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Choir tries Trappist lifestyle

Meg Mirshak | Tuesday, January 29, 2008

During winter break, the Notre Dame Folk Choir spent four days on retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, observing the lives of Trappist Monks and reflecting in an environment with limited distraction.

Fifty of the 55 choir members embarked Jan. 11 for Trappist, Ky., where they focused on personal relationships before beginning the second semester of the academic year.

Founded in the 1970s, the Folk Choir combines traditional choral repertoire with contemporary music. Today, the choir uses instrumentalists such as guitar, violin and flute to accompany the organ and choral voices.

Every two years, the Folk Choir tries to make a retreat to the Abbey of Gethsemani, said Campus Ministry intern Joe Nava. Nava, a Notre Dame graduate, is now in his sixth year as a member of the choir.

Father Dan Parrish, former rector of Zahm Hall accompanied the choir.

The purpose of the abbey is to allow living without distraction, Nava said. The Folk Choir briefly experienced monastic life at the cloistered monastery, where the monks pray out loud seven times a day.

“It was fascinating to observe a contemplative lifestyle,” said senior Michael McKenna, who joined the Folk Choir his sophomore year. “It is a unique way of finding our vocation and a part of our Catholic tradition that not many are exposed to.”

The retreat was a profoundly religious experience for some attendants, Nava said.

“Finding God in the silence is the gift of Gethsemani to the students,” Nava said.

The students participated in prayer and sang Gregorian chant with the monks and otherwise kept silent on the abbey grounds.

“We hope students can make it to the abbey,” said Nava, who said he was pleasantly surprised to see the eagerness of students to enter into the silence and lessons of the retreat.

“I enjoyed observing the way Trappist monks live their everyday life,” junior Mary McLaughlin said. “The monks accept others into their homes, lives, and worship.”

McLaughlin particularly enjoyed walking the local trails in the pleasant weather the group enjoyed.

“Gethsemani is beautiful, quiet, and peaceful,” McLaughlin said. “And it is nice to be with God, nature, and friends.”

The retreat, planned by students and Nava, included talks from five students and Karen Kirner, associate director of the Folk Choir. Father Chrysogonus Waddel, a renowned musical composer, presented a guest lecture to the choir. The Folk Choir also performed a concert for the monks in the church of the abbey, which currently houses 65 Trappist monks.

Also invited to the choir concert were members of the surrounding towns of Bethany, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. French religious missionaries, who founded the abbey in 1842, established a strong Catholic community in the area of the abbey, Choir Director Steve Warner said.

The Gethsemani Abbey shares a close history with Notre Dame, Warner said, noting that Father Badin was a missionary in the same region of Kentucky. Badin’s remains are buried beneath the historic Log Chapel on campus.

The choir had the opportunity to reflect and listen as individuals, Warner said, and it helped to replenish the group.

“It was a great experience at the start of the semester, especially as a senior to examine my faith life and reflect on the things I have done during my time at Notre Dame,” McKenna said.

The Folk Choir provides the music for Sunday Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at 11:45 a.m. The choir also performs at special University liturgies and tours around the United States and other countries. At the end of the spring semester, the group will perform in Scotland and Ireland.

The choir is composed mostly of undergraduate students, although a few graduate students join them each year. Auditions for upperclassmen are held in May, and freshmen can audition during orientation week each August.