita, are in the Mililani Catholic parish choir, and their daughter Melissa joined them for this special occasion. “;This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing,”; he said. Padilla has a sentimental link to Kalaupapa through Sister Dativa Padilla, his sibling and a Franciscan nun, who worked there for many years before her death.

Mondoy, whose compositions are familiar in island Catholic services, said he works with the 1886 “;Lira Katolica”; book of Hawaiian-language hymns. “;I use the texts and recast them melodically.”; One that he thinks was known to Damien and his contemporaries in Kalaupapa is based on Psalm 137, about being sorrowful on a foreign shore, “;by the shores of Babylon we sat and wept.”;

“;Music is that language that supersedes all other language,”; Liu said. The amount of emotion and feeling you can transmit through music ... when words fail, music doesn't fail.”;

Several island musicians and composers are writing songs about Damien, but to be sung in a Catholic church, Liu said, a song must “;maintain the tradition of the church's texts.”;

Simply put, songs for a church service are directed to God. “;Our Hawaiian style is we animate a story: 'You are a voice who calls,' speaking to the priest. That's not proper for church use,”; Liu explained. “;It's God who calls to us. It's through the saints we are inspired to follow God.”;

The local singers are not scheduled to sing for the Oct. 11 event in St. Peter's Square when Pope Benedict XVI declares Damien and four other people saints. But, as one choir member said with a twinkle, “;that doesn't mean we won't burst into spontaneous song!”;