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San Quentin inmates are studying Gregorian chant


Zboralski | CC BY-SA 3.0

John Burger - published on 08/22/18

California institution where Johnny Cash once crooned will hear ancient chants during liturgy.

Almost 50 years ago, Johnny Cash took to the stage at San Quentin Prison. Among the many tunes he sang for prisoners was the old Gospel song, “Peace in the Valley.”

“And the beasts from the wild Shall be led by a child And I’ll be changed, changed from this creature that I am.”

This weekend, some of today’s inmates will be hearing music with a similar message about God’s power to change even the hardest of hearts. But the melodies will be a little different.

For the first time in many years, on Saturday, August 25, the Roman Catholic Mass in the Extraordinary Form—what’s familiarly called the “old Latin Mass”—will be offered at San Quentin. If that’s not surprising enough, some of the prisoners themselves will be singing the Gregorian chant to accompany the Mass.

An organization founded by the Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone, has been working with several inmates to train them in singing this ancient music. On August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, a small choir introduced chant and Renaissance-style polyphonic hymns to a group of inmates. At the end of the concert, 25 prisoners volunteered to form a prison “schola” in support of the upcoming Latin Mass.

The visiting choir, headed by Rebekah Wu, is under the auspices of the archdiocese’s Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, which aims to provide practical resources for more beautiful and reverent liturgy and by energizing a Catholic culture of the arts.

Maggie Gallagher, Executive Director of Benedict XVI Institute, and Archbishop Cordileone, along with Father Cassian, a Contemplative of St. Joseph monk who is going to celebrate the first Extraordinary Form Mass on August 25, accompanied the visiting choir August 6. Gallagher said she was impressed by the enthusiastic reaction on the part of the inmates, calling it a “totally unexpected gift from God.”

She said that the visitors met many men who “work hard in the prison to make the community better.”

“Dwight, the sound guy, introduced himself and started asking about how we wanted to be miked for the Latin Mass,” Gallagher said. “Bobby, an old hand, told me he used to sing the Latin Mass at St. Peter’s in the Mission district with the ‘Christian brothers.’ Sam, who sat behind me, was a Protestant curious about this new music.  He’s only been in San Quentin for a few weeks, ‘but the church scene is popping!’ he told me.”

The concert was a mix of traditional works and newer compositions, with samples from throughout the liturgical year. At one point, Jesuit Fr. George Williams, the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin, took the opportunity to offer a reflection on a painting in the chapel.

“That is St. Dismas, the good thief who repented and whom Jesus saved,” he told the gathering. “That painting was gifted to us by a death row inmate who died last year, Fernando Caro.”

He said later that the large turnout made it clear to him that “the men at San Quentin have a hunger for beauty and prayer.”

“The concert by the Benedict XVI Institute was clearly enjoyed by those who attended,” Fr. Williams said. “They also appreciated the support and presence of Archbishop Cordileone who has made it a point to visit the prison often.”

Archbishop Cordileone, in a statement, commented, “I saw these men, who humanly speaking are in a dire situation that may seem hopeless, be lifted up to God by sacred beauty and given new hope. They love to sing, and they worship well. So, the response of the men to the invitation to form a Latin Mass schola was overwhelming but not surprising.”

The Benedict XVI Institute offers free chant workshops for teachers and choir directors, and a children’s chant camp. It also publishes the online Catholic Arts Today, which focuses on the life and work of living Catholic artists.

Sacred Music
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