HILLSBORO — St. Matthew Church has seven choirs. For each group, leading sung prayer is about more than hitting the right notes.
A few members of Veronica Vazquez’ Spanish-language youth choir say joining has transformed them. Some have left drug and sex habits to live a better life. “They want to serve God through the music,” says Vazquez, who has directed the 20-member choir since 2000.
Once the youths convert and attend Mass, their parents tend to follow. “With music, you can touch all these hearts,” Vazquez says.
Before each Mass, the choir gathers with the priest to pray. Last year, the group went to the Grotto’s Festival of Lights. This year, they want to sing for elders at an assisted living center.
“My job,” says Vazquez, “is not just to help them sing, but to help them feel God’s presence in their lives and help them be light for their families and at their schools.”
St. Matthew is a musical place. A leader even sings parts of the rosary before Mass on Sunday mornings. And when the Eucharist begins, people in the pews let rip with song, even if the sun has not yet risen.
None the 80 choristers at St. Matthew gets paid, though many are well-trained. The choirs have made an effort to be leaders, not stars. They once sang from the choir loft, but moved to the front of the church to be part of the circle of worshipers.
They choose songs everyone can sing. They refuse to don robes and when the homily starts, they walk out to sit with spouses, kids and other loved ones.
“The mission is to support and enhance the liturgy with participation of the congregation,” says Cindy Wright, who has coordinated all the choirs for 15 years and directs the 8:30 a.m. choir.
The ensembles have a rule of self-restraint. They avoid singing too grandly and keep solos to a minimum. If the liturgical action has ended, directors bring the song to a close, too. “We don’t want to be in the forefront,” Wright says.
The singers and musicians do value their craft and try to make the music as clean and beautiful as possible for worshipers. “I wonder, ‘Are they happy? Did we reach their hearts?’” Wright explains.
Several of the choirs run like small Christian communities, with members helping each other advance in faith. The richer belief gets transposed into richer music.
Those relationships move forward during an annal workshop and retreat, when all seven choirs gather to remember that their work goes beyond technical excellence to the realm of ministry.
Wright, 50, grew up at St. Matthew’s and attended the parish school here. She received her training from Sister Juliana Monti at St. Mary’s of the Valley, the Beaverton all-girls school that was a predecessor to Valley Catholic High.
The four English-language choirs and the three Spanish-language choirs team up for Holy Thursday, the Easter Vigil and Marian feasts. A handbell choir steps in for many occasions.
“It is a joint ministry. Not parallel, but together. It took 10 years to develop the relationship, to understand the cultural differences and embrace the differences,” Wright says.
Because there are so many groups, none feel the need to be all things for all worshipers. Choirs have developed individual charisms.
Wright’s 8:30 a.m. choir sings four-part harmony with pipe organ and sometimes flute.
The 10 a.m. folk choir is not out to be virtuosic, but participatory. That impacts song choices.
“We are about trying to get the congregation to sing. It’s their prayer, not our performance,” says Barb Stadelman, who joined the folk choir in 1976 and has directed it for the past 14 years. “You’ll have this feeling, ‘That’s a great song, but can the people sing it?’” Stadelman says.
St. Matthew was one of the first local parishes to have a folk choir after the Second Vatican Council. Some of the current members go back to the start. Stadelman learned to love music with the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon at St. Francis School in Roy. In her decades of church singing, she has noticed more discipline in song choice and she appreciates it.
“Now, we are praying with more scripture-based songs,” she says. “There is more validity in connecting to the scripture of the day. I think that’s really important. If you aren’t singing something that has to do with the liturgy of the day, what’s the point?”
Maria Nava and husband Cesar lead one of the Spanish choirs. Cesar directs and plays guitar as the group sings contemporary songs. Flute, harmonica and bongos round out accompaniment. “Our choir is more like a family — really,” says Maria, whose son and daughter also sing and play. Choir members socialize together, celebrating birthdays. Like all the choirs, they pray together before rehearsal and Mass.
“Music helps build faith,” Maria says.
She and Cesar, married for 18 years, meditate on the liturgy’s scripture together and choose music. That’s one of the things that has helped them stay close.
“All we do is from the heart and we always try to feed ourselves so we can add to what the priest says,” Maria explains.
Margie Fifer directs the 11:30 a.m. Mass contemporary ensemble.
“Our group is about rhythm and energy,” says Fifer, who knows that many youths attend that liturgy. Her husband Ky, a drummer by training, keeps the beat on Sundays by playing strong guitar. An African drum and harmonies add depth and excitement. The group trends up-tempo, but can also slow it down to help further the liturgical message.
“Our first and foremost mission as a choir is helping the congregation pray through song,” says Margie, who holds a master’s degree in music education from Portland State University and teaches music at the parish school. “If we can help them feel something or participate in a way that makes them reach for God or speak to God, we’ve done our job.”
Of the 10 or so members of the 11:30 choir, two are siblings and others are friends.
“It creates a sense of community that is stronger than if we were just acquaintances,” Margie says. “That shows God’s love in what we do.”
Maintaining a sense of spirituality and mission isn’t always easy. Christmas, for example, is demanding. Margie takes time to remind everyone that the choir is there to help people praise God.
Were they giving a concert, the group might add complexity and more solos. But because they are about worship, beautiful simplicity and familiarity are virtues.