Don’t talk to the guys at St. Michael’s Abbey about the old standards. Don’t bring up the Cole Porter chestnuts or the Irving Berlin ditties or the Gershwin tunes if you want to impress them with your knowledge of music in the old days. It won’t work.
To the priests and seminarians at the abbey, Mozart might as well have been a rapper. They deal each day in music that was new when the Chinese were using printing presses for the first time: Gregorian chant.
They sing unto the Lord an old song.
They belong to the small Roman Catholic community of priests known as Norbertines, an order founded in France in 1121 by St. Norbert and that flourished in later centuries in Hungary. St. Michael’s is the headquarters of one of only three Norbertine communities in the United States, and it is the only Catholic seminary in Orange County.
It is also one of the few places you can hear the Mass sung not only in Latin, but in Gregorian chant. The performance of chant as part of the liturgy is the cornerstone of the Norbertine order.
The priests of the abbey teach at St. Michael’s Prep School (which is on the grounds of the abbey north of El Toro), as well as at Santa Margarita and Mater Dei high schools, and they work at various Orange County parishes on weekends. But “our main purpose is to sing the liturgy--what we call the divine office,” said Father Philip Smith, the abbey’s music director.
“The liturgy is the focal point of our lives, and Christmas is the personification of that because we have a beautiful midnight Mass preceded by Christmas carols and midnight Matins.”
Word gets around. The abbey’s church routinely is filled to capacity for the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. People from throughout the county come to hear the choir of 20 seminarians sing the ancient unison songs developed by Pope Gregory I in the 6th Century. For most of the seminarians, that night is about as close to show business as they’ll get.
“There is a bit of show biz,” said Darrin Merlino, a postulant, or begining seminary student, from Huntington Beach. “For some reason, we always seem to sound better when there’s a group out there watching us. But overall, it’s pointed toward Christ.
“I never really did anything musically before I came here, and it’s exciting being an active member and singing rather than just listening. You really get a feel for the music and you become part of it.”
Although all Norbertines sing, few have had formal musical training, Smith said. Seminarians may never have sung in a choir or learned to read music before coming to St. Michael’s, “but we give them plenty of experience once they get here,” he added.
At the abbey, not only do they learn to read music, but they master the complexities of the ancient “square notation” used in Gregorian chant, in which the musical note heads are square-shaped rather than oval and have no stems to indicate rhythm.
“I was mostly used to guitar Masses before coming here, and that just didn’t appeal to me,” said Frater Justin Ramos (the designation is Latin for brother ), a seminarian from Los Angeles. “When I first heard Gregorian chant, it really stirred me. I had learned the notation, and when I came here that was made alive for me. That drew me. They place such a great emphasis on it here. It really inspired me to want to learn it more.”
Romy Kirchhoefer, a postulant from Salt Lake City, said he came to the abbey for a Palm Sunday Mass before entering St. Michael’s Prep School, “and they were playing the Gregorian chant through the speakers outside. That was the first time I’d heard it, really, outside of maybe an old movie somewhere.
“It was really a powerful factor in my wanting to join the community because I thought that it was really beautiful. I liked the way people were wearing the white habit and that they were in a religious community, but I think the Gregorian chant was really the determinant for me.”
Kirchhoefer, Ramos and a handful of other seminarians have learned enough of the chant and of the more familiar polyphonic music--which employs harmony--to qualify for the abbey’s polyphonic schola. This is a smaller choir that sings four-part pieces daily in rehearsal and performs traditional Christmas carols in parts beginning on Christmas Eve.
“They’re the cream of the musical crop at St. Michael’s,” said Smith, who has a bachelor’s degree in music education from Cal State Fullerton.
The sound produced by both choirs was striking enough to get the attention of John and Deborah Traylor, record producers from Huntington Beach. They arranged for the choirs to record a compact disc of Christmas songs and chants last December. The disc was released in Southern California in October.
The songs and chants on the recording don’t show the polish of a professional choir, but they weren’t meant to, Smith noted.
“We didn’t learn any music specifically for the recording,” he said. “We said, ‘OK, we’ve sung the midnight Mass, now we’re going to document it.’ We wanted as much as possible to have it sound just as it sounds when people come to midnight Mass here. We did not want it to be too polished. We did not want a studio sound. We wanted people to be able to hear in their homes what it’s like to come to midnight Mass at St. Michael’s.”
