By Sherri Weil
There are few among us who haven’t heard of the Beatles, immortalized as a cultural icon of the ’60s. In fact, it’s hard to believe that a mere 50 years has passed since their debut on American television.
But for those of us who grew up during that time, recent media attention marking the Beatles’ legendary appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in Feb. 1964 called to mind other fond memories. In my own case, watching The Ed Sullivan Show elbow-to-elbow with most of my 10 siblings completed our Sundays, which included Mass, family dinners of roast beef and potatoes, and the inevitable scramble to finish homework before the show began. The Ed Sullivan Show, with its extraordinary array of acts and knack for discovering new talent, was the cultural icon of that era.
Wrapped in these treasured memories, I was reminded of the Woodstock Jesuit Singers, another talented group of musicians who, though lesser known, also appeared on the renowned program exactly 50 years ago. At 8 p.m. sharp on Dec. 20, Ed Sullivan appeared on stage to thunderous applause announcing, “Now, what finer way to open our 17th Christmas Show than with these Jesuit singers from Woodstock near Baltimore, led by Fr. Lawrence Madden, SJ, a very dear friend of mine. Five come from Pennsylvania, one from South America and the others are from around the country. Their record on Columbia Records is high on the Christmas list. Take it away, Fathers!”
The men who comprised the Woodstock Jesuit Singers began to sing a rocking spiritual, “Alleluia, the Prince of Peace,” accompanied by bass fiddle and harpsichord, followed by the song, “Is the World Still as Fine as it Was?”
After his appearance on the “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the late Fr. Madden completed his theology studies and took on numerous roles in Georgetown University’s Office of Campus Ministry and later as pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Washington, D.C. In a 2002 interview recalling the Jesuit group’s moment of fame, Fr. Madden explained, “When I went to theology studies, there was a tradition of having an octet. It was a time when folk music was very popular. And the seminary was always looking for money, so we said, maybe we can cut a record. We did a single, and that got a lot of radio play. After the Christmas Show, a bunch of us finished studies and the group disintegrated. It was a very short, fleeting career.”
However, the Woodstock Jesuit Singers were part of a long-standing Jesuit tradition that seeks to spread the Good News of the Gospel through music, theater and the arts. While the Woodstock Jesuit Singers no longer exists, other groups, such as the Georgetown Chimes, still carry the tradition forward.