By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
GOWER — Set apart from the bustle of town and city, in the rolling hills of northwest Missouri, the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus is home to the youthful Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles community. Consecrated to Mary, with the charism of praying for priests, the contemplative community prays and sings hymns and chants in their chapel eight times each day.
As a result, their voices have melded into a carillon of harmony. On Nov. 20, Decca Records and De Montfort Music will release that harmonious carillon internationally in “Advent at Ephesus,” a 16-track CD of traditional English and Latin hymns, Gregorian chants and harmonies dating back to the Middle Ages. There is also an original work with words and music by the Sisters, Adjuvabit Eam, Help Me. Mother Cecilia Snell, prioress of the community, arranged the songs.
The Sisters maintain silence through much of their days, speaking only to ask work-related questions or to give instructions. An ancient Cistercian sign language is used for other communication. Silence “cultivates an atmosphere of prayer.” Their silence is broken in Chapel during the praying and singing of hymns, psalms and the Office.
Mother Cecilia attended Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music in Houston, studying music and playing the French horn, an instrument she had first learned to play in the fifth grade. About a year after graduation, she won a seat with the Columbus (Ohio) Symphony, and played with the symphony from 2000-2003.
It seemed like a dream come true, yet “I knew in my heart from a fairly young age that God wanted something different for me.” During her time with the symphony, she still sensed that God was calling her — she yearned for peace deep in her soul. Then a friend joined a Carmelite community and that proved the catalyst.
Living in Chicago before she won the Columbus Symphony seat, Mother Cecilia had “discovered” the Latin Mass, and “was drawn to the reverence, the beauty.” When she decided to enter a religious community, she learned about the Oblates of Mary, Queen of Apostles, then in Scranton, Penn.
The Oblates of Mary were founded in 1996 in the Diocese of Scranton. A decade later, Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, invited them to transfer to Kansas City. The little community was established as a Public Association of the Faithful under the name, Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles. The community follows the Rule of St. Benedict, and has consecrated itself to Mary, the Mother of God, with the charism of praying for priests and the world. The Sisters care for their priory, the surrounding land, a dairy cow and her calf, tailor and hand embroider custom priestly vestments. They sew their own habits. They also sing together — the pure sound of Gregorian chants, the harmonies of medieval sacred music.
“Advent at Ephesus” is the third CD the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles have recorded. The first two, “Marian Hymns of Ephesus” and “Christmas at Ephesus,” were self-produced. As a way of introducing the CDs, the Sisters sent them out to a variety of people in the music industry. Kevin and Monica Fitzgibbons, who had started AimHigherMedia in 2007, and a little later, its division De Montfort Music, received a Marian Hymns CD.
“We get a lot of CDs,” Monica Fitzgibbons said in a telephone interview, “and often times until we get a chance to listen to them they go in a stack.”
Earlier this year, one of the couple’s five children was searching through the stack of CDs for one to play in the car and the “Marian Hymns of Ephesus” cover caught his eye. “Mom, can we listen to this one?” the six-year-old asked.
“I put in the CD and, from the first note, I fell in love with the music,” Monica recalled.
Kevin and Monica are experienced music industry professionals. Kevin worked for Sony and Monica for DreamWorks for about 15 years. When they married and started a family, they realized that they wanted to work through their faith, desiring a small company that would inspire talented people —musicians, film makers — to deepen their own faith through their talents. Inspired by the writings and life of St. Maximilian Kolbe, in 2007 the Fitzgibbons moved from Los Angeles to Arizona, nearer Kevin’s family, and started AimHigherMedia. They now live in Naples, Fla.
De Montfort Music, named in honor of St. Louis de Montfort, was launched as a vehicle to introduce and market sacred music. Decca Records Label Group – the largest global distributor of classical music – took an interest in the new company. That interest led to the worldwide distribution of De Montfort Music in collaboration with Decca. “In the past there has been success with sacred music and Chant performed by religious monks and sisters,” Monica said. “Our mission is to draw upon our background in the entertainment industry and our love The Faith to help facilitate the best possible scenario for this music to reach as many as possible, while maintaining the respect for the rule of the religious involved.”
