By John Q. Pierce
In early fall 1969, Msgr. Richard J. Burke called for volunteers to form a choir at St. Thomas More Church in Arlington, Virginia. The first rehearsal was conducted by Dr. Jack Cooper, who was at that time the Music Director of Bishop O’Connell High School. With Msgr. Burke’s encouragement the vested choir began singing at the 11:00 AM Mass and has continued to do so, processing through the Cathedral each Sunday in the form of the Cross so that their action, as well as their song, is prayer.
The choir’s repertoire now includes more than 850 works and covers all styles and ages of sacred music.
Dr. Cooper was soon replaced by Samuel F. Lowe who became Director and served from 1969 until 1972. His energy and dedication to the choir provided a firm foundation for the future. Mr. Robert Wyant was the organist for the choir in the early years. The choir began singing concerts on May 23, 1971, with Schubert’s Mass in G. During the remainder of the first ten years, the choir was conducted by Dennis Striny, Tom Riley, Michael Cordovana, Jack Neil, and Haig Mardirosian. Dr. Cordovana conducted the music for the 1974 installation of Bishop Thomas J. Welsh as the first Bishop of Arlington.
Dr. Haig Mardirosian came in 1977 and remained until 1990. With the support of Msgr. John O’Connell, he enhanced the quality of the music program, put Cathedral Concerts on a sound financial footing and began the tradition of Lessons and Carols. The choir sang for the installation of Bishop John R. Keating in 1983, the Masses celebrating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the parish in 1988, and Msgr. O’Connell’s funeral in 1989. The choir also sang for priesthood ordinations each May. The concert for the Fiftieth Anniversary of St. Thomas More parish was a major event and was performed for large audiences on two nights in June 1988. In June 1989, the choir recorded its first CD for Centaur Records, Inc., an all Mozart program. Dr. Mardirosian helped to found the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians (CRCCM) to foster music in the liturgy of cathedral churches.
Dr. Richard Gibala was appointed Director of Music by Msgr. John Cilinski in 1990. Dr. Gibala’s first major event was Msgr. McClunn’s funeral in June 1990 only a few days after his appointment. He continued the traditions established since 1969 and added an enhanced commitment to singing for the major events of the Diocese including diaconate ordinations, adult confirmations, Rite of Election, pilgrimages to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the annual Chrism Mass. The choir has continued to sing for all major parish events including Msgr. Burke’s funeral in December 1996 and Bishop Keating’s funeral in 1998.
On a more joyous note, the choir sang for the installation of Rev. Dominic P. Irace as Rector on July 10, 1994, and the installation of Bishop Paul S. Loverde on March 25, 1999. The Choir has also sung several times for the Washington, D.C., televised Mass for Shut-Ins. The Choir has continued to sing for Cathedral Concerts. In November 1997, the choir performed in the concert series under the direction of guest conductor, Richard Proulx, noted Catholic church musician and composer whose music is often sung at St. Thomas More. Another memorable event was “A Service of Remembrance” for Bishop Keating on the eve of All Souls Day in 1998, when the choir sang the Rutter Requiem. A second CD was issued in 1997 entitled “A Festival of Lessons and Carols.” In January of 1999, members of the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians returned to the Cathedral to celebrate the Eucharist as part of a joint meeting with the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.
Since the turn of the millennium, the choir has experienced the joy of singing in Rome for the Holy Father at Mass in St. Peter’s and of singing in concert at Saint Ignatius the next day. The choir concluded the tour by singing for Mass at Santa Maria Maggiori where the rector prayed that we will sing for the glory of God all our days until we can to sing forever in the heavenly choir. Sadly, the year 2001 drew to a close with the choir singing for the nationally televised Memorial Mass for Barbara Olson who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Under Dr. Gibala’s leadership the Cathedral Choir has recorded several more CDs including, “A Millennium of Sacred Music” on November 21, 1999, “Concert Celebrating the Feast of St. Cecilia” on November 22, 2002, and “A Service of Remembrance” on November 3, 2006. Most recently the choir recorded a CD of music for Holy Week entitled “In Memory of You.” The choir also sang a memorial Mass for Robert L. Wyant on January 21, 2006 which was celebrated by Most Rev. Thomas J. Welsh and then Bishop Welsh’s own funeral Mass on March 16, 2009. In August 2009, the Cathedral Choir and the Diocesan Choir gathered together to sing at a Mass celebrating the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Diocese of Arlington. In recent years, the Cathedral and its choir have been blessed to have Fr. Robert Avella and Fr. Robert Rippy serve as rectors of this CathedraL Both have strongly supported the liturgical music program.
In the Fall of 2009, the Cathedral was resplendent for the Cathedral Choir’s 40th Anniversary concert, in celebration of the gifts of song given by all the generous, talented, and faithful musicians who have served during the decades since September 1969. On that date, they also celebrated twenty years of leadership that Dr. Gibala has given to this parish community and to the diocese, and marked the tenth of Anniversary of the Arlington Diocesan Choir.