“Sing unto the Lord …” – Psalm 30
Nowhere does that Biblical admonition vibrate more loudly than in the Virgin Islands, where week after week congregations fill their churches with music.
Classical cantatas, stirring Gospel sounds, calypso-accented hymns, and solemn old standards, the songs pour down from the choir lofts and well up from the pews.
“The music ministry of the church is important,” said Pastor Zanky Isaac who splits his time between St. John’s two Moravian Churches – Bethany Moravian in Cruz Bay and Emmaus Moravian in Coral Bay. “We are in the process of reorganizing” and often hold joint services.
The choir is small – fewer than 10 members – but contributes a lot to the regular service, he said.
“From time to time we are invited to other churches to sing” and the Emmaus Moravian Church is well known for its rich sound. “Many people come to Coral Bay for the wonderful acoustics.”
An even smaller group serves at the V.I. Disciples of Christ church on St. Thomas. Known as song leaders, the group of five has the responsibility for starting the service and getting the people focused on worship, said member Monife Stout. Internationally, the denomination emphasizes music, and some churches even have full bands. Here, the group sings a cappella.
“The song service is an integral part of the entire service,” she said. “Everybody sings. The worship service is very interactive.”
Stout has a trained voice and has appeared on stage and with various singing groups. But her work with the Disciples is different.
“You aren’t a performer. You’re an instrument,” she said. In her preparation for the ministry, she said she learned to consider the question, “Are people responding to you or to God?”
A number of churches boast larger, more traditional choirs.
“We have about 25 members” in the St. Patrick’s Church choir in Frederiksted, said Mary McIntosh, who has directed the choir, off and on, for about 20 years. Many of the current members are also veterans. “Some are in their 80s, and it goes down from there.”
The group meets to rehearse on Thursday evenings. They sing at Mass service once or twice a month, with the choice of music “dictated by the liturgy.” They also sing for funerals and special occasions and sometimes travel to other churches to take part in celebrations such as Gospel fests.
McIntosh said the group has performed four-part harmony in the past but is currently low on tenors and basses, so is limited to two- or three-part harmony.
The members get together outside of church too, holding picnics and other social events.
“It’s so much more than a singing group,” McIntosh said. “It’s a fellowship. It’s a family.”
Small or large, most every parish has its own choir. But there are also some groups that draw from different churches.
“We have members from each parish” in the Diocesan Choir of the Catholic Diocese of St. Thomas, said Gwynneth Moolenaar who helped form the group in 2004. “We’re a ceremonial choir” as opposed to a “liturgical choir.” Rather than singing regularly for Sunday Masses, the group sings for special occasions. And rather than being attached to a parish and a pastor, “we accompany the bishop.”
Moolenaar said the Diocesan Choir has 28 members. Each must learn the Requiem Mass and the Ceremonial Mass in Latin. Additionally, the group performs a wide range of sacred music.
Originated on St. Thomas, the choir now has a sister organization on St. Croix, Moolenaar said. But the St. Thomas members travel to all three islands, and have sung in almost every parish in the diocese. They rehearse twice a week, Monday and Saturday.
The Millennium Choir, founded, appropriately enough, in 2000, is one of the territory’s largest. It has “about 60 voices,” according to its director, Alvin Milligan, who also is the organist for two churches, St. Patrick’s and the Friendberg Moravian.
While it’s not affiliated directly with any faith, the choir is comprised largely of members from various churches across St. Croix. Regular rehearsals are at the Friedenfeld Moravian church, and the music it performs is “all sacred in nature,” Milligan said.
Its first performance was for the inaugural ceremony for former Gov. Charles Turnbull. Since then, the choir has participated in a number of civic and church celebrations, funerals, and services. It performs two concerts a year, in the spring and during the Christmas holidays, and members visit the Juan F. Luis Hospital and the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged to serenade residents.
It also has performed on St. Thomas, Tortola, St. Kitts and Nevis.
The choir tends toward island music from around the Caribbean, and often performs favorites “Sister Tis Amen” and “Thunder Rolling” by V.I. composer Charles Emmanuel. It also sings the “Virgin Islands Hymn” by Wesley Thomas and has presented a Mass he composed for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which Milligan described as “very Caribbean, and very upbeat.”
The style may vary, but in each church it’s the same tune – worship and harmony.