On Thursday afternoon, Dorchester’s Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s church will be filled beyond capacity for the 4 o’clock Christmas Eve Mass and concert that will mark the triumphant public return of Sheldon Lee, the parish’s beloved music director, who is still recovering from a horrific stabbing attack last summer.
A full orchestra and augmented choir will perform classical religious selections throughout the regular ceremony: a worship service and free concert all in one. This is the best-attended event of the year at the Columbia Road church and possibly the biggest annual classical music event in Dorchester.
Music lovers who used to attend Lee’s similar “Messiah Sunday” concerts at the old St. William’s church on Dorchester Avenue come as much as an hour early to secure a seat.
Adding to the usual heightened Christmas Eve emotionalism is the fact that Lee is continuing this grand tradition, inspired by musical Masses he enjoyed in Austria, despite his multiple wounds and on-going surgeries. Parishioners had wondered if he could possibly return before Christmas, and he surprised everyone by coming back before Halloween.
On Aug. 10, Lee was attacked by David Eng, his next-door neighbor in a South End condo complex. First responders found the 65-year-old musician bleeding from 24 stab wounds to his head, throat, neck, chest, abdomen, and right arm.
After about a month, while still in the hospital awaiting more surgeries, Lee realized that he was behind schedule in his preparations for the Christmas concert. “I woke up at like 3:30 morning, thinking ‘I haven’t starting getting the orchestra together!’” he recalls, “My church needs the continuum. I must do it!”
From his hospital bed, he contacted hundreds of New England instrumentalists and within 48 hours he had hired the 11 musicians he needed for this year’s orchestra.
His 22-voice choir will consist of visiting professionals and the regular BMT choir made up largely of parishioners from the now-shuttered St William’s Parish, where this tradition began.
It would have been understandable if Lee decided to repeat a Christmas program he had done earlier, but he was determined to keep up his personal custom of always adding something new, scoring musical selections to “world-premiere” at these concerts.
One of his choir members suggested “Here Among Us,” by Lutheran composer Marty Haugen. Lee himself ran across an unusual harp and English horn duet in 19th century German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s incidental music for “The Merchant of Venice.” Lee personally orchestrated some 50 measures of this latter composition as a prelude during the Mass.
Lee has expressed his deep gratitude for the “hundreds and hundreds of get-well cards I received” and for the beyond-the-call-of-duty support of BMT pastor, Fr. Jack Ahern, a frequent visitor to his bedside.
Said Ahern: “Clearly Sheldon was carried on the wings of angels. From the earliest arrival of the first responders, to the skilled surgeons and medical staff that cared for him throughout his long stay at the hospital, to the friends and family that lovingly sat by his side, Sheldon knew intimately the healing power and the loving presence of God. With the love of many and with Sheldon’s courage and determination he, will once again lead his choir and other gifted musicians Christmas Eve to celebrate the gift of “Emmanuel, God with us!”