In dealing with Gregorian chant, he said, “the true professionals are not necessarily the ones with (musical) expertise because Gregorian chant embodies a centuries-old tradition of worship. The true professionals in that kind of music are the ones who have dedicated their lives to living out that tradition.”
For the seminarians and priests of St. Michael’s, working as a choir is an outgrowth of a communal life unique to Orange County. Most priests in the county are of the diocesan, or parish, variety and live in small numbers in rectories near their churches. The Norbertines are priests of the type known as religious, and most of them live together in a specific location dedicated specifically to their community: the abbey.
The community of Norbertine priests that would eventually live at the abbey began when a small group of Hungarian Norbertines established the seminary on El Toro Road in 1961. Five years later, the prep school began to accept non-seminarian students as boarders.
In 1984, the community was given full abbey status by the Vatican, a step that indicates the church hierarchy “feels that you have a community that is going to be around permanently,” Smith explained. “It kind of shows that you have become self-sufficient.”
Young men studying to be priests at St. Michael’s begin as postulants and attend classes at Saddleback College for at least two years if they have had no previous college training. If they and the priests at the abbey decide they are ready to continue their studies, they go on to live at the abbey as novices and study theology and philosophy there for two years. Their final studies before being ordained are completed in Rome.
The priests take the common vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but for the Norbertines there is another, lesser vow: stability. They promise to remain with the community at the abbey. This powerful sense of community is one of the main reasons several of the seminarians said they decided to study with the Norbertines.
“A priest friend of mine who is at a parish in Costa Mesa told me that at one time in his life, he desired the community life because he said that life in the rectory, as ironic as it seems, is very lonely,” Kirchhoefer said. There are only a small handful of priests who live at each parish, he said, but “in the community life, you have tens of people going through the same things, the same troubles, the same joys and everything is much more like a family.”
That family used to be much more isolated. When ground was broken on the 35 acres where the abbey now sits, the hillside was “nothing but rocks,” Smith said. Years before widespread development worked its way north on El Toro Road, the abbey was a kind of quiet, isolated oasis among the scrub brush.
Today, the grounds are covered with a lush variety of trees and flowering plants (planted and tended by the priests and seminarians), and quiet and tranquillity still surround the place. But on the facing hillside, across El Toro Road, a large housing tract has sprung up. It has produced mixed feelings in the religious community.
“When the first founding fathers came here from Hungary,” Kirchhoefer said, “the only thing here was Cook’s Corner, a popular hangout for motorcycle clubs, and it was relatively quiet. I think most of us like that because it sets the ambience for our spiritual life, and also for our prayer life and our studies. We get enough (of life outside the abbey) when we go out to work at the parishes. We just want to come back and just be quiet. But the ambience now has changed considerably.”
But, said Frater Xavier Cloney, a seminarian from West Covina, another priest at the abbey put the concept of isolation into a different perspective.
“One time I complained to the principal of the school here that we were getting surrounded, and he told me that we didn’t come here to get away from people. Now, he said, they were coming to us. Our intention was to have just enough land for a high school and an abbey.”
Said Kirchhoefer: “I didn’t come here for the hills. I came here for the life and for the spirituality.”
And, of course, for the music, particularly at Christmastime. But, unlike the commercial world, the Norbertines never jump the gun on holiday celebrations.
“Our Christmas really begins for us right on Christmas Day,” Ramos said. “The time before that, for us, is a time of waiting and expectation, waiting for our Lord. Midnight Mass is really the climax. And everything remains for two or three weeks after Christmas, but our decorations--the trees, the lighted candles and so forth--don’t go up until Christmas Eve.”
But, Smith added, Christmas carols and chant are heard weeks before the decorations arrive. Like all other seasonal singers, the Norbertines must start rehearsing “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “Silent Night” in November. And, if a few clinkers work their way into the music during the Christmas Masses, well, the priests are in the business of forgiving.
“As a musician, there were a lot of things I would have liked to have cleaned up (in the recording),” Smith said. “But as a priest and a Norbertine, I wouldn’t want to dabble with it one bit, because this is from their hearts.”