St. Francis musicians record Christmas CD

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, November 28, 2010

Do you hear what I hear?

If so, it could be the sounds of a special BrookhavenChristmas.

With the holidays just around the corner, a group of localmusicians has joined forces to give voice to their shared love ofyuletide song. They’ve compiled their favorites into “A St. FrancisChristmas,” a new CD featuring vocal performances by severalcommunicants of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church inBrookhaven.

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“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is just one of 12 selections thathave been transformed through the group’s unique vocal and musicalarrangements. This is an album filled with magical melodies perfectfor putting one in the mood for a reverent and joyous Advent andChristmas.

“These Christmas songs have become a tradition at our ChristmasEve Mass at St. Francis, Brookhaven,” explains Bill Phillips. “Wehave kept it simple, as close to live as possible.”

It is our hope,” he adds, “that as you listen, these songs bringback happy thoughts of Christmases past and help us all keep inmind during the busy Christmas season, that a baby was born for us,our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Joined by their accompanists Anne Meeks and Steve Russell, andtheir own instrumental performances on guitar and bass, “A St.Francis Christmas” has been a true labor of love for thechoristers, who include Bill Phillips; his wife, Kathy; Bill’ssister, Susan Smith; their nephew, Jeff Phillips; and close familyfriend Margaret Weathersby.

The CD will be available in Brookhaven at St. Francis CatholicChurch’s office, Drs. Mark & Chad Smith’s office and It’sSerendipity. Carmelite Gift Shop on Terry Road in south Jackson hasalso agreed to feature the release in its holiday selections, rightbeside their popular Fontanini nativity figures.

But for this group, who’ve been playing and singing together fornearly 30 years, it’s about giving back, not seeking personalaccolades. Most of the members of the musical ensemble beganworking together as volunteers in St. Francis’ youth ministry inthe early 1980s.

Those were days of transition in the Catholic Church, just afterVatican II, when masses were no longer performed all in Latin. Andfor the first time in centuries, musical instruments other thanjust piano and organ were permissible in the church’s services.

“We’re not entertainers. It’s not easy getting up in front ofpeople,” Smith says. “We are basically shy. I think the Spiritmoves us and gets us through. We couldn’t do it without each otherand the Holy Spirit.”

Soon after they began singing twice monthly at St. Francis’vigil masses, they were also approached to sing the liturgy at theChristmas Eve Mass. Their annual compilation of traditional carols,anthems and hymns has become a congregational favorite.

For Bill and Kathy, who had a band in college, and Bill’ssister, Susan, asking family friend Margaret Weathersby and theirkeyboard-playing friend Anne Meeks to join together for thetwice-monthly Saturday night vigil masses was a natural extensionof their desire to serve their church and the Lord.

The Phillipses and Smith all grew up as communicants of St.Francis and Meeks and Weathersby both grew up in St. Mary’sCatholic Church in Jackson. They’ve now formed an extendedfamily.

“We’re a family. There have been things we’ve all been throughthat we sit down and share each week,” Weathersby says.

And Meeks adds, smiling, “We’re all members of the Phillips clannow.”

Just like a family, “We all have our own unique gifts, but weneed each other,” Susan says.

Kathy has an ear for arranging the parts to suit each of theirvoices. And a symbiotic relationship has developed.

“When we were doing the CD,” Bill explains, “Chris [Hudson, therecording engineer] said when we were doing the CD we all feed offeach other.”

They tried to record each of their parts separately, but soonrealized that their unique sound could only be accomplished by alive performance. So, most of the songs on the CD were recorded asa group.

While the songs and arrangements they sang may have been radicalto some parishioners when they first started, the roots of this”transitional” music date back to the Gregorian chants andecclesiastical music of the Middle Ages. And while acceptance wasnot immediate, it has come as they’ve continued to offer their timeand talents to the church.

The group has also led the Palm Sunday liturgy as the Catholicservice includes a procession from outside to inside thechurch.

“We can process with our instruments,” Margaret shared with alaugh.

St. Francis’ current pastor, Father Matthew Price Simmonsexplains, “We are very blessed to have so many talented people whogive so freely of their gifts.”

Searching for inspiration, after being encouraged by Sister MaryFrost at St. Francis early in their ministry, the group has found akindred spirit in John Michael Talbot, a Franciscan monk who nowlives in Arkansas. They’ve also developed an affinity for MichaelCard, a Christian musician, author and songwriter who has pennedsuch contemporary classics as “Immanuel,” which is included on “ASt. Francis Christmas.”

Why put it together now, after all these years of live worship,not just for Christmas Eve, but also for all those other events atSt. Francis? The reasons hit close to home.

“Our families … especially our parents … are the reason. Wewant our families, our grandchildren, and future generations toknow the importance of our faith and inspiration,” Susan Smithexplains.

“We have so many blessings and it’s a way for us to give backand share God’s message,” Kathy Phillips says. “You never know whatkind of effect it might have on someone down the road.”

But, logistics did help. Chris Hudson, who is a native ofMonticello and works in Mountain Home, Ark., has built a smallrecording studio in Lawrence County.

“We finally found a place to do it,” Bill explains, adding, “Itwould be impossible for us to go somewhere, like Nashville, for twoweeks and do something like this. We just figured it was now ornever.”

“A St. Francis Christmas” features traditional songs of theseason, including “O Holy Night,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “TheHolly and the Ivy,” and “Still, Still, Still,” as well as a fewmore modern pieces, including “Breath of Heaven (Mary’s Song),””Mary Did You Know” and “Forever I Will Sing.”

Do they have favorites on the disc?

“Of course one of my all-time favorites is ‘Immanuel,'” SusanPhillips says, but adds, “After listening to the final cut, I haveto say ‘I Wonder as I Wander’ is great because you can hear allfour voices.”

Bill Phillips likes “Breath of Heaven,” but Weathersby believesthat “Immanuel” is perfect for Christmas, Easter, or anyoccasion.

More information about the CD is available from the St. Francischurch office, 601-833-1799. All proceeds will benefit St. FrancisCatholic Church.