NEWTON —For more than a year, students at Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart looked forward to performing for the pope at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. At that time they never imagined that Pope John Paul II — the only pope the students had ever known — wouldn’t be there to hear them.
Just one day before departing on their journey, the Holy Father was laid to rest.
"The anniversary concert tour at a time of transition in the Church linked the joy of a historic school celebration with a deep mourning period for the Church. It was a perfect time to go to Rome," reflected Sister Barbara Rogers, RSCJ, headmistress at Newton Country Day School. "In each basilica we visited, we were surrounded by saintly models of holiness and made mindful of the spirit of generosity and passion for Christ exemplified by Pope John Paul II. It is our prayer that the girls will take the gifts God has given them and use them with endless generosity to transform the world."
According to Mary Pat Joy, director of publicity at Newton Country Day, the school’s chorale, gospel choir, liturgical dance and instrumental group had planned the concert as a way of commemorating the 125th anniversary of the school’s founding.
The trip came about when, toward the end of the past school year, Sister Barbara asked the 125th graduating class to choose a destination for a class trip to celebrate the school’s anniversary. Although the original plan was to invite only the senior class, once it was decided the trip should be to Rome, the school opted open the trip to include choir members as well.
In the end, 135 students together with chaperones made the journey to Rome.
Rather than sing for the pontiff, the girls “had a chance to experience history first-hand,” Joy said.
Joy, who also attended the trip, was struck by the profound impact walking into St. Peter’s Square had on the teens.
"It was the single unshuttered window on the top floor of the papal apartments that created a tangible presence of the only pope most had ever known," she stated. "Recollections of Pope John Paul II's final Easter blessing, the laugh he shared with the crowd of pilgrims when he set free the doves of peace only to have them fly back into his apartment, and the manner in which he endeared himself to the youth were heard in whispered voices."
"Being in Italy at this time was amazing," remarked high school junior Lydia Yohannes, 16, a member of the school choir.
"Just walking down the streets in Rome, listening to people talking about what was happening," she continued. "It was very unifying to see that everyone was living through the same thing."
The singing of the Mass that was originally scheduled for St. Peter’s Basilica was moved to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four pontifical basilicas of Rome. Following the 6 p.m. liturgy Bishop Emeritus of Terni, Italy Franco Gualdrini invited the choir to perform selections from their liturgical repertoire in the church apse.
The nine-day trip also included a performance in the Church of Trinita dei Monti, built in the 16th-century for the Order of Minims and transferred in 1823 to St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart. The concert was attended by students from the adjoining Instituto Sacro Cuore, one of 200 Sacred Heart schools and colleges around the world. At the heart of this school is a fresco of the Virgin Mary entitled Mater Admirabilis.
Painted in the tiny 400-year old chapel in 1844 by a young Sacred Heart novice Pauline Perdrau, it was viewed for the first time by the Sacred Heart students and faculty from Newton. Every Sacred Heart school houses a copy of the original.
The choral group held additional concerts in St. Francis Basilica in Assisi and the Basilica of Sancta Maria Novella in Florence.
"The performing was great for me," commented Catherine Sullivan, 16, a junior from the school. According to Sullivan, the choir was able to perform four concerts in the week they spent in Italy, including one at their sister school in Rome, the Instituto Sacro Cuore.
"I am really impressed that the school was willing and able to take 150 girls to Rome," said Sullivan. "They really do appreciate us."