Christmas is a time for choral music, especially of the sacred variety, and the image conjured up by that music features a heavenly choir in long robes, looking like angels ready to rise above the firmament. Audiences around the country have recognized the Singing Nuns of Mount St. Michael's Academy and Convent in North Spokane as a heavenly choir for the past 20 years, but like Biblical prophets of old, the nuns have only recently gained recognition in their hometown.
This weekend, they join the Spokane Symphony, the Spokane Area Children's Chorus and the Symphony Chorale for the annual Holiday Pops concerts, followed on Monday and Tuesday by their fifth annual Christmas concerts at The Met.
Since they first began traveling the country for performances more than 20 years ago, the sisters have become more accustomed to being onstage. But drawing attention to themselves intentionally is not part of their usual role in their community at Mount St. Michael's, where the focus is on prayer rather than performance.
"When we're singing at mass, we're back in the choir loft," says Sister Mary Bernadette, director of the Singing Nuns. "So people can't really see our faces. But when we're on stage, people are watching. It's not exactly our natural habitat."
As in any family, some of the nuns are more comfortable than others when they step out into the spotlight. "For some of the sisters, singing on stage is like penance," she says. "They just never get used to it. For others, it's fun. But it's what we're called by God to do, so that's what we do."
Each sister who sings with the Singing Nuns has a multitude of other duties in the community as well. "Have you been up here?" Bernadette asks with a chuckle. "There's a lot of work in just keeping the place going." Most of the sisters teach at St. Michael's Academy; others work in the printing of publications, which are sold in the Mount St. Michael's bookstore. All take part in making the community function. "We live together, pray together, and work together," says Sister Mary Bernadette.
Since the late-1970s, the sisters have been singing together -- publicly -- in order to help provide financial support to their community. "We started with a six-week tour in California, all pre-arranged," Bernadette recalls. "We'd even sing in the airport while we were traveling. We were such rookies then!"
Now, 20 years and seven recordings later, they are in demand across the continent, although their work at Mount St. Michael's takes precedence. "We go twice a year to home and garden shows in Calgary and Edmonton," she says. "We just got back from the Victorian Christmas show in Puyallup, and we get a lot of calls for Irish festivals."
The sisters are excited about their upcoming concerts and have put a lot of work into the Holiday Pops concerts with the Symphony, along with their arranger, Edward Myers. "We did our own scores for the orchestra," Bernadette says, "so it will be our own sound, our own arrangements, but with the full orchestra live."
The theme for this year's Christmas concerts at The Met focuses on children. "It's about the child in us, in all of us, that simplicity and innocence," she says. "We'll be doing a lot of lullabies." There will also be a German section and the traditional sing-along selections. Even though the show is dedicated to themes of childhood, Sister Mary Bernadette says it's really not suitable to the littlest of little ones. "It's just too long for the littlest kids," she says. "But once they're over about 7 or 8, then it's okay."
Children at the shows are generally fascinated by the nuns and their traditional long blue habits and will often wait after the show to meet the sisters and talk with them. That fascination is reciprocated, as well, as Bernadette adds, "Children are special to us."
While Christmas music is a big part of the sisters' winter schedule, it's just a small part of the Singing Nuns' repertoire, says Sister Mary Bernadette. "We have a big Irish repertoire, and we do things from The Sound of Music. Plus, we do a lot of semi-sacred, inspirational songs."
One of their most unusual assignments has been their recent appearance singing the national anthem at Spokane Chiefs' hockey games. Although the sisters haven't yet stayed to watch a game, such appearances give them a chance to bring their message to people who might not be inclined to come to a concert. That message is not necessarily contained within the music, but rather in the sisters' presence and their embodiment of commitment to a higher purpose in life. "Our message is that God is," Bernadette explains. "He is great, and we've dedicated our lives to him. It's a mission."
Audience members often approach the sisters after an appearance to say how much they were moved by simply seeing nuns in the traditional long habits. One man began to cry when he heard the nuns sing at the hockey game and said the experience reawakened his spirituality. Sister Bernadette says the Singing Nuns are only doing what they have been called to do, but stories like that one reaffirm their conviction.
"That's what we're there for," she says. "[Singing] gives a power to us poor mortals to be able to touch hearts."
& & & lt;i & The Sisters of St. Michael's Convent perform with the Spokane Symphony for a Holiday Pops concert in the Opera House on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 8 pm and Sunday, Dec. 17, at 2 pm. Tickets: $14-$23;$10 for juniors. Their annual Christmas concert, "Christmas Evermore," is at The Met on Monday, Dec. 18, at 7:30 pm and Tuesday, Dec. 19, at 2 and 7:30 pm. Tickets: $15; $12 for students and seniors. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &