This weekend the 11 a.m. "Messiah Sunday" Mass at Blessed Mother Teresa Parish will mark 15 years that Music Director Sheldon Lee has been re-creating a grand European Advent tradition in Dorchester parishes.
The old St. Margaret Church, at 800 Columbia Rd. (now the site of Blessed Mother Teresa parish services) sees its biggest attendance of the year at this ceremony. Its enhanced choir, backed by 26 professional musicians (mostly from the Boston Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony), perform classical religious selections throughout the regular ceremony: a worship service and free concert all in one.
"There's no parish in the Boston archdiocese that does anything as
ambitious as this during Advent," says the Florida-born Lee, who got his Masters in Voice from New England Conservatory.
Lee got the idea from the great Masses composed by immortals like Handel, Mozart, and Shubert, but also from having personally attended services at the Hofburg Chapel in Austria where the Vienna Boys Choir and the Hofmusikappele "court orchestra" (with roots that go back to the High Middle Ages) do this type of music-packed Mass every week.
Eventually, Lee, who was raised in the Church of the Nazarene, a denomination, he says, that â€œwas filled with music,â€ found himself as a Protestant singing at Catholic Masses at St. Bernard's in West Newton. When Rev. Tom Oates, a priest then associated with St. Bernard's, became pastor of Savin Hill's St. Williamâ€™s parish, he persuaded Lee to come along.
When Lee started these Messiah Sundays in Savin Hill in 1994, he was still a Protestant, but by the time St. William's was shuttered, in 2003, he had converted "because I wanted to be fully part of the Catholic family."
There was no Messiah Sunday during the stormy first year at the merged Blessed Mother Teresa Parish, but this weekend will mark the fifth season that the transplanted St. William's tradition continues to flourish at its new home.
"About 70 percent of the choir members have been with me from the very beginning," Lee notes. Fierce loyalty to him and to this tradition explains why the unpaid choristers raise thousands of dollars every year for this production, about 40 percent of what is required.
Choir member and Savin Hill resident Roger Croke, who describes himself as a "bass who doesn't know how to read music," is frank. "It just wouldn't happen if we didn't help with the fund-raising."
Grateful for all he has learned from "Maestro" Lee, Croke mails out dozens of invitations and fundraising letters each fall. One of Croke's contacts is in Texas this year, but the couple sent $50 in memory of performances they enjoyed over the past decade.
Familiar music begins and ends the 2009 ceremony -- the March from Tchaikowsky's "Nutcracker Suite" precedes the service , and the recessional is the Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel's "Messiah," the ubiquitous holiday favorite that lends its name to the program.
In between these pieces, attendees this year will hear the sounds of the Mozart Requiem, and selections from Wagner, Puccini, and Vivaldi as well as from more contemporary composers who have not been represented at Messiah Sundays past.
For further information or to make a contribution, call 617-513-8254.