Thoughts from Dr. Joe: La Cañada choir’s Vatican performance echoes abroad and at home

I find myself this morning in Franklin, N.C., prepping for an adventure into the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. I want to stare into the eye of the people and assimilate their rich culture. Since seeing the movie "Songcatcher," a 2000 film about a musicologist researching Appalachian folk music, I've become fascinated by the region.

But it's Monday morning, and I have a 1 p.m. Eastern time deadline with the Valley Sun. While my buddy Fred Alexander works the gear, I'm in a small café putting thoughts together about the recent La Cañada High School Concert Choir tour in Italy.


"Cantiamo," Italian for "sing," is a good one-word definition for the ultimate adventure of the La Cañada artists as they toured Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Rome and the Vatican. Their director, Dr. Jeff Brookey, orchestrated yet another life-changing experience for his students. I've been on two such adventures during my daughters' tenures with Dr. Brookey. Each opportunity to watch our young people bring voice to the world in settings that are themselves pieces of art encompasses my understanding of pageantry. I am changed by such moments, and I thank Dr. Brookey for providing them.

My thoughts this morning have an interesting twist, as they explain the serendipity of happenstance. If you speak to enough people about enough people, someone is going to know someone who knows someone who ultimately knows you. No matter where you are in the world, according to sociologists, we're only separated by six levels.


As the La Cañada Concert Choir performed at the Holy Mass in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, Jim Cartnal, the school's much-beloved administrator and one of the tour chaperones, commented to a young woman sitting next to him that since he did not understand Italian nor the rituals of the mass, he was thankful to follow the woman's lead. Upon hearing of Cartnal's connection to the choir, the woman introduced herself.

"I'm Ashley Puglia," she said. "You must know my Uncle Joe and my Aunt Kaitzer."

Ashley has roots in La Cañada. Before moving to Rome, she was a regular visitor and would spend hours at our local Starbucks working on her Ph.D. in theology while I wrote "12 Stories from the Bronx." Currently, she's a professor at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross of Rome and teaches the next generation of priests. She's also the Rome correspondent for Relevant Radio and has hosted and anchored a weekly television news and culture show called "Voice of the Vatican." Many La Cañadans who visit Rome experience the wonder of the Eternal City with her help, as she also conducts personal tours.

Ashley recently sent me a message expressing that of all the choirs that she has seen perform at the Vatican and throughout Rome and Italy, the La Cañada artists were superior. She recorded their Saint Peter's performance and sent it my way. She also told me that the priest who celebrated the mass expressed his appreciation for the choir's remarkable performance and asked for a recording.

Jeff Brookey creates magic as he brings the gift of "il canto" (song). Jim Cartnal brings inspiration and leadership to his students. Ashley Puglia brings Zen to the metaphysical essence of Rome and beyond her depth of knowledge of Italian culture, she was moved by the LCHS Choir.

Well, I'm at my word limit and thanks to a three-hour time difference, I'll make my deadline. The Great Smoky Mountains await. Visit me next week, and I'll tell you about what I saw.

Note my niece's website: I just have to brag.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at Visit his website at