Shrine of the Little Flower gives the holiday season a heavenly ring

December 20, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

The December afternoon sun has just enough power to throw light through the Gothic windows of the big fieldstone church at Belair Road and Brendan Avenue.

Come 4 o'clock on a Sunday in Advent, the church resounds with traditional music for the days before Christmas.

The Shrine of the Little Flower choir fills the nave with "Once in Royal David's City." The organ segues into a lush meditation on the airs of "O Sanctissima," that ages-old hymn to the Virgin Mary. The congregation falls absolutely silent for the haunting "Gesu Bambino," one of those carols that could make a believer out of a skeptic.

The voices blend so gracefully this service of Bible readings and carols seems easy. But do not bemisled. Christmas music practice for the all-volunteer ensemble of 34 began in September. Every Tuesday night people from the immediate neighborhood around the church walk to practice. Others from Gardenville, Hamilton, Perry Hall, Parkville, Kingsville, Bel Air and Aberdeen drive to rehearse.

"By the time Advent and Christmas arrive, we've done most of the hard work. If you haven't practiced enough, you just won't be ready," said Michael T. Britt, the Peabody Conservatory-trained director of music for the Shrine of the Little Flower. He is now in his fourteenth year as choir master and organist at a Northeast Baltimore Catholic parish so identified with the neighborhood that real estate listings often refer to this part of the Belair Road as "Little Flower."

His church choir musicians work hard and long. They don't get the praise of newspaper reviews, but the Little Flower choir is known, respected and lauded throughout Northeast Baltimore. Just try to get a seat for midnight Mass, when rank after rank of candles flicker on the high altar beneath a huge painting of St. Therese of Lisieux, the 19th Century Carmelite nun for whom the church is named.

"What a job they do. It's like the angels singing," said Francis (Buzz) O'Connor, an employee of the Schimunek Funeral Home on Brehms Lane who has heard the choir sing many times.

The group's first soprano is Darby Jecelin, who lives in Parkville but grew up on Pelham Avenue.

She is one of the few members who has studied with a voice teacher.

"It's an all volunteer organization. People are members because they want to be. And Michael Britt treats us all as musicians with great respect," she said.

Jecelin met her fiance, 23-year-old Andrew Skalski, a Pitney Bowes employee, in the choir.

"I heard the choir sing at the Christmas midnight mass. Darby had a solo, 'O Holy Night.' Later they sang the 'Hallelujah Chorus.' I was really taken and joined the choir the next year," Skalski said.

The choir includes two married couples as well as a father and daughter.

Tom Jecelin, Darby's father, works at Amtrak's electric traction office at Pennsylvania Station. For the past seven years he's sung bass at Little Flower

"I've never taken a lick of music in my life. I just like to sing," Tom Jecelin said. "For the most part, nobody leaves the choir. All our personalities seem to fit together."

The choir members agree part of their success is the music that Britt selects.

It is melodic and you'll never hear the Christmas dreck that gets piped through malls, elevators and outdoor loudspeakers.

The repertoire draws heavily from traditional Roman Catholic works.

For this, the choir has to learn Latin pronunciation at its Tuesday night classes.

"Don't say 'magnum' like Magnum P.I. on television. Say 'magh-num' softly," Britt instructed the other evening during a run through of a Gloria by the 18th Century composer Antonio Vivaldi.

Good acoustics help, too.

The choir sings from an elevated gallery in the rear of the church alongside a Casavant Brothers pipe organ made in French Canada.

"When Christmas Eve rolls around, I hope we're ready. We've certainly tried. It is rare that someone misses a rehearsal. Isn't that a director of music's dream?" Britt said.

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