(This article written by Cori Fugere Urban, Staff Reporter for The Vermont Catholic Tribune appeared in the December 5, issue)

BELLOWS FALLS — When Lynn Raymond Empey moved with her family to St. Charles Parish here eight years ago, she was disappointed that there was no folk group singing at Sunday Masses. So she was delighted when on Easter Sunday, she found Barbara Hodgkins playing guitar and directing a group of children in song.

Empey offered to help make the folk group a regular part of the music ministry at the church, and since then the group has grown in number and grown musically. In fact, members are producing a yet-to-be titled CD that is scheduled to go on sale just before Christmas with profits used to cover the costs of making it and going to the church for use by the folk group in future years — for equipment or maybe another CD, Empey explained.

“After so many years of people asking us when we are going to record, we have,” said Empey, who with Hodgkins directs the folk group. “You can hear the little ones and the big ones, the males and females, sopranos and tenors and yeah maybe a couple of flat notes if you listen very closely — just like the congregation we lead in song. I think that is what people like about the folk group, they can hear someone in there that sounds like them. We make sure things are in a singable key, and we always remember that we are not there to perform, we are there to lead the congregation in prayerful song.”

Empey is a graduate of St. Michael's College in Colchester where she was a member of the choir, folk group and chorale and solo vocalist with the jazz band. Despite her musical experience, she found herself at first struggling to find the right music for the fledgling St. Charles folk group. "We found simple rhythmic stuff, and I could do some harmonies," she recalled. "We did lots of repetition, but that was good, because the congregation was learning the songs with us at the same time. The toughest part for the kids was staying focused and not playing with their hair or their necklace or their skirt during Mass. We were up in front on the side of the altar so prayer and reverence were an important part of what we were doing."

One of the first children to become a member of the folk group was Lea Hodgkins, the co-director's daughter. As other children and a few adults joined the group, Empey said "the girl with the beautiful voice: continued to excel in all types of music. "She could sing any part we threw in front of her." The vocals became more full, and the children grew in confidence.

The folk group is intergenerational. No one tries out, but everyone makes a commitment to attend practice and pay attention to the Mass. Members have ranged in age from four to fifty-plus. "The kids are getting older no so I think our youngest is seven," said Empey, who taught herself to play guitar so she could accompany the folk group. "And of course our oldest is, well, older. Our numbers have fluctuated over the years, but there are usually anywhere from 12 to 20 of us singing."

Lea Hodgkins graduated from high school in June and entered McGill University in Montreal as a music major. "Our first (member) was going off to college, and before she left we wanted to capture that sound and blend what we have developed after so many years of singing together, so we decided to make a CD of our favorites" Empey said. Folk group members made some money singing for anniversaries and were given a generous donation from someone in the parish to use as they wished. "We decided that using this money towards the CD was the way to go."

Seventeen members of the folk group went to Soundesign Studios in Brattleboro, (where the Grammy-Award winning soundtrack to the PBS "The Civil War" was made) and did most of the songs in one take. "We stood in a gigantic semi circle and did the songs, just as we would at Mass," Empey said. "The kids had to stay absolutely silent after the song faded out, no coughing, sneezing, giggling (okay, that was toughest for me). They were awesome."

Empey is finishing the licensing of the music; once that is complete the CD will be for sale for $10 each. Plans call for an initial production of 100 CDs.

Included on the CD are the songs "Behold the Lamb," "In the Day of the Lord," "Hallelujah My Father," "Farther of Peace," "Child of the Poor," ":Emmanuel," "This Alone," :"Beatitudes," "Our Father," "Wherever You Go," "Isaiah 49," "The Supper of the Lord," "Come to the Water," "Pescador de Hombres (Lord You Have Come)," "I Lift Up My Soul."

"It's beautiful. Oh my gosh. It's gorgeous," Hodgkins enthused about the CD, saying it was a wonderful opportunity for both the children and the adults in the folk group to participate in the project.

It is a joy for Empey to be part of the folk group that usually sings at the 10 a.m. Mass every other Sunday at St. Charles Church. "I look forward to seeing their faces and hearing about their week before Mass starts," she said. "I love to hear it when everyone is focused, and their hearts are in the song. The kids have brought Barb and I to tears many times with the beauty of their pure hearts and voices."

Jesuit Father Ernest Passero, pastor of St. Charles Church, praised all of the musical endeavors in the parish, noting that like the folk group the choir is also "outstanding."

Joan LaClair, director of the 10-member St. Charles adult choir, agreed that the parish has a good music program. It's important, she said, because music enhances the message of the readings. "The message that is in the songs we sing emphasizes the message in the (days) scriptures."

Father Passero also noted that since he was ordained in 1970 he has "never been so fortunate" to have music at every Mass, including daily Mass when cantors D. Thomas Burns and Wendy Lillie and organist Mary Hadley provide music. (There are six cantors at St. Charles who provide music when the folk group and choir do not, and they are also members of the folk group and choir.)

Burns, known as the "Green Mountain Cantor," is also recording music. He has three CDs in the works: "Christmas," "The Holy Mass" and "Gospel Songs." All feature his singing with Hadley providing the organ accompaniment.

The native of St. Charles Parish hoped to have the CDs ready for sale this month. He said he would like "to do some good" with the CDs by selling them at churches he visits and returning the profit to the churches where they are sold.

Henry A. Raymond
December 7, 2003