After Kevin heard the CD, the couple decided they wanted to share the Sister’s vocal talents and the beauty of the music with the world. “Having great respect for the contemplative nature of their vocation,” Monica said, “our first correspondence with the sisters was by letter, in order to give them the time to decide if working together was of interest to them.”
The Fitzgibbons were surprised and pleased when the Sisters responded enthusiastically.
The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles contracted with De Montfort Music, which Decca/Universal Music Group distributes worldwide.
Monica enlisted Oscar and Grammy-award winning producer Glenn Rosenstein and engineer David Schober, and they, along with Monica, traveled to Gower and set up a mobile recording studio in the Priory’s chapel.
Mother Cecilia said Our Lady of Ephesus community still has a substantial debt to pay off for the construction of the priory. The Sisters had heard that a novena to St. Therese Little Flower, known for her help in relieving debt, could be helpful. It was worth a try.
St. Therese must have heard their prayers, because soon after the completion of the novena, the community received the letter from the Fitzgibbons and De Montfort Music.
When working to schedule the recording, it became obvious that the only available days for the recording were Oct. 3-6. October 3 is the feast day of St. Therese Little Flower.
The three days of recording were intense. Monica said that the Sisters continued with their work: sewing and embroidering vestments and altar cloths. They followed the Liturgy of the Hours, singing their Office, the psalms and chants at Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline and still accomplished recording all 16 tracks in three days. “That was a great lesson to me,” Monica said. “When you give your all to God, you can do so much. The Sisters are like Olympians, what they do is not for the faint-hearted.”
The full track list includes: 1. Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth, 2. Angelus ad Virginem; 3. Regnantem Sempiterna; 4. Gabriel’s Message; 5. Creator Alme Siderum; 6. Hayl, Mary; 7. Rorate Caeli; 8. Praeparate Corda Vestra; 9. O Come, O Come Emmanuel; 10. Benedixisti Domime; 11. Maria Walks Amid the Thorn; 12. Alma Redemptoris Mater; 13. Adjuvabit Eam; 14. O Come Divine Messiah; 15. Vox Clara, and 16. Like the Dawning.
Monica said sacred music performed by religious orders is a hidden treasure in the music world. “There’s a celestial, almost angelic, sound that appeals to anyone looking for meditative downtime, especially during Advent.”
Half a continent away from Naples, Fla., Mother Cecilia said it sometimes seems that the Advent season has been lost. “We pray that through this music, many souls in the world will recover the beautiful season of Advent. Advent still exists! Hopefully, this music can be a way to remind people of that.”
While thrilled and pleased that the “Advent at Ephesus” CD will be available to people all over the world, Mother Cecilia is more thankful to God for opportunities to give him glory and praise. “Our gifts and talents are not ours,” she said. “They are on loan from God. The use of our gifts and talents in his honor brings greater glory to God. We just pray that we can make use of them in such a way that He is honored and receives greater glory.”
The community hopes the CD will be successful and help pay down the debt incurred by the building of the priory. But they themselves have no interest in fame or fortune. Their whole lives are aimed at imitating Our Lady, Mother Cecilia said. “She lived at Ephesus, hidden from the world. We want to be hidden like Our Lady. Perhaps Ephesus is becoming more well known, because God wants little by little to make Mary more known and loved in the world. She was a rock, a foundation of prayer and strength for the Apostles, the first priests of the Church. That is our charism, to pray for priests. We welcome them to our priory, a place to refresh their souls, to pray, to rest and prepare to return to the world to preach the Word of God. And they can even get a homecooked meal, just as perhaps Our Lady would have done for them.”
The Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles are determined that their lives remain unchanged. God has called them to a life of peace and joy, and that peace and joy is expressed in their music.
Pop “Advent at Ephesus” into the CD player and you just might hear angels chiming in, singing and praising God along with the Sisters.
To preorder Advent at Ephesus, visit www.benedictinesofmary.org. When “Advent at Ephesus” is purchased from the website, a significant amount of the proceeds goes directly to the community. In addition to assisting with the debt reduction, the funds will also go towards the future construction of a permanent monastery building. The CD can also be purchased at Barnes and Noble and through amazon.com.