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Singing in the New Year

SHU Vatican Choir Has Memorable Visit to Italy

Most people consider New York City’s Times Square to be the ultimate place to ring in the new year.

Beth Tibbs may disagree. She and a small group of Siena Heights University students, faculty, staff and alumni and friends spent New Year’s Eve in Italy as part of the Vatican Choir. The group performed before Pope Benedict XVI as well as at several other holy sites during the 11-day trip, which Tibbs called “amazing.”

In fact, she said her group was so excited they often broke into song during the trip.

“We would stop periodically and just start singing,” said Tibbs, associate professor of music and choir director at SHU. “People would jump in front of us and want to get their pictures taken with us.”

This was the second time Tibbs took a choir to perform at the Vatican. In 2010 she led a youth choir from Arizona. During that trip, she befriended the Vatican’s head of music.

“He invited us back whenever I wanted to bring a group,” Tibbs said. “When I got the job at Siena (in August 2011), I thought it would be a perfect fit for us to go to Italy and perform. I thought it would be really important for us to include all the different things that are connected to Siena Heights.”

The trip started in Florence, the cultural center of Italy. After first performing at a church, the choir performed at the home of St. Catherine of Siena (Siena Heights’ patroness), as well as in her chapel. They even sang a piece written and composed by Adrian Dominicans Sister Magdalena Ezoe (former SHU music faculty member) and Sister Nadine Foley (former SHU faculty member) based on the Dialogue of St. Catherine.

At a performance in the local university chapel, Tibbs said the choir received several standing ovations and an invitation to return.

After spending New Year’s Eve in Florence, the group performed at a New Year’s Day Mass in Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis. SHU Chaplain Father Tom Helfrich, who was part of the choir, was a co-celebrant at Mass in Assisi and a couple of other Eucharistic celebrations during the trip including St. Peter’s Basilica.

SHU Vatican Choir Singing in Siena
SHU Vatican Choir Singing in Siena

It was then on to Rome, where after a bit of sightseeing, one of the most special parts of the trip occurred. Tibbs said performing at an all-volunteer elderly home was a heartwarming experience.

“They just started singing along,” Tibbs said of the residents, who recognized the Disney-themed pieces the choir performed and often chimed in. “I think people felt really uplifted, and the students did, too.”

The apex of the trip was performing at the Vatican, the capital of the Catholic Church. Tibbs said after the choir was announced, they starting singing for the pope, who was blessing the other visitors that day.

“He started blessing people, and so while he was blessing people, we became his blessing choir,” Tibbs said, laughing. “We just sang and sang and sang.”

That was not the end of the performances, however. Later that day the choir performed at Mass in St. Peter’s, and later for the Swiss Guard, the elite group that provides security for the pope. Tibbs it was a very rare privilege, and afterwards, choir members were given official Swiss Guard hats as mementos.

Tibbs said the trip accomplished its mission on many levels. “Musically, I hope that they will aspire to push themselves to their limit, to the best of their ability,” she said of her choir members. “They need to aspire to not just learn the notes, but realize that once they really learn it…it becomes alive. It becomes something more than just notes and words. It’s actual music.”

She said the trip also touched on the bigger picture. “Just realize that the world is so much bigger than what we know,” Tibbs said. “Realizing that there is good everywhere, and they need to focus on that. … It’s part of our liberal arts and something I love to share with people.

“It was a great event for Siena Heights and the music program.”

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