NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Life

Missouri Singing Nuns Top Charts

advent cover.jpg
DeMonfort Music

Christmas 2012 has come and gone, and for a lot of people, it’s been another round of traditions and family reunions. But for a convent of nuns outside of St. Joseph, this year was a little different. The Benedictines of Mary released a CD of choral music and then saw it reach number one on the Billboard Music charts for Traditional Classical Music.

Just outside of the town of Gower in northwest Missouri, a priory of about twenty nuns leads a simple life of contemplation. They maintain a small farm for their food and they sew vestment for priests. As a traditional order, the Benedictines of Mary wear habits, fast and practice penance. And they very rarely have contact with anyone in the outside world. They even observe silence for long periods while meditating or studying. But their quiet austerity is broken up eight times a day when the nuns gather in their chapel to sing.

“It’s called liturgy of the hours,” explains Monica Fitzgibbons of DeMontfort Music, “When they gather for their ‘work of God,’ they call it, they go in and praise God eight times per day. So the entire 150 psalms with their hymns are chanted throughout the week, and that is part of the original ancient rule. Some people have modified it, but they go with the original rule. So basically their life is one big song. I mean - I say this all the time, but I think really they must sing more than they actually speak.”  

The Benedictines of Mary never perform or even take part in public church services, but they have made a few do-it-yourself CDs of their music. Monica Fitzgibbons first heard one of these CDs in spring of 2012. She and her husband Kevin had both spent years working for big entertainment companies, but they recently left those jobs to start their own. Monica and Kevin were looking for candidates for the first release on their new record label when they fell in love with the music of Benedictines of Mary. They contacted the nuns, who, as it turns out, were facing some pretty serious financial troubles.

“They had been praying a novena to St. Therese for some sort of relief on the debt they were incurring. And right towards the end – it could even be at the very end of this novena – we sent them a letter. So they reach out to us after receiving our letter and said ‘Why don’t you come and meet with us?’”

The Benedictines of Mary agreed to a record contract, and in October, Monica and Kevin Fitzgibbons returned to the convent, this time with recording equipment, engineers and a producer. They recorded the nuns singing chant, polyphony, hymns, and even an original song a cappella in the chapel. For the music industry professionals, recording nuns was a change of pace.

“One thing that really amazed myself and the producer and engineer is that they ended up serving us. I mean, they made us meals … So there was never any diva behavior.”

The 3-day recording session was also a dramatic change for the nuns, but they continued their daily routine in the chapel between takes.

“Even during the recording, they continued this … rule of life of doing their psalms and their divine office eight times per day. It was kind of funny, actually, for the producer. We would end our session and take a break, and the Sisters would all file back into the chapel to sing their appointed time of day, whatever the corresponding office would be, whether it was Complines or Matins or Lauds. They would go back in and sing these psalms, and the producer and engineer were going crazy, ‘You should be resting your voice! What are you doing?’ No, they were going to go back in and continue on with that, and they just felt that they were going to continue on with that, and they just felt that that would be a blessing to  the project to stay faithful in that way. And it was.”

By typical music industry standards, the CD, entitled Advent at Ephesus, was produced with lightning speed. It was recorded in early October of 2012 and released just a month and half later. Unlike most artists, the Benedictines of Mary can’t promote or do concerts, so Monica and Kevin used all their music industry experience and connections to promote the recording. In was released on November 19th, and a week later, the CD appeared as the number one seller on Billboard’s Traditional Classical Music charts, where it stayed through Christmas. While CD sales were probably boasted by the demand for holiday music, and the novelty of the performers, but Monica Fitzgibbons also believes the music has a unique beauty.

“It’s just a rare piece of art, and it’s not all chant. It’s not all polyphony. It’s kind of a combination of some rich treasures throughout the ages. You do have the chant; you have Latin. But they do have quite a bit in English. They have old French hymns, German. They’re songs that have been around in the public domain, but they’ve sort of taken them and done their own arrangements. And it’s just so peaceful and tranquil that people have found that when they listen to it, it’s just brought a peace, a calm. It’s something that they’ve really just enjoyed in that way.”

The Advent at Ephesus CD has earned glowing reviews from classical music critics. It’s received coverage from USA Today, the Washington Times, and All Things Considered. And over the holiday season, the Benedictines of Mary found themselves turning down performance requests from the Today Show and Jay Leno. But Monica Fitzgibbons says the nuns have been unchanged and unfazed by their success.

“Well, it fazed them in the sense that they were grateful, but it didn’t faze them in the sense of … they thought they were special or awesome. They were just glad that somehow people were picking up on it. And that they were enjoying their music. I’m definitely going to say they were surprised. Because they’re not out there on the Today Show every day plugging away. But, I guess, in their way of life, nothing should surprise them.”

Monica Fitzgibbons says the Benedictines of Mary are already planning a follow-up to Advent at Ephesus to be released by this summer.