ST. LOUIS — Ask Pauline Sister Nancy Usselmann whether she sang in high school at Cor Jesu Academy or had a musical background, and her answer is short and simple.
“Not really,” she said, with a laugh.
So, how did she become a mainstay of the Daughters of St. Paul Christmas concerts, now a 24-year holiday tradition?
Credit the Holy Spirit with that one, putting together the right people in the right time and place — the early 1990s at the Paulines’ motherhouse in Boston.
“We sang together in chapel for years,” said Usselmann, who was a novice at the time with final vows upcoming in 1995. “It was really neat to see. We knew each other and knew each other’s voices.”
“The choir director listened to the different voices, how we harmonized, and selected some sisters to begin with this concert and asked me to be part of it,” she told the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
From the humble beginning of a single concert in 1995, the Paulines’ Christmas concert has grown into an annual nationwide tour in Advent. The choir also has produced 30 albums at the motherhouse recording studio.
“We started because some friends of ours wanted to help us raise some money,” Usselmann said. “They asked, ‘What do you sisters know how to do?’ We had our recording studio and were recording albums already by that point, so we said, ‘We sing a little. … OK, let’s put on a concert!'”
They received rave reviews for the first show, which was a debut in more ways than one.
“They hadn’t heard us sing until the night of the concert, and they were blown away: ‘You can actually sing!'” Usselmann said, laughing.
This year, the Paulines will perform Christmas concerts in New York, Boston, Lafayette, Louisiana, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cleveland and Los Angeles. The “Glorious Night” shows in St. Louis will be Dec. 9 and 10 at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade College Preparatory School.
A state-of-the-art concert venue calls for a state-of-the-art production, which the “media nuns” deliver in a two-hour performance. Pauline sisters run the lights and sound system, prepared the choreography and props, and of course provide heavenly harmony to set the stage for the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ.
“The start of Advent is a time that people want to hear the music and have an experience of Christmas,” Usselmann said, adding that the sisters “help people enter into the mystery of the Christmas story, the Christmas message.”
The Paulines bring more than the gift of music, though.
“It’s also the joy we have as religious sisters — the joy we have together and our love for Christ and love for the Church,” she said, adding that those aspects “come out in how we sing, how we interact with one another on stage and how we interact with the audience.”
It’s all in keeping with the Paulines’ charism to evangelize in whatever medium necessary. Founded in 1915 by Blessed James Alberione, the Daughters of St. Paul started with pamphlets, newspapers and books, graduated to recordings, radio and television and adapted adeptly to the digital world of the 21st century.
A professional choir has added to the modes of evangelization.
“That’s who we are as Daughters of St. Paul; we evangelize through the media,” said Usselmann, director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. “The medium of music has a power all its own, a power to touch the heart.”
The ensemble choir draws on Pauline sisters serving throughout the United States and Canada. They pick the music in March, gather for about 10 days to plan choreography and rehearse in August, and meet again after Thanksgiving to finalize preparations and rehearse again for the 10-show, 18-day tour. Then, it’s show time.
“It’s miraculous how it comes together,” she said.
Luecking is a staff writer at the St. Louis Review and Catholic St. Louis, publications of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.