Friday, September 14, 2012

Catholic Choirs - A Joyful Noise Unto the Lord

The Door of Faith at St. Gervasius and Protasius Catholic Church in Irsch

Hymn: Holy God, we praise You

If you are writing a novel and you know your main character, your great-great grandmother, came from a long line of Catholics and that she and your great-great grandfather passed that Catholic faith on to their descendants to the present day, you might wonder if part of her Catholic heritage included a love of singing her prayers that she exercised by being a part of a church choir.  Were there Catholic church choirs in the villages in which she lived, or did the congregation of those churches just sing together to honor their Lord and God? In earlier times, how did the villagers of Oberzerf and Irsch "make a joyful noise unto the Lord" and in what form?"

I went to the history books written about the villages of my Rhineland ancestors to search.  Local histories of Zerf, Irsch, and Serrig, where the Catholic church was the heart of each village, satisfied my mind that the Catholic church choirs of the time existed and were made up of both men and women. They certainly existed during the 19th century, the time period when Magdalena Rauls Meier worshipped in the churches of Saint Laurentius (Zerf), Saint Wendalinus (Oberzerf), and Saints Gervasius and Protasius (Irsch) 

The Catholic Churches in Zerf and Oberzerf.

The St. Laurentius Catholic church choir did exist in the late 18th and the 19th century.  Since Oberzerf is about a mile away, it  had a smaller chapel and was called a daughter church.  It was dedicated to St. Wendalinus.  The school in Zerf was an integral part of the Catholic church of that village, and the teacher also served as a sexton for the church in order to earn extra money for himself and his family. Caspar Goetten (1770) probably played the organ as part of his sexton duties, and he is described in the old records as a Vorsänger, that is, someone who stood before the congregation and directed the singing of a choir or the congregation. It is also likely that Lehrer Goetten trained a group of school children as a choir. After Caspar Goetten no longer taught, his son Nikolaus (1813) served as teacher and choir leader. He had, it seems, a number of supporting adult singers to help when more complicated choral music was required for the mass. This was not a choir with the stature and organization of modern times, but its men and women who wanted to use their voices to pray probably did practice regularly so they could sing the Latin songs and responses together as a choir.  The school children, male and female, sang together at services as well.

Nikolaus Trapp took over as teacher and organist in Zerf from 1837-1856 at the end of which time he was transferred, at his request, to the newly built school in Oberzerf. Herr Trapp also brought together the choir group in Zerf, which was the larger of the two churches.  The teacher who replaced Herr Trapp in Zerf was a Herr Diné. He assisted Herr Trapp from about 1846 on, and he took the organist position in 1885 when Herr Trapp was no longer teaching. But he had helped Nikolaus Trapp as an organist and church choir director before that time, perhaps in Oberzerf. Evidently, the choir was a very important part of the Zerf Catholic church's liturgy.

The Catholic Church at Serrig

The first evidence of a St. Martin Catholic church choir in Serrig is documented in 1789 in the church administrative records. A payment of four Thaler to Christophel Tressel from Irsch to serve as the choir leader of the church in Serrig was recorded. In 1790, Herr Tressel was again paid four Thaler to direct the Serrig choir of "Sänger und Sängerinnen," which means that both male and female singers were part of the choir group that sang for the Holy Mass in the Serrig Catholic church.

By 1827 Serrig was a full-fledged parish church which was no longer dependant on the church at Irsch. The choir must have continued because the pastor of the new independent parish asked the Diocesan authorities for a clarification about the singing of songs during services. The answer received was that the choir only should continue to sing the Latin Mass and hymns; the congregation could join in the singing of any songs that were written for the German language. Almost always these would have been sung at the end of the mass

The Catholic Church in Irsch

In Irsch the Catholic Saints Gervasius und Protasius church choir was founded in 1780. The first choir director was the same Christoph Tressel who trained the choir in Serrig. This teacher and sexton was assigned the job of working with the choir as an additional part of his duties. The history of Irsch written by Ewald Meyer does not indicate whether women as well as men sang in the choir. But the information on the church choir of Serrig, once the "daughter" church of the larger "mother" church of Irsch, most likely could be applied to Irsch as well, since the choir director was the same person and he trained a male and female choir in Serrig.

