Singing sojourn: Women participate in pilgrimage to see the pope

WORTHINGTON -- When some of the choir members at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Worthington first heard about a Diocese of Winona choir trip to Rome, Italy, they joked about joining the excursion.

WORTHINGTON -- When some of the choir members at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Worthington first heard about a Diocese of Winona choir trip to Rome, Italy, they joked about joining the excursion.

"Bobbie Snow's our liturgist, so she got this flier and asked if anyone was interested," related Marilyn Nieland. "I kind of kiddingly said 'We should go.'"

After some contemplation, however, the women decided to take the trip seriously. Nieland, Glenis Marsh and Peggy Herrig, all of Worthington, talked Snow, of Sibley, Iowa, into joining the St. Mary's delegation. Marsh teaches at St. Mary's School, and Nieland and Herrig work at Prairie Elementary, so they sought permission from their respective principals, as well as their families, before proceeding with the plans.

The pilgrimage, as it was promoted by the Diocese, was scheduled for February, but preparation for it began well before it was time to pack their bags. By committing to the trip, the women also committed to attending monthly rehearsals in Rochester as well as learning the music on their own time.

"The first practice was in July," explained Nieland. "After seeing the music for the first time, we had to decide 'Can we handle this?'"


The women are all accomplished vocalists and sing with the St. Mary's Choir, but the music the Diocesan choir had on its program was quite difficult and in five languages. By the time they had to put down a first deposit in October, they were hooked on the venture.

"It's really a lot of fun to sing with a large group of musicians," Marsh said.

"Each month it took us three hours to get (to Rochester), then we'd practice three hours, and then it was another three hours to get back home. We were just shot when we got back," recalled Nieland.

"But we were blessed with good weather," added Herrig.

For its dress rehearsal, the Diocesan choir sang for the Bishop of Winona. The following day, Monday, Jan. 29, the contingent boarded a plane in Minneapolis bound first for Amsterdam, then it was on to Rome. The group of about 100 -- 60 singers and 40 others -- arrived late on Tuesday and had to be prepared for an audience with the Pope very early Wednesday morning.

Marsh wrote up this account of seeing Pope Benedict XVI:

"The first day we went to the audience hall, and we had to go through security similar to airport security. The hall holds 12,000 people. After selecting our chairs, Marilyn and I went to look around, and that's when I got a close-up photo of two Swiss Guards. During our 1½ hour wait for the pope, we practiced our German song. Other groups practiced, too, so it was quite noisy ... The pope arrived at 10, and the crowd rushed to the middle aisle to get a chance to touch him. People, including me, stood on chairs and thousands of cameras were flashing. ...

"During the audience, the second speaker was to recognize all English-speaking groups. We were told that when the Diocesan Choir of Winona was introduced, we had to begin singing immediately, so we did. How great it was to sing for the pope! After all the groups were introduced, the pope spoke a greeting to us all. Since this place is so huge, the pope was on a big-screen for us to really see him."


Herrig was one of several choir members who happened to be in the right place at the right time when the pope entered the hall. She came face to face with Pope Benedict and purchased a picture of him touching her hand taken by a Vatican photographer.

"There were four from our group that got that close," Herrig recounted. "You couldn't anticipate when he'd turn around and he'd be near you. All of a sudden, he just turned and was right there in front of me."

"We teased her about not washing her hand," added Nieland.

The remainder of the day was spent touring the Vatican's museums and the famous Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo. In the ensuing days -- they spent a total of five days in Rome and the surrounding region -- the Minnesota group took in all the sights and performed several times.

The itinerary included: Assisi, about three hours away, where they toured the basilica housing the tomb of St. Francis as well as several others; old Rome, including the Forum, the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain; St. Paul's Basilica, with pictures of every pope displayed in numerical order; and Rome's catacombs.

A complete evening concert was presented at St. Ignacious Basilica, with 300 to 400 people in attendance. The choir also sang at a high Mass at St. Peter's Basilica. The Rev. Timothy Biren of the Diocese of Winona, who served as the group's spiritual leader, participated in several Masses during the trip.

There was also some time for souvenir shopping, but the women's most cherished souvenirs cost them nothing. During some of their free time, Herrig, Nieland and Marsh walked to St. Peter's Square, where they noticed that the Vatican Christmas tree was being taken down. As the decoration was disassembled, the workers began passing out the ornaments, first to nearby children and babies and eventually to anyone who had the patience to wait. Snow had stayed behind due to illness, so they made a point of getting an extra ornament for her. The fragile glass balls made it home without any breakage.

For the women, the trip to Rome as singing representatives of the Diocese was a cherished experience, and they each came away with a favorite memory. Herrig's highlight, of course, was her face-to-face encounter with the pope.


"It was just so touching to be able to sing in the basilicas," said Marsh. "To be in Rome is one thing. To sing in St. Peter's is another."

Nieland felt blessed to walk in the footsteps of the saints.

"So many of them were martyrs," she said. "How much did some of them suffer for Jesus Christ? ... And you're not far from the Holy Land. You see stones brought from Bethlehem, a piece from the manger. Everywhere you looked within the city, you'd see something religious. You just felt close to spirituality."

Snow listed her highlights as "the town of Assisi and the two beautiful churches and the opportunity to sing in the Lower Church at St. Francis Basilica. This was the first time we had sung together as a choir in an acoustically correct and beautiful venue; it was breathtaking. It also was a very spiritual moment. The architecture and art in the old city of Rome was overwhelming; around every corner was a church and/or a piazza. We had wonderful guides who shared their passion for the history and art. Our private tour of the Vatican Library/Museum and Sistine Chapel was a privilege."

The women also enjoyed the many new foods they sampled in Italy as well as the friendships they developed with fellow singers from throughout the Diocese. The trip also forged a closer bond between the four women, both as singers and friends.

"We're together forever because of this trip," remarked Marsh.

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