Just before a Mass giving thanks for 30 years of his ministry of sacred music, Dean Applegate was hefting chairs. A family needed a few more seats to squeeze into packed St. Stephen Church in Southeast Portland.
For Applegate, 67, the choir he started in the early 1980s has always been about service. The singing, he says, helps people worship God. It's not performance.
Even with that lofty purpose, the choir has survived for three decades only because of "sheer determination" and the Holy Spirit, says Applegate.
No one makes money from the singing. It survives on donations. Over the years, it has often been close to the edge. To help fund the ministry, the choir is now selling a new CD of sacred music composed about the time of the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Other Cantores in Ecclesia CDs are sold by OCP, publisher of this newspaper.
There have been highlights. Applegate met Pope John Paul in the mid-1980s and Cantores sang for the pontiff. In 1997, the choir earned a gold medal in an international Palestrina competition in Rome. But what Applegate recalls most is week-in and week-out singing for worship and sustaining what he considers a treasure of ancient church music.
"Dean Applegate for years was a voice in the wilderness," says Robert Lincoln, retired music department chair at Rutgers University. Lincoln, now a member of Holy Rosary Parish in Portland, has been a longtime supporter of Cantores in Ecclesia. Now, Archbishop Alexander Sample, who presided at the anniversary Mass, offers exuberant and unqualified support.
"My good people, I feel like I have died and gone to heaven," the archbishop said during his homily.
Even before being named to lead the Archdiocese of Portland early this year, the archbishop had heard of Cantores in Ecclesia and admired the group. He called the choir a gift not only to the local church, but to the nation and the world.
The archbishop said that what Cantores in Ecclesia offers is "exactly what the Church asks of us" when it comes to music in sacred liturgy. The Second Vatican Council, he explained, asked Catholics to rediscover the Church's traditions of sacred liturgy, a process that is ongoing. He asked the choir and its leaders to consider themselves "leaven" that will help the entire Church rise.
Blake Applegate, Dean's son, has assumed leadership of the choir. He recalls traveling to France with the youth choir as a boy of 12 or 13. For him, the music has become a way of life.
"I am blessed to be able to carry it on," he says.
Father and son worked in tandem on this evening, Blake in the choir loft with the children's choir and Dean on the floor of the church, directing an adult schola. Almost 60 members of the choir sang during the anniversary Mass.
"The choir brings back the best of Catholic music," says Jane Murray, who sang with the choir from 1983 until 2001. "Especially chant brings out the meaning of the Mass."
Bennett Bailey, a longtime choir member, says the choir combines fine musicianship and profound worship. It's never just a performance for him. "For me, there is the beauty of the polyphony and the chant, but also the beauty of what it means to the church community," Bailey says. He characterizes Dean and Blake Applegate as "steadfast and solid."
Many young people sing in the choir and many teens and young adults came to the anniversary Mass, which was held in Latin according to the "Novus Ordo" rite set down during Vatican II. Archbishop Sample said worship like that fostered by Cantores in Ecclesia is instantly recognized as holy by young people. Chant, he said, is the music that can express the "holy mystery" of the Mass.
"I think young people would embrace it if they heard it," says Georgia Owen, a 20-year-old former member of the choir.
Owen's 25-year-old sister, Eve, has been worshiping with the choir for years. "It allows a deeper participation in Mass," she says.
Theresa Mensdoorff-Pouilly, visiting from Austria where she is a theology student, appreciated the music because Latin is somewhat familiar to Catholics all over the world.
The choir attracts Christians of all kinds. "The first time I heard the choir, it was glorious. It was overpowering," says Mackendree Thompson, a member of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church in West Linn. "It fills my heart with hope that human beings can create such beauty in the name of God."
Rosalie Schmitz, 73, sang in the St. Ignatius Parish choir for 45 years. She appreciates worship with Cantores, but also with the music of the St. Louis Jesuits and contemporary composers. She is glad the Catholic Church has both.
"The music is outstanding, but the community it creates is just as powerful," says George Gostovich, a 43-year-old supporter and a member of St. Cecilia Parish in Beaverton. "The way these choir members love each other and what they sacrifice is awe-inspiring."
Cantores in Ecclesia sings for the 7:30 p.m. liturgy each Saturday at St. Stephen and sponsors the William Byrd Festival, set this year for Aug. 9-25.