Yes, I believe my great-great grandmother had the opportunity to sing in both the choir of Zerf, the village a short way from where she grew up; and in Irsch, her home village after her marriage.

Hymn singing by the congregation during the service was not that common in the Catholic churches of the 19th and 20th centuries because of the Latin liturgy. Many of the hymns from the 1700 and 1800s were written in the vernacular, the common language of the people; but they were sung during the church service mostly by Germany's Lutheran congregations. During the Catholic masses, the choir sang in Latin and the congregation was silent, only listening to the music. Their time to sing was almost always after the Mass liturgy was concluded; and the people had been told, in Latin, that the mass had ended and they should go in peace.

In the illustration above you see the German words for the hymn I knew as "Holy God We Praise Thy Name." When I was growing up (before the changes of Vatican II) this hymn was sung at the end of mass by the congregation in the Sacred Heart Church in Sherwood Wisconsin at the end of especially celebratory Masses. It was my favorite hymn, there was something so powerful and prayerful about it that made it very special to me and, of course, I could understand the words which were in English.

Holy God We Praise Thy Name 
Holy God, we praise Thy Name;
Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim,
All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.

Hark! the loud celestial hymn
Angel choirs above are raising,
Cherubim and seraphim,
In unceasing chorus praising;
Fill the heavens with sweet accord:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord.

Holy Father, Holy Son,
Holy Spirit, Three we name Thee;
While in essence only One,
Undivided God we claim Thee;
And adoring bend the knee,
While we own the mystery.

I hope that the final hymn sung by my great-great grandparents on the Sunday before they left Irsch in order to emigrate to Ameria was "Grosser Gott wir loben Dich" and that it was sung again in the new country when their log cabin church at St. John, town of Woodville, Calumet County, Wisconsin was used for the first time.

1) "Grosser Gott wir loben Dich" is a beautiful classic Catholic hymn, used by the Church for more than two centuries. The words are attributed to Ignaz Franz, in Maria Theresa’s Katholisches Gesang Buch (Vienna: circa 1774) and it was translated from German to English by Clarence A. Walworth, 1858. The English translation is not literal; it was adjusted to maintain the rhyme.

2) In honor of the "New Year of Faith 2012-2013," proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, the blog "Catholic Gene" is hosting a “Doors of Faith” celebration online. Bloggers are asked to share their own or their ancestors faith experiences. This is my contribution. On October 11, The Catholic Gene will share some of the websites that are participating

Der Hochwaldort Zerf am Fuße des Hunsrücks, by Edgar Christoffel
"Die Geschichte des Kirchenchores 'Cäcilia' Serrig,"in the chapter "Serrig: Landschaft Geschichte und Geschichten" by L. Thinnes, from Serrig; Landschaft Geschichte & Geschichten by Klaus Hammächer et al.
Irsch/Saar: Geschichte eines Dorfes by Ewald Meyer
Photo from


  1. Kathy, I love your opening lines:

    "If you are writing a novel and you know your main character, your great-great grandmother, came from a long line of Catholics and that she and your great-great grandfather passed that Catholic faith on to their descendants to the present day, you might wonder if part of her Catholic heritage included a love of singing her prayers that she exercised by being a part of a church choir."

    Our ancestors are truly our main characters as we take on the role of keepers of their life stories.

    I enjoyed reading your insights into the musical life of the churches of your German ancestors. Your extensive research makes for a very interesting article.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story within our Doors of Faith celebration at The Catholic Gene.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Lisa. My faith is a very important part of my life and it influences me in large and small ways - and also my blog and the book to be. I am so looking forward to your Oct. 11 on-line celebration. You have come up with a very good and practical way to make us think about the way faith permeates our lives and why it does so.