Church to church, the music brightens Oakmont's holiday

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Although I've lived in Oakmont for over 21 years now (way longer than any of the other 11 locations I've called home) I'd never been inclined to join its annual Choir Walk held on the second Sunday of December.

I assumed it was simply an evening of walking from church to church (four of them within a couple blocks of each other) singing carols along with each congregation's choir. Appealing, sure, but not compelling enough for me to give it precedence over other holiday plans or to shiver in wintry mix weather.

Wow, was I wrong! After joining a throng of 200 or so for this year's interfaith event, I have resolved to never miss another. (My calendar's already marked for 12/14/14, the 34th annual.)

This year I decided to participate because I'd recently heard some friends raving that it was an evening of exquisite music -- the soaring voices of choirs, accompanied at times by instrumental music worthy of Heinz Hall. In fact, one of the flautists, Rhian Kenny, plays for the Pittsburgh Symphony. She performed the prelude at St. Irenaeus Catholic Church, the first stop on this year's walk (and also my own parish).

The 30-minute format at each church includes a pair of "lessons" (scripture readings), two pieces by each church's choir and two carols sung by the congregation, a pattern dating back to the early 1900s at King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England.

Some moments lingering in my memory from each house of worship:

* At St. Irenaeus, Father Frank Kurimski's welcoming the walkers with his characteristic warmth and sincerity, then watching Oakmont's police chief, a choir member, sing his heart out so powerfully. Now whenever I encounter Chief David DiSanti in uniform, I doubt I'll see him in the same one-dimensional way as I did previously.

* At Oakmont Presbyterian, the spine-tingling, ethereal sounds created by the JuBELLation Ringers, an inspired fusion of bells, wind chimes and MIDI strings. I wanted it to go on and on.

* At Oakmont United Methodist, the majestic voices of its small choir. St. Paul Baptist Church's singers also awed me. (The Methodists hosted the Baptists because their church is too many blocks away for walking to on frigid nights.) Strikingly attired in black and red, the Baptist choir soon had us clapping along to "Oh, What a Pretty Little Baby," a joyous song new to me.

* At St. Thomas Memorial Episcopal, a brave bagpiper, whose bare knees were seemingly impervious to the weather. He piped us inside, where we basked in the glow of candlelight. White candles in tall holders were lit at the end of each pew.

One of the St. Thomas choir's songs, "Mary Had a Baby," featured soloist June Nagy Ferguson, whose operatic voice reached up into the sanctuary's ornate wooden rafters -- and maybe out the roof! I listened rapt, mesmerized by the music and amazed by the abundance of musical giftedness in my neighborhood. I had no idea!

And the high point (literally and otherwise) of the evening still awaited. As St. Thomas' program concluded, I was surprised to see that choir members from all the churches, still clad in robes of many colors, had filed in quietly and stood lining the walls of the church.

Their combined voices singing the "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's "Messiah" -- "King of kings, lord of lords ..." repeated in ever higher notes -- filled the sacred space with a palpable aura of exultation.

Afterward, folks looked at each other, smiling with visible wonder. A wordlessly conveyed sense of gratitude hovered all round.

Walking home, I was aware that my longtime love of Oakmont had just deepened, and not due to the memorable music alone. An intangible yet keen sense of community had permeated and warmed the frosty air as we walked from church to church. Our diversity in ages, faiths, races, attire mattered not.

While walking side by side, visiting each other's places of worship, thrilling together to excellent music, our differences disappeared. From 6 to 8:30 p.m. at least, 200 of us were as one, a priceless gift in our lamentably polarized world.

Maybe I'll write to Santa and let him know I need no other gifts this Christmas.

The PG Portfolio welcomes "Holiday Herald" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to page2@post-gazette.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.

Eileen Reutzel Colianni of Oakmont can be reached at eileencolianni@gmail.com.


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