ARCHDIOCESE OF MELBOURNE REPORT:
By Edwina Hall
Kairos Catholic Journal
"Those who sing well pray twice."
St Augustine of Hippo
View Advent and Christmas Mass times at St Francis'
On the corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale streets, Melbourne sits St Francis' Church. It was the first Catholic church of the infant colony and is Melbourne's oldest building still on its original site and used for its original purpose. Today it is Australia's busiest church; 10,000 people pass through its doors each week. It is also the church in which St Mary of the Cross MacKillop was baptised and later made both her First Communion and Confirmation.
St Francis' has long been recognised not only for its beauty and historical significance but also for its musical excellence, which goes as far back as 1845. Today, the St Francis' Choir continues to fill people's hearts and souls with the sound of music, bringing them closer to God, and speaking to them in ways that words cannot.
Music director of the St Francis' Choir Tony Way has been with the choir for 25 years and has shared a love of music since he was four years old when he was taught to play the piano by his grandmother. He is proud of the choir's long history – though he says it did not have an auspicious start.
"The foundation stone of St Francis' Church was laid in 1841," he said. "The choir's first performance was in 1844 and the people who attended said the choir made a 'precious mess of it'.
"Our historian thinks that the musical expenses on that occasion may have been paid for by a so-called 'Micky Mac', an Irish murderer who apparently provided funds for the seraphine – a kind of primitive harmonium with a raucous, harsh sound.
"The church was finished in 1845 and that is the date from which the choir really begins. So, it's been in existence ever since except for a short period in the late 1950s and early '60s when it was taken over by the seminarians of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers."
Tony says the choir has had connections with several famous singers, including Anna Bishop and Amy Castles. This year it is celebrating Dame Nellie Melba, who sang with the choir in her early 20s, before she went overseas and became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era.
"We are celebrating Nellie Melba this year because it's the 150th anniversary of her birth, the 125th anniversary of her last performance with the St Francis' Choir – she sang with us for about 10 months – and it is also the 80th anniversary this year of her death." Tony said.
"Part of our mission these days is to continue to encourage young singers and it's important to have a connection with professional musicians."
Tony said women sang in the choir until 1937, when the motu proprio of 1903 by Pope Pius X, which banned the presence of women in choirs, was finally implemented. The choir went through a relatively lean period during the war years.
"Fr Ernest 'Chappy' Rayson re-founded the choir as a mixed choir in 1961, so it is the 50th anniversary of the re-founding of the choir this year," he said.
Today, the choir is going strong, with a mix of ethnicity and age groups that range from 18 to 80.
"The choir is predominantly volunteers, they sing 46 weeks of the year," Tony said. "The average weekly commitment is about six hours. It's an interesting and vital group but is not without its challenges, such as the financial reality."
Tony says St Francis' is uniquely placed in the heart of Melbourne.
"It's practically always been in the centre of Melbourne," he said. "It's quietly welcoming, and it's one of those places where people of any walk of life can come in and sit down and feel comfortable.
"Most people remember the first time they walked into the church. It has a certain appeal, there's a certain sort of spirituality."
He says there has been a big increase in international students living in inner Melbourne in the past decade, and many have found a spiritual home at St Francis'. "For them their Christianity is very important because they are often coming from countries where Christians form a minority."
He believes that the fact that there is music every day adds to the appeal of St Francis'.
"The music program is quite amazing," he said. "We have 43 regular Masses a week and at least 16 of those have music."
While St Francis' Choir provides an environment in which many learn and develop their skills, Tony says the demanding nature of the program means it is best suited to those with some ability and choral experience.
"If we think people are not going to fit, we have several other choirs they can join until such a time as they may feel more comfortable," he said.
"There are about 45 members at the moment but it is always good to have more and it gives them experience they probably can't get elsewhere in terms of the repertoire that we do.
"Where else would you get to sing with an orchestra as a volunteer chorister and have a captive audience of at least 800 people?"
Tony says many remarkable people have been associated with the choir, which currently has several members who have been with it for over 25 years.
"We have one tenor who is celebrating 50 years' association with the choir and another tenor, John Byrne, who has been with the choir continuously for over 40 years," Tony said.
He says the hope is that the choir will continue to attract new members and provide young people with the opportunity to be exposed to the considerable church music repertoire.
He says the choir is part of a living history that has enriched Melbourne.
"Our choir is not a museum culture," he said, "it's a living thing – very much so. In keeping with St Francis' ethos, it is a welcoming place and we don't have any restrictions on religion.
"It's amazing how music can transcend denominational barriers. I think musicians have always been ecumenists. So we try to be catholic in all senses of the word."
Tony says St Francis' Choir's mission is essentially to bring people closer to God through the beauty of music, which has a remarkable effect at several levels.
"There's a dimension of human life that can only really be reached by music," he said. "And of course that harmonises very well with spirituality.
"There have been a lot of studies over the past couple of years about the physical and psychological benefits of singing, especially in a group. I think people build it into the fabric of their lives. It's a deep-seated spiritual and emotional thing that gives a lot of pleasure, fulfilment and satisfaction as well as socialisation.
"There's a lot in our life that we can't articulate in words, so I think that people's hopes, aspirations, joys and sadness can somehow be supported with music.
"There is a whole range of concepts spiritually that you can't come to grips with, except through music. We really cannot do without it."
For information about joining St Francis' Choir, contact Tony Way: 9639 4560
December 11 William Byrd Mass for Five Voices
Advent 3 Anon Rejoice in the Lord Always
December 16 The annual Carol Festival will take place at 7pm.
December 18 Josef Haydn Missa Rorate Coeli
Advent 4 Sergei Rachmaninov Ave Maria
December 24 George Malcolm Missa ad Praesepe
Christmas Midnight Ola Gjeilo O Magnum Mysterium (With the Symphonia of Melbourne)
Christmas Day The National Boys’ Choir directed by Philip Carmody will sing at the 11am Solemn Eucharist.
Donations can be made to St Francis' Choir Foundation, 326 Lonsdale St, Melbourne 3000.
Kairos Catholic Journal, Volume 22. No. 23