When was the last time Benedictine nuns rocked your world? Well, since 2012, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, have been topping the charts at Billboard magazine, building a loyal fan base among lovers of traditional classical music and socking away the proceeds of their sales via iTunes and CDs to move out of the cramped quarters of a house that’s too small for their ever-growing community and into a real convent with a real church.
The nuns grabbed the attention of the music world in 2012 when they released their first album, Advent at Ephesus, followed a year later by Angels and Saints at Ephesus (Our Lady of Ephesus is the formal name of the nuns’ priory, or convent). Both recordings won Billboard’s Classical Traditional Artists award — the first time in the history of the magazine that the prize went to religious sisters. In addition, Angels and Saints at Ephesus soared to the number 1 spot on Billboard’s traditional classical music chart and stayed there for 13 weeks — an achievement Billboard had not seen in seven years.
Now the sisters have released a new album, Caroling at Ephesus. At this writing (December 15), the Benedictines’ Christmas album is ranked number 15 on Billboard, number 6 on Amazon.com’s Classical/Sacred & Religious category. And if history is any indication, the sales rank of the sisters’ album will only climb higher.
The sisters live in Gower, a rural town of about 1,500 people, located in the far northwest corner of Missouri. In addition to music sales, the sisters support themselves by farming, raising livestock, making exquisite vestments and altar cloths, and selling greeting cards.
In an interview via email, the prioress of Ephesus, Mother Cecilia (St. Cecilia, by the way, is the patron saint of musicians and especially of singers), spoke of the sisters and their vocal gifts. “Singing is second nature to us,” she said. “We are singing with each other all day. That adds a dimension that I do not think other music groups have. We are with each other 24/7, not meeting for weekly practices. So we have to adapt to each other’s voices and characters pretty quickly, if we are going to produce a unified sound, let alone get along! We are fortunate in that we do, and we have one heart here at the Priory.”
Mother Cecilia arranges the music for each recording. “Sometimes,” she said, “I wish I had paid more attention to the composition and theory classes when I was in college! I went to Rice University for my degree in music performance for the French Horn. From there I went on to Chicago to play with the Chicago Civic Orchestra, but won a job soon after that in the Columbus Symphony. The people there were great, and I enjoyed it tremendously. But when God calls you simply can’t ignore Him! I joined the Benedictines in 2003, thinking I was giving up my career. Our Lord loves irony, and soon He started stretching the talents, which I have on loan from Him, in a different direction…. But more than arranging the CDs, I take great joy in teaching the Sisters their individual parts, striving to bring out what is best in each voice, and then hearing how we all come together.”
The sisters’ Billboard stats are impressive, but they don’t spend any time thinking about their success. “We do not speak about it among ourselves so as not to get big heads,” Mother Cecilia said. “Then we would have to make new veils! But we think our music is worth singing and so it is encouraging that it has been well-received. We pray every time before we sing, asking the Lord to banish from our hearts all vanity and all that is displeasing to Him so that He is the One Who is praised. So when others hear it, the hope is that they will thank Him.”
According to Mother Cecilia, in every recording, the sisters have one goal: “To make the Lord better known and loved. There is something so arresting about beauty. It is the one of Plato’s three transcendentals that no one can argue with. If the Lord uses our voices to communicate His own beauty, all our attempts to do so are worth it. More than the public accolades like the Billboard stats are the stories which we sometimes hear: grieving families comforted, struggling people put at peace, souls reconciled to God.”
The nuns are praying that proceeds from Caroling at Ephesus will bring them closer to their grand goal — to begin construction of a priory church. Their current chapel is lovely but too small for a community that is bursting at the seams and that welcomes an ever-growing number of visitors who come to the chapel for Mass and daily prayers with the sisters. “The plan is to break ground in the spring,” Mother Cecilia said, “but with only $1.3 million raised for a $5.5 million budget, we are now praying for a miracle…. We’ve now sold 10,000 copies of our new CD, and this has been a great blessing. As we continue to sell them, we also look to those souls out there who might be able to bless us with some bigger gifts. Many, many prayers are given back in exchange!”
You can order CDs from the sisters’ website, or from amazon.com, or go to iTunes and download it. I’ve been listening to this album for two days now. It elevates Christmas from merry to enchanting.