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Archives Festival of Lessons and Carols planned

December 6, 2023

By Mary Beth Bracy, Consecrated Virgin
Contributing Writer

Around 30 faithful from throughout the North Country will participate in an English tradition that has also become tradition in Plattsburgh when they perform in the Festival of Lessons and Carols on December 17 at 6 p.m. at St. John’s Church in Plattsburgh.

The choir is directed by Holy Cross’ organist Nate Pultorak, who will also play a carol on the dulcimer. This Advent tradition is free and open to the public.

It features Advent and Christmas carols and Scripture readings.

“Lessons and Carols has its roots in the English Choral Tradition,” said Pultorak. “It first came out in 1917 at King’s College in Cambridge. After the Second World War, the dean of the college wanted to have something uplifting and hopeful to prepare people’s hearts for Christmas.”

Father Kevin McEwan approached Pultorak with the idea of having the Lessons and Carols after experiencing the tradition in a previous assignment. Father McEwan thought it would be a good way to encourage the community to come together during Advent.

“Although it was initially mainly Catholic, I talked with some of the singers from Champlain Valley Voices, and there was a pretty big ecumenical response as well,” said Pultorak.

Choir members are from local parishes and as far away as Westport.

“There are nine Scripture readings coupled with nine carols that go through salvation history: the fall of man, prophets, and things they said about Jesus’ coming,” Pultorak explained. “Then, it jumps into the Gospels, where it starts off with the Announcement and all the Scripture readings with the Birth of Jesus. There is a good variety. Some of the carols are very standard – ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and it finishes off with ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’ In the structure, we also get lesser known carols to our local ears. It includes ‘In the Bleak Midwinter,’ though over in England they know it paired with a different tune.”

Riley McQuade, a graduate student at State University of New York at Plattsburgh is a member of the choir.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity to be in a choir of very talented individuals,” she said. “I’ve been a singer since I was six and decided to stay in the area to have more opportunities to sing.”

As a special feature, Pultorak will play “Silent Night” on the dulcimer.

“It was not originally composed with the organ in mind but the guitar,” Pultorak said. “Father Lukas Gruber, who is singing in the choir with us, was able to find some very early notation of what the guitar part was like. I’ll be playing the guitar part on my dulcimer. It will give us a closer taste to what it could actually be like. Ironically, the composer’s name was Franz Xavier Gruber.”

“It is a great group of people singing,” added Roland Brouillard, choir member from St. Patrick’s in Rouses Point.
Chris Giroux, a long-time member of the Holy Cross choir and frequent cantor, added, “I joined because I like to sing and I like being with people.”

“I sang at Lake Placid and the 150th anniversary of our diocese in Ogdensburg. I enjoy singing a lot. It’s an enjoyable group. I also sing with Champlain Valley Voices,” said Rob Goddeau of St. Augustine’s in Peru. “Nate put it out there to come down.”

The carols contain a lot of meaning, Pultorak explained.

“The ‘Sans Day Carol,’ a Cornish carol, is named after a Saints’ town,” he said. “It talks about different aspects of Jesus’ birth as it relates to the Holly Plant. So, for instance, the first verse speaks of the white holly berry and how Mary wrapped Jesus in silk. It was chosen to symbolize Jesus’ purity even though He wasn’t literally wrapped in silk. Another verse talks about the black holly berry and pairs it with the prophecy that Jesus would die on the Cross for us.”

“Also included is my absolute favorite Christmas Carol which is ‘O Come All Ye Faithful,’” Pultorak continued. “Traditionally there is this arrangement that many people are familiar with written by David Wilcox. In the last verse we have ‘Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning.’ In the middle there is a climax of chords: ‘Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!’ It is jarring but absolutely beautiful; it helps symbolize how the Word made flesh changes everything – we now have hope, we know that salvation is here. The effect and the joy of the singing just multiplies.”

Pultorak said local musicians were eager to participate in the event.

“A number of people are excited to sing as a part of this because they saw a different festival in the area,” he said. “In the past few years we haven’t been able to have one in the area. So, when they heard we were having it, they were very excited about it.”

The performance will include both new and returning singers.

“It is my first time to sing Lessons and Carols at St. John’s. It includes wonderful teaching songs and organ playing. The members are very friendly and welcoming to new people in the choir. They are wonderful singers and I love to sing with them,” said Diana Lawrence.

“Some of the songs are very difficult (to sing). I’ve been in the choir for ten years or so. They are wonderful songs. I look forward to hearing it,” Jim Guinness of Holy Cross Parish added. “A lot of our choir also sings at St. Peter’s and St. John’s. We would welcome more choir members.”

Both Lawrence and Guinness sing in the Cumberland Bay Barbershop Chorus and Sweet Adelines. Several members of the choir also sing in the Barbershop Chorus, including Chris Giroux, Victor Ludewig, Richard Munn, and Terry Norcross.

“There is a lot of talent in the North Country,” Guinness said. “Some of that kind of talent is right here in this group. Members have starred in Community Theater productions and play in groups like the Gibson Brothers. When you get a chance to come to something like this that’s free, come – you’ll enjoy it.”

“It is a nice service to come and remember what the season is all about – see the gift God has given us. A lot of talent is up here and we’re just a small part,” added Lawrence.

“On the ecumenical side of things, King’s College is largely Anglican. Over the years the Catholics have seen the beauty of what they do with Lessons and Carols, and we’ve taken it up ourselves as well,” reflected Pultorak.

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