Singing carols in French, Polish, German and Italian inspires memories for St. Cecilia Choir members
Story and photos by Rebecca Drake
WILBRAHAM – For Chicago native Diane Diehl, the scene is Christmas Eve and the children are searching the sky for the first star.
Bonnie McCarthy is on her way from Long Island to Brooklyn, N.Y., to visit her great-grandparents, German immigrants Ernest and Katrina Oldenbusch. And Gail Manning is singing French carols during the Christmas Mass with her classmates from St. Aloysius School in Indian Orchard.
For these women, and other members of the adult choir at St. Cecilia Church in Wilbraham, singing Christmas carols in the original languages is adding a special dimension to the parish's annual Festival of Carols, to be held on Sunday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. The snow date is Tuesday, Dec. 18, at 7 p.m.
"A lot of these songs have special meaning for the people in the choir and the congregation of St. Cecilia's," says Todd Rovelli, the parish's music director and organist. "They will touch the hearts of many people."
The program includes the French carol, "Il Est Né"; the Celtic-styled "I Saw Three Ships"; a West Indies carol, "Calypso Lullaby"; and "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow," an American gospel number.
Diehl (pictured at right), whose maiden name is Wagrowski, is the daughter of Polish immigrant parents. For her, the soothing melody and sweet soprano-alto harmonies of "Lulajze Jezuniu" ("Polish Lullaby Carol") brings memories of her family's celebration of Wigilia, the traditional Polish Christmas Eve vigil meal.
"The kids would look for the first star before we could begin the meal -- with the Polish carols in the background," Diehl recalls. "We would then begin by sharing the opłatek (Christmas wafer) with each other, sharing good wishes for the year."
Choir member Helen Mysliwy, the daughter of Polish immigrants Bertha and Walter Komorowski, grew up in Holyoke and attended Mater Dolorosa School, where she sang Polish carols with her classmates. "Christmas is a big time of year for Polish families," she says, with a focus on food and music.
Mysliwy, who at 96 has recently begun taking organ lessons, is helping other choir members with the pronunciation of the Polish lyrics of the "Lullaby Carol." She says she got her love of music from her father, who was "always singing around the house."
McCarthy was a very young child when her grandparents used to take her to visit her German-born great-grandparents on Christmas Eve. "There were candles on the Christmas tree and beautiful German ornaments," she recalls. And one Christmas Eve, on the way home from Brooklyn, she thought she saw Santa's sleigh in the sky.
When the choir sings the final verse of "Silent Night" in the original German, McCarthy's thoughts will be of her ancestors' skills as metal workers, and perhaps of her great-grandmother's Pekinese dog, Chubby.
In a similar way, choir member Connie Sattler -- whose maiden name is Cardillicchio -- recalls the voices of her parents in the Italian carols. Sattler, who grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in East Hartford, Conn., said her parents "were rugged, hardworking people."
Sattler's father was from Naples, Italy, and her memories include visiting "all the relatives" on Christmas Eve and having "crowds for Christmas dinner."
St. Cecilia choir member and cantor Carol Adamski-Maggi (left), who will be singing "Gesu Bambino," grew up in a bilingual household, speaking English with her father and Italian with her mother, Maria (Zenga) Adamski, who also is from Naples. Adamski-Maggi has memories of learning traditional Italian Christmas carols from her mother -- and of the delicious Italian food served by her relatives on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
And while most parishes in the Springfield Diocese were founded to serve specific ethnic communities, the multi-lingual program of this year's Festival of Carols reflects the diversity of contemporary Catholic worship communities, according to St. Cecilia's pastor, Father Joseph M. Sorrano.
But the customs, food and languages of one's ancestors bring a special meaning to the celebration of Christmas, says Father Soranno, whose own parents were Italian immigrants.
"People will enjoy listening to carols in the different languages," he said, noting that the parish's newly appointed parochial vicar, Father Daniel Cymer, is from Poland.
As the years go by, the ethnic Christmas music also helps to preserve the memories of loved ones for many Catholics, including Diehl.
"The carols play during the entire meal -- a tradition we still do today," Diehl says.
"As family members pass on and new ones join, Wigilia remains constant," she says. "The carols for me bring back floods of memories. This particular lullaby ("Lulajze Jezuniu") is always one we play -- it is so simple, but yet so beautiful."
The Festival of Carols is free and open to the public. Refreshments will follow in the parish center.