Urbana parish’s Festival of Lessons and Carols showcases both unity, diversity

As the St. Patrick Bell Choir plays at left and Dr. Franklin Gallo accompanies on organ, a combined choir of nearly 100 voices sings at the close of A Festival of Lessons and Carols at St. Patrick Church in Urbana on the evening of Dec. 9, the Second Sunday of Advent. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

URBANA — Just as Jesus’ birth brought joy to local shepherds and kings from far-off lands, the anticipation of celebrating the miracle 2,000 years later united diverse groups in an evening of song and prayer Dec. 9 at St. Patrick Church here.

Eight choirs, representing several ethnic communities, took part in the third annual A Festival of Lessons and Carols at the close of the Second Sunday of Advent.

Hannah Niccum, a cantor at St. Patrick Parish in Urbana and a student at The High School of Saint Thomas More, was one of two featured vocalists as the St. Patrick Church Choir performed an arrangement blending the traditional carol “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming” with the the contemporary song “The Rose.” (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

The choirs took turns singing after the proclamation of nine Scripture readings that spoke of God’s love and promises through the ages and the mystery of our redemption. But the presence of the Hispanic, Filipino, Mayan, and Congolese choirs — as well as adult and bell choirs from St. Patrick Parish, singers from a local Greek Orthodox church and Parkland College, representatives of the deaf community, and the musicians of the St. Patrick Youth Orchestra — also taught valuable lessons in an age too often marked by division.

“Our Lessons and Carols here show us we have more similarities than differences, and brings a sense of community, togetherness and joyfulness that is sorely lacking in our day-to-day world,” said Dr. Franklin Gallo, director of music and liturgy at St. Patrick Parish and festival coordinator.


It was Gallo’s vision that brought the festival to St. Patrick in 2016. He and his wife, Donna — a music education professor at the University of Illinois — had just moved to Urbana-Champaign for new chapters in their music careers.

“I was surprised and delighted by the diversity in the community,” said Franklin Gallo, who also teaches part time at Parkland College and directs its Chamber Singers. Long interested in Lessons and Carols — a service of Scripture and song that dates to the late 19th century — Gallo soon thought, “Why not include all these different groups?”

The evening has quickly become a beloved tradition at St. Patrick Church, filling the pews this year at the close of a busy weekend that also included the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Saturday as well as regular weekend Masses.


Following a six-song prelude by the St. Patrick Youth Orchestra, the assembly was welcomed to the festival by Stephanie Rayl, a cantor at St. Patrick and graduate student in music at the University of Illinois. She led prayers for peace, unity within the church, and for the needs of the poor, helpless, cold, hungry, oppressed, sick, lonely, those who are mourning, and “all those who do not know the Lord Jesus.”

The more than 100 vocalists then processed into the church as the assembly sang “Once in Royal David’s City.” Following each Scripture reading, the individual choirs left their pews and stood on risers in the church sanctuary to perform a related hymn or carol.

Colin Lualdi and Marietta Coufal sign “Silent Night” during the Festival of Lessons and Carols at St. Patrick Church in Urbana. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

The universal nature of salvation was reflected in readings proclaimed and hymns sung in a variety of languages — including Tagalog for the Filipino Community Choir, Lingala for the Congolese Catholic Community, Q’anjob’al for the Mayan Catholic Community, Greek for the choir from Three Hierarchs Greek Orthodox Church, and Spanish for Hispanic Choir.

The Congolese singers are affiliated with St. Patrick Parish, the Mayan and Hispanic groups are from St. Mary Parish in Champaign, and the Filipino singers are from the area community.

A program for the evening provided English translations of the readings and song lyrics.

The assembly was reverently quiet as Colin Lualdi proclaimed the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke in sign language, then joined in voice as Lualdi and Marietta Coufal — both from St. Patrick Parish — signed “Silent Night.”

The evening concluded with all choirs coming forward and joining in “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

In the language of Lingala, members of the Congolese Catholic Community Choir sing a hymn of joy in anticipation of the Savior’s birth. (The Catholic Post/Tom Dermody)

“Lord, you call us to be your witnesses to the ends of the earth,” said Rayl in a closing prayer. “Fill our words with power that we may proclaim your good news and draw all people to you.”

Gallo said that while “the logistics are crazy” for the festival, “we’ve gotten better at it.” He hopes it continues to expand — past years have included Korean and Vietnamese representation and Gallo would like to involve choirs such as the Black Chorus from the University of Illinois — “so that we feel even more together and unified.”

Meanwhile, on Sunday, Dec. 16, St. Patrick Church will be the site of sung vespers beginning at 6:30 p.m. and hosted by the parishes of the Champaign Vicariate. Father Luke Spannagel, pastor of St. Patrick, will be the celebrant, Gallo will be the cantor, and the homilist is Msgr. Stanley Deptula, pastor of St. Matthew, Champaign, and St. Boniface, Seymour. All are welcome.

EDITOR’S NOTE: More photos from A Festival of Lessons and Carols will be posted on The Catholic Post’s Facebook page. A video of the combined choir singing the first verse of “Angels We Have Heard on High” may be viewed below.


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