Sunday, December 23, 2007

ok, this is just cool

'Miracle choir' ready for encore
Philippus church brought voices together
OVER-THE-RHINE - Five voices. No more. No less.

That was all organist Terrie Benjamin thought she had to work with last year for the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service at candle-lit Philippus United Church of Christ.

Overnight, those five voices turned into 42.

They soared through "O Come, All Ye Faithful." They brought a blessed hush to "Silent Night," singing the carol in German and in English. No wonder those in attendance dubbed the singers, "the miracle choir."

The choir reunites Monday night. Same time. Same place, an Over-the-Rhine landmark for 116 years.

Five singers would not have filled the chancel choir loft, built for 40, in the 19th-century church capable of holding 812 worshippers.

Benjamin, the church's music director and organist, put out a call for carolers. An Enquirer article spread the word.

"We certainly needed some angels last year," Benjamin said. "And we got them. That choir sounded as if it had been together for ages."

The group had all of the inspiration of another Cincinnati ensemble - Nick Lachey's "Clash of the Choirs" champs - but none of the preparation.

Members of the church's impromptu choir came from across town and across state lines.

Locals gathered from Green and Anderson townships. They hailed from Mason to Maysville, from Cleves to New Richmond. Out-of-towners, home for the holidays, came from Houston, Nashville and Denver.

One by one they decided to spend Christmas Eve in a church most had never visited in a part of town where many fear to tread on one of the most sacred nights of the year.

"This was a spontaneous coming together of like-minded souls who had nothing in common other than giving back," said Lynne Aronson, a music teacher turned baker from Anderson Township.

"Why not give to those in need? That's what Christmas is all about."

Ella Jean Davis, a singing retired legal secretary from New Richmond, remembered walking into "the choir's rehearsal room thinking I'd see eight people.

"Instead, I saw 41. It was a Christmas miracle."

It was also a miracle so many suburbanites got up the courage to venture into an inner-city neighborhood that regularly makes the news for all the wrong reasons.

Kelly Kalb recruited two carloads of singers. Some came from Maysville. Some from Mason. More than a few felt uneasy about going to Over-the-Rhine.

Kalb, a corporate trainer from Mason, calmed their fears.

"Of all nights," he told his recruits, "God will take care of us on Christmas Eve."

The choir rehearsed for just 40 minutes.

"Every singer was very professional," Benjamin said. "No talking. No visiting. I would venture to say 90 percent of them came from a structured choral background."

There were doctors and lawyers, teachers and psychologists, office workers and even a Duke.

Stacy Todd performs as "Duke" in the homegrown, nationally known oldies rock revue, the Van-Dells. At Philippus, on Christmas Eve 2006, however, he played the part of the dutiful son-in-law.

"My father-in-law was confirmed at Philippus," said Todd of Cleves. "My mother-in-law told us about the choir's problem and asked us to go down and help out."

He brought his sons, Kyle and Kasey, and niece, Lyndsey Campbell. They walked in the procession from the rehearsal room, down a hallway, through a door and into the sanctuary.

"The singers just kept coming and coming out the door next to the choir loft," Todd said. "It was very, very emotional."

Gasps echoed across the congregation over the choir's size. The brilliant sound produced by 42 voices caused tears to fall.

The group included six singers from Philippus' choir and 36 from afar.

"There were 40 Christians and two Jews," Aronson said. The baker and her husband, Mark, made up the latter.

"What else would we do on Christmas Eve?" she joked.

Turning serious, she explained why they came to the church in Over-the-Rhine.

"It's a mitzvah, a good thing," she said, "to give to others."

Answering the call to sing in the miracle choir became a gift that keeps on giving.

"When we sang at the church last year, we thought, 'Let's do this again,' " said Steve DeHoff.

The plastics consultant brought six members of his family from Sharonville, Southgate and Houston. He plans to do the same this Christmas Eve.

DeHoff should be joined by at least 20 of the voices he blended with in the choir.

"I have to come back this year," said Peggy Schmidt, a Blue Ash music teacher. "There was a magical glow about the whole evening."

As they made their way to Over-the-Rhine last Christmas Eve, the wise men and women in the choir followed a hand.

A gilded 6-foot-tall left hand tops the church's steeple. The hand's gleaming index finger points the way to heaven.

Inside, the church that is on the National Register of Historic places is a wonder of late-19th-century architecture, artistry and craftsmanship. The sanctuary features splendid stained glass windows, Rookwood drinking fountains, ornately crafted oak woodwork and a glorious pipe organ, donated by the Midwest's 19th-century beer baron, Christian Moerlein.

"Seeing all that bathed in candlelight was so warming and comforting," Schmidt said.

She sang in the choir to honor her mother, Carolyn Schmidt, a member of Philippus' 1936 confirmation class.

"The service and the church reminded me of Christmases past," Schmidt said.

The teacher recalled Christmas Eves from long ago "when families came to church together to sing carols. That night brought back many sweet memories of Christmases past."

Memories are all the singers have of that magical night. No one took photos or made a recording.

"That," said singer Ella Jean Davis, "makes the night all the more magical."

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