In a symphony that spanned continents, the St. Andrew Catholic School Choir from Pasadena embarked on a musical journey to Italy and graced the Vatican’s Epiphany Festival Choir, finding themselves on a stage alongside Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica, singing Vespers on New Year’s Eve, at a noontime mass for the feast of Mary on New Year’s Day, and at the Epiphany Mass on Jan. 6.
They also participated in concerts at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Rome and a mass at St. Francis Basilica in Assisi as part of the journey.
“I was really excited because the Pope is huge, huge in Italy and even here, and I was excited because I really was excited to perform for him and he’s the leader of the church,” Rell Romero, an eighth grader at St. Andrew School and member of the choir, recalled.
Arturo Hernandez, another choir member, still couldn’t forget how elated he had felt when they stood on the stage in the Vatican.
“I was also really excited knowing as the leader of the church is a few feet away from me, and once the music started playing, it’s like I only had a few seconds, and I’m like, ‘oh my gosh, we’re doing this. We’re going to sing. He’s going to hear us live,’” Hernandez related.
Many of the children in the choir have never been outside of California, and finding themselves in Italy, seeing the historic landscape, and hearing the people speak an entirely different language from what they’re familiar with were almost overwhelming.
“One of the challenges was when the director was trying to correct us on anything,” Hernandez said as he chuckled. “He was speaking Italian, and me barely knowing any Italian, we didn’t understand much. All we understood was he was trying to correct us on something.”
“There was a bunch of priests just staring at us and it was kind of funny,” Romero said laughing. “And we were just all singing in Italian and Latin, and we knew that they could understand some of it, and we understood none of it!”
The St. Andrew choir members were provided librettos by the Vatican from where they sang responses in Italian and Latin while singing with the Sistine Chapel Choir, considered the oldest choir in the world.
The choir was led by Patrick Flahive, Choir Director at St. Andrew’s School and Director of Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley, a children’s choir made up of community members throughout the San Gabriel Valley.
Flahive said the children were well-prepared and months in advance knew that this was going to happen. But the moment Pope Francis first appeared was “a completely awesome experience for them in the most magnificent, wonderful way.”
“We were performing in liturgy, so it wasn’t a situation where you would have a pause, but there was a great response afterwards from people that were listening that heard the singing,” Flahive said in recollection. “They said that they were lifted by angels, the angelic sound of angels.”
Flahive said they were in Rome with children from the cathedral in San Francisco and from the Orange County Catholic community as well.
“I was really happy to work with wonderful colleagues in preparing the music selections for the festival, for the masses, the liturgies, and for the concerts that they sang in Rome,” he said. “And we were blessed to have the director of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York as one of the co-directors as well.”
Flahive was one of the two co-directors for the first Epiphany Choir Festival in 2015, and late last year was again asked if he could bring the St. Andrew choir and Pueri Cantores to Rome for the New Year. It wasn’t something he would let pass.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for them to sing for a huge international audience, to travel halfway around the world to sing for one of the most prominent leaders on the planet,” he said. “And I think they probably walked away with a feeling like, ‘yes, we can do this. This is something that’s within our grasp.’ And I think that gave them a wonderful sense of achievement and an empowering experience for any child.”
After the Vatican performance, Flahive feels that he’d like to do more traveling with the choir, with the community’s unwavering support.
“We would love to go on an international tour every year, but it is a very expensive endeavor and we do need to really put our shoulders to the wheel and raise as much funding as possible through donations, through candy sales, through pancake breakfasts and spaghetti dinners, and all of the things that we do,” he said.
Choir members Rell Romero and Arturo Hernandez are still trying to adjust to the time zone change, but both said they’re excited at the prospect of continuing on with the St. Andrew choir, and joining a choir when they start high school.
“I do want to continue choir. I just don’t know for how much longer,” Romero said. “But I do really like it now, so I’m probably going to do it for a lot longer.”
Hernandez said he’s not sure if he could join another international tour in the future, but he’s sticking to the choir in the meantime.
“I don’t think I want to pursue music or performing as my main thing, but it’s definitely a part of me and I can’t just get rid of it completely,” he said. “So I might as well just keep pursuing part of it.”