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Christmas Eve choir raised spirits high

When I was a child and heard the men's choir sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem," I thought they were singing about my little town of Bagenalstown, a flour mill and railway town, located at the heel of the Blackstairs Mountains, on the winding Barrow River. The weather was bleak. The countryside was hushed and the sloping green hills were dotted with sheep. The people were humble and rode donkeys or yoked them to carts to speed through the piercing cold night to attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Our choir of angels were the men who worked for the flour mill. On Christmas Eve, they got off work early and delivered food hampers donated by the merchants to the old, sick, poor and good customers. After delivering the food baskets, the mill men congregated at Dooley's Pub to practice the carols they would sing at Mass in St. Andrew's Church.

In 1948, the old parish priest died and a new monsignor was appointed to St. Andrew's. A tall, rotund man with a high color in his face, he wore wire glasses, a fuchsia-colored vest over his round belly and his gray hair peeked out from under his purple-trimmed biretta. The Sunday before Christmas Eve, he leaned over the pulpit.

"I hear Bagenalstown has a powerful men's choir," he said. His comment endeared him to the congregation right away.

The church was packed on Christmas Eve. Mass started when the tenor voices thundered out, "O Come All Ye Faithful!" While the monsignor murmured the Mass in Latin, the oak doors rattled. After the Epistle, "O Little Town of Bethlehem" filled the church. Before the Gospel, Jeramiah Clarke, whose long, thick eyelashes were always heavy with flour, sang "Silent Night." While his solo voice soared, not a cough was heard and handkerchiefs dabbed eyes.

While the monsignor droned out the Christmas story, his gold robes glinted in the flickering candlelight, and smells of incense, candles, new leather shoes and perfume floated up our nostrils.

When the tenors sang "A Child Is Born in Bethlehem," brilliant azure-blue peacock feathers on the drooping hats of dozing old women shot to attention and quivered in the heat. The lighted candles danced like barley in the wind.

On the last stroke of midnight, the bells of St. Mary's Anglican Church joined the bells of St. Andrew's to boom out a welcome to the newborn babe. The Choir of Angels raised the rafters with "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly!" The church emptied out fast and everyone rushed home for the first slice of brandy-soaked fruitcake.

The following Sunday, the monsignor leaned over the pulpit and said, "I didn't know the little town of Bagenalstown was blessed with sooo many tenors. You did sing in ex-ul-ta-tion! On Christmas Eve you transported us up! up! sooo high into the heavens, we were airborne." Then he shouted, "But you sang in such ex-ul-ta-tion -- you left the organist behind!"

The following Christmas Eve, the pubs closed early. Wives were happy their husbands weren't joyful and triumphant in Dooley's Pub before midnight Mass. "Deck the Halls" was replaced with "In the bleak midwinter; frosty wind made moan; earth stood hard as iron; water like a stone."

"Since the monsignor persuaded the pub owners to close early on Christmas Eve, our choir of angels haven't been in full voice at all," the mill men complained. Most of the people in Bagenalstown agreed.

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Veronica Hogle has lived in Buffalo for 42 years. She enjoys writing stories about growing up in small towns in Ireland.

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