It all started nearly twenty years ago as a dream of Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey in central Minnesota. This is Lutheran country, the land of choral music and Garrison Keillor’s “singing Lutherans.” There’s the Minnesota All-State Lutheran Choir – so why not something for Catholics?
The dream got bigger, and the National Catholic Youth Choir was born.
But would young people come? Do high-schoolers today want to spend 10 or 15 days of their summer at a camp next to a monastery singing Gregorian Chant, Palestrina, Bach, and diverse sacred music from contemporary composers around the world? Throw in daily prayer, religion classes, small-group faith-sharing… what will youth say to that?
“NCYC has been a fantastic experience, and if I could do it for a third year and a fourth year, I definitely would,” says Albert Tinay of McAllen, Texas.
“I’ve done so many musical things in my life so far, and this is the best one by far,” says Abbie Kluiter of Overland Park, Kansas.
They’ve been coming every summer since 2000, from every part of the United States. And they love it.
“Just the overall experience is one you will never forget,” according to Reagan Hightower of Mandeville, Louisiana.
To be sure, it’s not all prayer and religion. Games and sports are part of the mix, and the concert tour oftentimes includes a stop at the Mall of America.
This isn’t just a performing choir, it’s a community. “Everyone is so nice – all the counselors, all the kids,” says Joe Lara. “I’ve never been in an experience that has had such a level of camaraderie.”
“Singing has a way of bonding people that other things really can’t do,” adds Maggie Heuer of Chaska, Minnesota.
And the music-making, though at a very high level, is more fun than work. “Our director makes music, and making music, and learning music so much fun,” Heuer says.
Choir director André Heywood explains, “I think singers learn best when they have fun learning, and that’s an important part of our experience here at National Catholic Youth Choir.”
A typical day involves up to 6 hours of choir rehearsal, with plenty of breaks and other activities such as class or recreation. Each day has some sort of prayer – Mass, rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, Taize, or Adoration and Benediction – and each day ends with the chanting of Compline. Getting up to pray with the monks at 7:00 a.m. is optional – but surprisingly, fully a third and sometimes even half of the young people choose to do so.
“It’s just an amazing experience here – singing with the monks, and morning prayer, and noon prayer,” Heuer explains.
A tour to several churches for liturgies and concerts concludes the camp.
There is a fee to participate, but generous scholarships are available to help with travel and camp fees. No chorister has ever been turned away for financial reasons. And no chorister has ever said they regretted coming to the National Catholic Youth Choir.
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that young people would find this experience so positive and life-changing,” says Ruff.
The next dream? Doubling the size of the choir, according to Ruff and Heywood. “Or maybe singing for the Pope in Rome,” Ruff adds.
Mandy Wolvert is the Managing Director of the National Catholic Youth Choir at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. For more information on how high school singers can join the National Catholic Youth Choir summer camp and choir tour, please visit their website at catholicyouthchoir.org or email them at email@example.com.