Singing priests spread the Gospel with a bit of razzle-dazzle



The Rev. Vern Decoteau, Adams native and pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Belchertown, has always loved to sing. A fan of classic American pop music standards and Broadway show tunes, Decoteau said there is nothing like the joy that comes from singing.

In the late 1980s, Decoteau got the chance to channel his inner Frank Sinatra when he performed with a group of other priests in the Diocese of Springfield in a series of popular concerts that benefited Roman Catholic charities and community initiatives.

"It felt so natural to put on these kinds of concerts," Decoteau said. "We stayed in our clerical clothes, sang these popular songs and brought the house down -- we had a lot of fun with the people who came to watch."

Something of vaudevillian priests, the group was formed at a difficult time for the Catholic priesthood. A shortage of priests resulted in the curtain closing on the popular concerts.

Flash forward nearly three decades later, and the concerts are back, with a mix of old and young priests, all willing to spread the gospel with a touch of Broadway razzle-dazzle. After a successful concert last October in Chicopee, the group of singing priests will present "New Wine in Old Wineskins" tonight at 7 at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, to benefit the Annual Catholic Appeal.

Giving the concerts a comeback last year coincided with former Pope Benedict XVI's Year of Faith. The initiative, which began on the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 2012, and is set to run through Nov. 24, marks a period in which Catholics around the world are encouraged to share the teachings of their faith.

Peggy Weber, a reporter for Catholic Communications, a nonprofit that provides media coverage and programming for the Diocese of Springfield, decided the Year of Faith marked a perfect opportunity to bring the concerts back.

"I just remember going to those in the ‘80s, and finding them to be so much fun with so many fond memories," Weber said.

During an interview, Weber brought up the idea with the Rev. Matt Alcombright, director of the Office of Ministry with the Deaf, and a vicar at Mother of Hope Parish in Springfield, who happens to be an accomplished pianist. When Alcombright, son of North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright, told her it was a great idea, she brought it up with other priests and members of her office. One thing led to another and eventually Decoteau was brought on to organize the concert held on Oct. 26 at Edward Bellamy Middle School. The priests performed a two-act show that consisted of a series of traditional spiritual songs in the first act, followed by a selection of Broadway show tunes and pop standards to close out the show. The concert was a resounding success.

"It was a mad sell-out, it was kind of crazy," Weber said. "It was a magical night, with the audience feeling good about their faith and the Church. And let me tell you, these priests literally sang for their suppers, they were so good."

About 1,200 people attended the concert. Alcombright said the show marked a great moment for priests both young and old to collaborate with one another.

"You see priests out of their element," Alcombright said. "You see us on Sundays at Mass, but then you put us on a stage and have us perform -- it's a new way to see a familiar face."

Putting Alcombright on a stage is not too much of a departure for the priest who earned a bachelor's degree in music education and piano performance with a tuba minor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2005. In high school and college, he was a parish organist and performed throughout the diocese. He entered St. John's Seminary in Brighton in 2006, and was ordained in 2012.

For Alcombright, who will provide piano accompaniment during tonight's concert, part of the joy of performing with the group is being able to work with his fellow priests in a context separate from the ministry.

"One of the priests is actually my former boss," Alcombright said. "I told him it was good to play for him again, and to spread joy through our music."

Spreading joy through music is what the Rev. Christopher ‘C.J.' Waitekus, pastor of St. Anne Church in Lenox, said is the aim of the concert.

"Fun is the name of the game," Waitekus said. "I was in the play ‘Oklahoma' as a kid in school. In this concert, I have a solo in the middle of a song from that musical, and it's just been so fun for me. I do love theater, and I personally love musicals."

What adds to this sense of fun is the on-stage camaraderie of the priests, Waitekus said.

The title of the show is a playful take on a parable from the Bible that says one cannot put new wine in old wineskins, the containers used for carrying wine. Waitekus said the show offers a chance to mix the "old with the new," giving priests who have been "pushing 50 years ordained and guys who are in their late 20s" a chance to perform together.

"As a priest you have to get up in front of people for your sermons," Waitekus said. "With this we are all doing that together -- coming together as a group."

In concert

What: "New Wine in Old Wineskins." An  evening of music from Broadway, popular classics and spiritual songs.

Who: Priests from the Diocese of Springfield

When: Tonight, May 3, at 7

Tickets: $25

How: (413) 236-8886;; at the box office

Note: Proceeds benefit the annual Catholic Appeal


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