Urban Mass Choir mesmerizes crowd Papal performance still talked about

October 10, 1995|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ | RAFAEL ALVAREZ,SUN STAFF

Polly Hargrove didn't tell a soul she was going to take a solo at Camden Yards on Sunday, but by the time the West Baltimorean was soaring through the climax of her gospel

performance, a stadium full of Catholics wanted to know who she was.

"I tried to be as humble as possible," said Ms. Hargrove, a member of Oliver Street's St. Francis Xavier parish. "I'm going to watch the video tonight so I can see exactly what everybody's talking about."

Everybody -- meaning anyone who saw the on-field festival of song and dance staged before Pope John Paul II's Mass at Oriole Park -- was talking about the concert given by the Urban Mass Choir of Baltimore.

A collection of choirs from the city's predominantly black parishes, the 80-member group sang seven numbers before the pope opened the Mass at 11:15 a.m.

It was Ms. Hargrove's knockout lead vocal on "Sign Me Up" from the African-American Catholic hymnal that particularly struck the audience with its brilliance.

The song is about commitment to Jesus Christ -- "Sign me up for the Christian jubilee I've been changed since the Lord has lifted me " -- and Ms. Hargrove said it reflects exactly how she feels.

"I want to be truly ready when my time comes, I strive hard for that," she said, adding that it was easier than she thought to sing for 50,000 instead of their usual crowd of 500.

The words were just there, just there," she said. "I really thought I was going to be nervous, but it was an even flow. I was in awe, especially when the pope came into the stadium."

Sylvia Hardison, another soloist, also rose to the occasion. "I don't know who the TV commentator was, but when Sylvia sang, he shouted: 'Sign her up!' " said the Rev. John Filippelli, pastor of St. Francis Xavier.

Directed by Fernando Allen, the Urban Mass Choir was organized at the request of Bishop John H. Ricard about 10 years ago for an old-fashioned revival designed to attract blacks to the Catholicism.

Since then, the choir has rehearsed regularly and performed at events like the August visit to Baltimore by Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican official from the Nigerian Archdiocese of Onitsha.

Seated on Sunday with 200 American bishops on both sides of the papal altar in center field, Bishop Ricard said his heart beat a little faster when the choir filled Camden Yards with gospel music.

"It always does when they sing," he said.

Watching the choir on television at her house a few miles from St. Francis Xavier, church secretary Mitzi Willis said "the tears were just streaming down my face" as she gazed at the tube.

"I have the experience of seeing them on a regular basis, but to see them magnified with all those other churches was heart-wrenching," she said. "It was like watching my family."

"I think we were a tad bit better than usual," said Curtis A. Jones, a tenor from St. Bernadine's on Edmondson Avenue who has sung for Pope John Paul II in Rome. "In rehearsal I heard a few sour notes coming from my section, but not [Sunday]. I think the Holy Spirit had a lot to do with it.

"It wasn't for fame and fortune," he said. "It was for the Lord and the moment."

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