Peoria Notre Dame teacher sings at National Christmas Tree Lighting event

U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump participate in the 96th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony near the White House in Washington. During the event, a choir from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, sang, including Sister Mary Esther Downey, OP, who teaches theology at Peoria Notre Dame. (CNS/Jim Young, Reuters)

By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service, and Catholic Post staff

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Sister Mary Esther Downey, OP, who teaches theology at Peoria Notre Dame High School, was among a 10-voice choir from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist from Michigan that sang at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on the Ellipse outside the White House late Nov. 28.

For those unable to attend the evening event in person, a one-hour special of highlights culled from the ceremony will be shown Dec. 2 on both the Ovation and Reelz cable channels at 9 p.m. CST.

After being introduced as our “very own caroling angels,” the Sisters assembled in Washington sang the Christmas classic “Carol of the Bells.” They can be seen and heard at the end of this video supplied by Catholic News Service.

Also in the choir was Sister Maria Canisius Willey, OP, who taught German and history at Peoria Notre Dame for four years. She is now studying for her master’s degree at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

Sister Maria Canisius was among the first group of Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist to come to Peoria in 2013. The religious community serves at St. Jude School in Peoria in addition to Peoria Notre Dame.

“It was a great honor for us,” said Sister Maria Christi Nelson, OP, principal of St. Jude School, of the community’s opportunity to take part in Wednesday’s national ceremony. She told The Catholic Post the singing Sisters had a busy schedule of events, including a tour of the White House.

Ahead of the ceremony, the Sisters had turned down all media requests for interviews about their planned performance, according to their publicist, Monica Fitzgibbons.

Because they had received so many interview requests, she said, they didn’t want to appear as if they’re playing favorites by OKing one media outlet while turning down another.

What they had planned to sing was kept a secret until the day of the ceremony, Fitzgibbons told Catholic News Service in a Nov. 27 telephone interview from Naples, Florida, home to the DeMontfort Music record label, which releases the nuns’ music.

The order hit the top spot on the Billboard classical music charts a year ago with their third album, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring: Christmas With the Dominican Sisters of Mary.” In fact, it was that CD that won them a spot to perform during the ceremony.

“I’ve been in the music business for a long time, and the promoter was a friend of a friend,” Fitzgibbons said. “They had the Christmas album out. . . . This is put on by the National Parks (Service), so I submitted it that way.” It was so long ago, she admitted, “I just forgot about it.”

“They’re not Beyonce, they’re just kind of doing this and want to put Christ in Christmas,” Fitzgibbons added. “Can you imagine Christmas without Christmas music?”

Asked how they got from their motherhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to the nation’s capital, Fitzgibbons replied, “The National Parks flew them in. . . . They’re ‘Nuns on the Plane.’ They had no choice. That’s what was offered to them. They live in poverty, so it was the National Parks that arranged for their transportation.”

Although teaching is the order’s charism, the Dominican Sisters of Mary have issued two other chart-topping CDs, “Mater Eucharistiae” and “Rosary: Mysteries, Meditations and Music.” They also have published three journals, “Advent Journal, Mother of Life,” “And the Word Became Flesh” and “Life of Christ Lectio Divina Journal.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: More about the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, can be found online at sistersofmary.org.  This story will be updated for The Catholic Post’s next print edition.    

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