My Mother, Elizabeth Rich Bell, died only three days before her 87th birthday in early March, 1999. I was able to be with her at the end, which truly was a blessing. An even more visible act of grace was Chanticleer’s singing the choral prelude before my Mother’s memorial service in my hometown, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The odds of that occurring were so remote that I hadn’t even contemplated it. After all, Chanticleer sings all over the world. And in the two weeks before my Mother’s service, the group sang in Mexico, Texas, Florida and Connecticut.
Completely by chance, I discovered that Chanticleer was to sing a concert only fifteen miles from Harrisburg the night before my Mother’s service. That was after calling the organist at Grace United Methodist Church to arrange a rehearsal for the afternoon before the service. When I was twelve years old my Mother made me promise to sing at her funeral. That’s a heavy burden to place upon a twelve-year old; but I intended to honor her request as best I could. Ron Sider mentioned in passing that he couldn’t rehearse too late on Friday afternoon because he was hosting a party for Chanticleer that night after their concert at Messiah College, where he was a professor.
Immediately I began to consider the possibilities. First I called Andrew Morgan, who sang with me in the Schola Cantorum at the Shrine of Saint Francis here in San Francisco. Since Andrew worked at the Chanticleer office, I figured he might know the tour schedule. From home late on a Friday night he didn’t recall the exact flight information; but gave me Frank Albinder’s e-mail address. Oh, the miracle of modern technology. Saturday morning the week before the service I e-mailed Frank, who responded within minutes. He wrote me that he had passed my message on to artistic administrator, Philip Wilder, and Lori Harnes, tour manager. But he cautioned that time constraints would be extremely difficult.
On Monday morning Julie in the Chanticleer office was kind enough to give me the phone number of the motel where the group was staying in Hartford, Connecticut. I must have called the motel at least thirty times trying to reach Philip or Lori. As a good tour manager, Lori was making arrangements by phone. I even became friends with the woman at the front desk, after being assured I wasn’t becoming a pest. Eventually I got through and explained to Lori that I realized it would be logistically tight with an 11:00 service and a 12:25 flight about a half hour away from the church. But it wouldn’t be necessary for the group to stay for the entire service. Chanticleer could sing before the service as part of the prelude. Lori said she would talk to the guys and that a decision would be made by vote at their business meeting. And she would give me a call later that night after their concert.
Meanwhile I was completing the final draft for the order of service to be printed here with the expert assistance of my friend, Deborah Sweeney. I was beginning to think it wouldn’t work out. But at 10:30 Monday evening (which was 1:30 AM in Hartford) Lori called me at home to say the group had agreed to sing.
I reserved five parking meters especially for Chanticleer in front of the church. Full dress wouldn’t be appropriate for late morning anyway, so the guys wore dressy casual clothes as they would to a school. Despite their dress, I suggested they sing in front. But several of them asked to sing upstairs in the rear gallery. That was a wonderful idea.
Following a Brahms chorale prelude “Herzliebster Jesu” -- at exactly seven minutes to the hour-- from the rear balcony of Grace Church below a marvelous Tiffany window of the Ascension, Chanticleer sang Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria.”
Then quietly--unobtrusively--they descended the back steps and drove to Harrisburg/ Middletown Airport in view of Three Mile Island and made their return flight to San Francisco.
I had meditated during the Biebl by trying to control my breathing. Under even ordinary circumstances, tears well up in me at the beginning of the "Sancta Maria." I did my best to compartmentalize; for I had to sing in just a few minutes. Cynthia played “Meditation” by Massenet on her violin as Mother had requested. Then after two psalms read by my niece Morgan and nephew Matthew, I sang Gounod’s “Repentance” as Mother had made me promise when I was twelve. I got through the recitative. But when I started the main theme “Oh, Divine Redeemer,” I began to sound like Alfalfa in “The Little Rascals.” I didn’t stop singing. But there was a quiver in my voice I had never experienced before.
Chanticleer had sung the Biebl at Louis Botto’s funeral service at St. Dominic’s. That was a powerfully emotional occasion--only days before Louis’ birthday. Joseph Jennings demonstrated then what I experienced internally at my Mother’s service.
When Chanticleer undertook its second national tour, we sang at the Forum in Harrisburg. Afterwards my parents had a reception for us and Mother baked a surprise hazelnut cake for Louis’ 31st birthday on March 3, 1982.
My family and I will always be grateful to Chanticleer for playing such a significant part at my Mother’s memorial service.