LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — The 2,200 pipes behind Phil Hines rested quietly as he looked out to the congregation below.
From the choir loft, the music director could see some of his singers — an alto, a second soprano and a bass — sitting silently with the rest of the churchgoers at St. James Catholic Church in the heart of Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood.
Usually at this part of the Mass, his finger would strike the keys and his feet would hit the pedals as the 35 voices in his volunteer choir filled the iconic dome of the more than 100-year-old building.
On this day, though, and every Sunday since the church has reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic, this ritual has shifted to muffled words chanted from behind masks.
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord. God of power and might.”
While Hines is grateful those voices can gather again in person to worship, it’s hard not to hear what’s still missing from the prayer.
The key elements in singing — diction, pronunciation and projection — are harmless in normalcy. In today’s world, though, those techniques have been flagged for spraying airborne particles that could contribute to spreading COVID-19.
So for the foreseeable future, communal singing is a mere memory at St. James, and it’s eventual return for Hines and his choir relies on both science and faith.
I first met Hines on Wednesday afternoon about six weeks after churches reopened under Gov. Andy Beshear’s “Healthy at Work” initiative. He greeted me at the St. James rectory, and the joy in his voice assured me he was smiling beneath his mask that was embroidered with a pipe organ.
He’s the kind of music director who can quote St. Paul and the Rolling Stones all in the same breath — and that’s just how he described leading the St. James’ music ministry in these unprecedented times.
“We walk by faith and not by sight.”
And then …
Meaning this isn’t ideal or even in his hands, but he’s making the best of it and finding beauty where he can.
His choir functions as a family, and the separation has been hard on them too. They’ve kept in touch with reply-all emails and phone calls, but it’s not the same thing as praying, singing together and sharing a bit of bourbon after rehearsals.
Kobi McKenzie, a second soprano in the choir, put it perfectly when I met her just after Hines finished playing Mass.
“Singing is just such a visceral response to what you’re feeling in your spirit,” she told me. “When you can join with other people in the same music, it truly is a communal experience.”
She’s eager to get back into the loft. It’s difficult sitting silently the pews when so many of the hymns are songs she once sang in choir.
Like it did for many of us, the pandemic has changed Hines’ job dramatically.
He never really hunkered down and fell into the clean-out-your-attic and bake-as-much-bread-as-you-can trends. The music director was still at the church every day preparing for virtual liturgies and sorting through rituals like weddings and funerals.
St. James was lucky in the sense that the church had been livestreaming services for nearly four years as a ministry to the elderly and the homebound. He had all the tools he needed musically to get through closing the church to the congregation.
For those first two months as Louisville stayed home, he built a mass music lineup that people could sing along with from their living rooms. Some of the parishioners had hymnals at home, and others knew the classics by heart. They’d send him emails and tell him they were still with him in song.
But since singing could help spread the virus, the music must be less inclusive now that they’ve come back together.
Now he’s tasked with creating a lineup that people must sing along with in their hearts, and prayers like that “holy, holy, holy” that are traditionally sung are converted into spoken chants.
Singing in prayer and music nourishes some people spiritually, he told me. Hines and his musicians are coming to terms with the fact that their big annual Christmas celebration is likely going to have the same kind of limitations they have now. At the rate the coronavirus pandemic is progressing, he’s not sure when they might be able to come back together as a full group.
“In many ways coming back physically drives home what you’ve lost, and that’s hard now,” Hines told me. “That’s like each and every week scratching the wound for those for who singing is really part of their prayer.”
He gave me a soft look and said: “You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
I paused for a moment, and then I told him about my grandmother.
She was the kind woman who would get shushed in theaters for singing along with the golden age musicals like “Hello Dolly” or “Fiddler on the Roof.” She couldn’t carry a tune, but that never stopped her from belting out the words over a hymnal in church.
Even with the best intentions, if she were alive today, I told him, I know she’d struggle not to sing along. He assured me she wouldn’t be alone in feeling like that if she’d been at St. James.
I wanted to see what he meant, so that’s how I ended up in church with him and his musicians just before 11 a.m. Mass that Sunday.
Relics of a simpler time still linger in Hines’ choir loft. Normally a few dozen chairs would be spread out around the organ for the musicians, but instead, they were stacked out of the way. A bulk-sized bag of cough drops used to ease the singers’ voices rested beneath a table in the back.
A lone soloist stood at a microphone as a socially distant flutist and violinist played along. Mask down, her voice filled the church as she practiced the music for the service ahead. Staying tucked away in the loft gives her a large safety buffer from the congregation below.
Rewind five months ago and Hines might have had a guest band of 15 trombones up there with his choir. He’s got a stash of percussion instruments that in non-COVID-19 times passed between unsanitized hands without much thought. It’s not unusual to see a trumpet, timpani, percussion player or a slew of other instruments in his mix with that flute and violin. With social distancing, now there’s not enough room for that many musicians.
There are more than 50 people who offer their time and talents to the church, he told me. When you add in the children from the school’s music program, who join in for Christmas and Palm Sunday, that number jumps significantly.
On that Sunday, though, it was just the five of us in the loft. From above I watched the people in masks spread out into the seats below.
As Hines’ fingers struck the keys for the opening song, I thought back to something Hines had told back in his office on that Wednesday.
I had asked him what the biggest musical moment had been since people returned to the church. I wanted to know if he’d created anything in these times that felt like the showstopper you’d hear at the end of the first act of a show in musical theater. I wondered if he’d gotten goosebumps or chills.
“It’s not what you’d think it would be,” he told me.
That day in his office he played me a clip from Christmas 2019 of that 35-person choir singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and the strings and brass that went into the arrangement. I heard the power of the music come through his phone, and as I watched him relive it, in his eyes I could see the loss he felt.
The power and that moment in this new normal was completely different.
Instead, he talked about the first Mass he played after the shutdown. He recalled a simple “Alleluia” chant and a contemporary piece that the soloist sang about “hope.”
And even without their voices singing along below, he felt that strong emotion ripple in the church.
“It was a feeling that we had begun a road back to normalcy,” he told me, admitting that he knew it was a long road.
“It wasn’t the trumpets and the organs and the brass and everything, all of which feed me so much personally and which our people dearly love, and which I miss terribly,” he told me.
“It was just the fact that we were back with people in the church.”