Butler native will direct the music at pope's Mass in D.C.
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When Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass for 45,000 people at the new ballpark in Washington, D.C., a musician from Western Pennsylvania will lead the hallelujahs.
Thomas Stehle, a Butler native, will oversee a 250-voice choir, a gospel choir, a multicultural choir, a children's choir and an orchestra at the April 17 Mass. He's in sensitive negotiations with yet-to-be-identified famous singers. This is on top of his duties as director of music at a parish in Potomac, Md.
The papal post came as a surprise to Mr. Stehle, who hadn't applied. He expected it to go to a director at the cathedral or the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
"When I first heard that the pope was coming, there was a little sense of relief that I wasn't in a position where I would necessarily be called to do this," he said. "It's a wonderful honor, but the responsibility is tremendous."
He was prepared for it, he said, by years of service at parishes in the Pittsburgh area.
Mr. Stehle, 51, was born and raised in Butler, where his parents, Raymond and Sheila, still live. He attended seminary briefly at the former St. Fidelis College and Seminary in Herman, but ultimately studied music at Duquesne University.
Duquesne, he said, is among several reasons that Pittsburgh is known for producing influential Catholic church musicians.
"Pittsburgh has a tremendous influence in church music all over the country, and my experiences at the parishes in Garfield, Robinson and Sewickley were extremely formative," he said.
From 1977 to 1979 he was music director at St. Lawrence O'Toole in Garfield. He then spent five years at Holy Trinity in Robinson. In 1984, he became associate director for the Office of Worship in the Diocese of Peoria, Ill.
He returned to Pittsburgh the next year to become director of liturgy and music at St. James, Sewickley. At the same time, he often served as cantor at St. Paul Cathedral, most notably for the installation of Bishop Donald Wuerl in 1988.
Later that year he left for Washington, D.C., where he was awarded a scholarship to continue liturgical studies at the Catholic University of America. For 17 years he has been pastoral associate for liturgy at Our Lady of Mercy in Potomac.
He believes that now-Archbishop Wuerl of Washington remembers him from his Pittsburgh installation, but doubts that affected his selection. The archbishop apparently sought a parish-based director because he wanted the papal Mass to reflect parish worship at its best, Mr. Stehle said. It was not to be a performance by professionals, but an act of worship by everyone present.
"People should be able to come to this celebration and know that their participation is not just permitted, but encouraged," he said.
Mr. Stehle said although Washington has a pool of professional choral talent second only to New York City, the decision was made to choose choir members who are active in parish music programs throughout the archdiocese.
"We're trying to involve as many people as possible and still keep the sense of prayer," he said. "It's a great opportunity to demonstrate how the church in the 21st century can celebrate a vibrant liturgy that is very prayerful, but very alive."
He has chosen music by American composers from many ethnic traditions. The version of Ave Maria that the choir will sing was written in the 1930s by African-American composer R. Nathaniel Dett.
Auditions will be held the second week of February, with rehearsals beginning March 10.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing Mr. Stehle, and the object of much prayer in Washington, D.C., is that Nationals Park is still under construction.
"It does create a particular challenge to know that we will bring an orchestra and choirs to a space which has not been completed yet," he said. "We are hoping that everyone is doing his or her job, and that when we all walk through those gates for our first dress rehearsal, everything will work.
"And if we have a downpour, we will have maybe 650 musicians without any cover, so it's a big leap of faith."
But it's a leap he now relishes.
"The closer I get to it, some of the anxieties about how to pull this off are being replaced by the excitement of seeing the vision of how it can happen. I am really starting to feel the anticipation and excitement."
First Published February 2, 2008 12:00 am