Nine choirs share the space at Good Shepherd Parish in Sydney. Each brings its own unique voice to the celebration of the Mass.
It’s 7:15pm on Tuesday in the small Western Sydney suburb of Plumpton and Good Shepherd Parish Music Director Eugene Inbaraj is placing sheet music into folders. He hands Regina, the choir’s pianist, an updated folder and together they run through the Psalm for that weekend’s Mass. Soon members of the Good Shepherd Parish Choir (or 9am Choir) roll in one by one. Each of a different cultural background including Filipino, Samoan, Tongan, Indian, Malaysian and South African, they reflect the multicultural diversity for which Sydney’s Diocese of Parramatta is renowned.
The 9 am Choir is one of nine official choirs which operate in the parish community. Others are the Parish Children’s and Youth Choirs, Filipino, Parish Samoan, Samoan Community, Parish Tongan and Vietnamese Choirs, and the Cantantes de San Francisco – a group made up of members of various South American nationalities. Each lends its own distinctive chord to the Masses at the Parish.
Eugene has managed music at the parish since March 2016. His passion for music began in the 1980s at a time when disco was making its way out and New Wave dance, synth-pop and glam-metal were in. As a kid growing up in Malaysia, Eugene was inspired by Michael Jackson. ‘It was the slick foot work that got to me first before I attempted singing his songs’, says Eugene.
It wasn’t until his mid-teens that he developed an interest in the guitar and joined a local choir. ‘The choir was more of me being a wing man for a friend who had other more social leanings. God really does work in mysterious ways.’
The best part of the choir for Eugene was the chance to sing in harmony, especially during the Christmas Season. ‘I would get to dish out the four chords on the guitar, playing for the local community, and doing the rounds singing carols. Nowadays I am into Bel Canto – Italian singing – and jazz piano’, he says.
One of Eugene’s favourite moments was when the choirs came together to celebrate Pentecost on Sunday 15 May, 2016. He quotes The A-Team’s John Hannibal Smith, saying, ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’ Members of the Youth Choir formed an orchestra featuring a cello, flute, violins and percussion instruments, and all choirs performed hymns – some in their own languages. Following the Mass the community enjoyed performances from all the choirs.
Steve Wonder once famously said, ‘Music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand.’ Music, as it appears on the staves and bars on sheet music is indeed a universal mode to communicate ideas. A lesser known variant is Tu’ungafasi or Tongan Music Notation. In this subset of standard notation, developed by the missionary James Egan Moulton in the 19th Century, the main notes are indicated by the numbers 3 to 9. A strike in the digits was used to sharpen them, e.g. 7 being 7-sharp (7#) or 8-flat (8þ). The Tongan Choir still use the same notation system for their sheet music, and regularly present powerful harmonies at Masses on the 4th and 5th Sundays of the month.
Each choir at Good Shepherd Parish enlivens the Mass experience for parishioners in its own way. For Deanah Baduria, Choir Director and Keyboardist for the Good Shepherd Parish Filipino Choir, the choir gave her the opportunity to grow and develop her ability in Music Ministry and Leadership. ‘I only wanted to play the keyboard so I could share my time and talent with the community’, she says. ‘I didn’t see myself leading the choir but I guess God had a different plan for me.’
The early 1990s saw an increase in the number of Filipino families in the parish. Then Parish Priest Fr. Charles Bugelli assigned Paul Mendoza with the task of encouraging Filipino residents to play an active role in community-building. Paul had only been in Australia since 1987 but was a well-respected person in the community. With 30 Filipino families in the list, Paul organised a core team to form committees for spiritual, social and sports activities. Fr Charles sought to inject new life to the Sunday Evening masses. Deanah says, ‘At the time, the 6 pm mass was called the “Dead Man’s Mass”, and was only attended by around 20 people.’ Paul established the Filipino Choir and they sang at their first Mass in February 1990.
Deanah has been the keyboardist for the choir since 2002. She took up the role of Choir Director following the passing of Paul in 2012. The choir sing Filipino hymns at Mass if they’re relevant to the readings for that week, and upon request for weddings, funerals and other events. ‘I wouldn’t say they’re traditional hymns’, says Deanah, ‘but they’re usually the favourite of the Filipino crowd – like “Tanging Yaman” (You are my Only Treasure), “Sa Yo Lamang” (Only Yours) and “Hindi Kita Malilimutan” (I Cannot Forget You).’
Members range in age from as young as 10 to over 60. Though they may have some to no formal music training, Deanah says their passion is to sing and use their God-given gifts in service. ‘Music ministry in church is different to performing on stage for a particular event’, she says. ‘It’s not for personal gratification but for God’s glorification.’
Saint Isidore of Seville said, ‘Nothing exists without music, for the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven itself revolves under the tone of that harmony.’
It’s a harmony of sounds which the Good Shepherd Parish Community have the privilege of experiencing on a weekly basis, and it wouldn’t be possible without the hard work, dedication and faithfulness of its choirs.
Brendon works in marketing by day and is a freelance writer, food stylist and photographer by night.
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View the reflection questions and activities for ‘Many voices one song’ here