Monday, December 22, 2014

Singing Songs in Praise of God

The Latin choir at the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, at Fort Kochi, is one, among a few in India, which is still going strong

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo by Mithun Vinod 

Sometime ago, the Latin choir of the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica in Fort Kochi was invited to sing at a wedding in a church at Coimbatore. During the mass, thechoir began to sing Handel's 'Hallelujah'. When it was over the priest, who was officiating at the wedding, in an unprecedented move, stopped the mass, and said, Could you please sing it again, because I feel like I am in the Vatican?”

At his home in Fort Kochi, on a cloudy and windy morning, the leaves creating a rustling sound among the trees in his courtyard, senior choir member Adrian Hubert (Jackie) D'Cruz, 70, breaks out into a smile. “It was an extraordinary moment,” says Jackie.

But the choir has always received appreciation, especially during the Midnight Mass at Christmas. In fact, it has become a tradition, among foreign tourists, that if you are in Kerala, on December 24, then you must attend the midnight service at the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica and listen to the Latin choir.

“A large number of the congregation are Europeans,” says Jackie. “After the mass is over, they congratulate us for the singing. They are surprised that we are still keeping up the Latin tradition.”

The choir, which consists of 12 singers – four men and eight women – range in age from 20 to 75. And they sing in four voices: bass, tenor, alto and soprano.

The prime force is Godwin Figueiredo, 62, who plays the organ. “He is an excellent teacher and composer, and has the gift of writing music,” says choir member Coral Godinho, who trained under Godwin, and became a tenor, like Jackie.

“There are many traditional masses in Latin,” says Godwin. “The most common is the Missa De Angelus. This is a universal mass that takes place in Catholic churches throughout the world.” Some of the hymns include Kyrie Alison (Lord of Mercy), the Credo (I Believe), Gloria In Excelsis Deo (Glory to God on High), and Pater Noster (Our Father).

The Santa Cruz group is one, among a few in India, which is still going strong. “Although most people prefer the English mass nowadays,” says Godwin. But those who listen to the Latin hymns are gripped. “There is a mystique in the music,” says church-goer Annabel Peters. “Just like when you go to the temple and hear the chants in Sanskrit, similarly, there is a power in these hymns.” Coral agrees. “There is a divinity in the songs and you can sense the presence of God,” she says.

As for the history, in 1918, a Portuguese priest, Fr. Furtado, came to Fort Kochi and trained a few young men in choral singing. They included Jackie's father, William, and his friend Dionysius Fernandez. After a couple of years Fr. Furtado returned to Portugal, and Dionysius took over. “A lot of the people who sang in thechoir at that time were his classmates,” says Jackie. “They were a good group, till Dionysius passed away in 1970.”

Suddenly, there was no leader and the choir faded away. But, in 1985, thanks to the initiative taken by a nun, the late Dr. Teresa Lonan, who was the headmistress of the St. Mary's Anglo-Indian school at Fort Kochi, as well as Tony Fernandez, a local businessman, who became the patron, the choir was revived once again, with Godwin in charge. 

“It has been going strong ever since,” says Tony.

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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