Sisters of St. Joseph celebrate beloved century-old carol
Posted November 22
BADEN, Pa. — Mid-morning sun streams through chapel windows at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden.
Sister Ruth (Venard) Sattler, 90, maneuvers her motorized wheelchair to a piano and plays a lilting lullaby.
Other sisters gather around. It doesn't take much coaxing to get them to sing a beloved, 100-year-old carol composed by two sisters of their congregation that still resonates today.
Listen closely. You can almost hear echoes of voices past filling this sacred space.
'It had to be perfect'
Go back 55 years to summer 1961.
It's sweltering, especially so garbed in full habit -- long-sleeved, floor-length gown of black serge; underskirt; apron; starched linen wimple framing cheeks and chin; veil.
One hundred postulants and novices gather in the chapel to record a Christmas album.
There's no air conditioning. Stained-glass windows are closed to silence extraneous street noise -- birdsong, bustling traffic on nearby Route 65, groundskeepers mowing grass.
Sister Ruth and Sister Donna Marie (Carolyn Marie) Beck, 84, remember well.
"It was so hot," said Sister Donna Marie, who accompanied the sisters on pipe organ. Recording sessions lasted days, always in the afternoons "and that would be the hottest time," she said. Despite conditions, Sister Donna Marie "enjoyed it while we were doing it, though."
"There was a lot of noise outside," remembered Sister Ruth, the album's musical director.
But everything had to be perfect. After all, this wasn't just another compilation of hymns and carols.
This recording not only featured "In a Manger Lowly," a song that's enjoyed wide and lasting appeal, but also honored the women who collaborated to compose it -- Sister Victoria Martin and Sister Ambrose Padden.
"As novices and postulants, we felt so honored to be chosen to be singing on this," said Sister Gerrie Grandpre. "It was such a huge event that it had to be perfect."
'Women of deep prayers'
Josephine Martin was born Aug. 6, 1869, in the Huntingdon County coal mining village of Robertsdale, Pa., situated on Broad Top Mountain, part of the Alleghenies.
At 23, she felt called to serve God and began the process of becoming a nun in nearby Ebensburg, where in 1869 the Sisters of St. Joseph established a convent and seminary for boys. There, in 1894, she received the congregation's habit and was given the name Sister Victoria.
Elizabeth Padden was born Sept. 13, 1873, in Bristol, Ohio. At age 16, she entered the Sisters of St. Joseph in Ebensburg, professed her vows in 1892, and was given the name Sister Ambrose.
Eventually, both would come to Baden, where in 1901 the congregation acquired farmland and established a motherhouse and academy.
Sister Victoria taught education, music and needlework in various parochial schools. After developing her musical talent at Ursuline Convent in Tiffon, Ohio, she would teach music exclusively. She also visited the poor, sick and elderly and baked cookies to send to soldiers during World War II.
Sister Ambrose, described as "a beautiful, quiet, and loving person," was remembered for her "patience and loving kindness." She taught English and Latin in diocesan high schools and extension college, including in Baden; some students said she was the "best teacher of English they ever had."
It was good fortune that Sister Victoria and Sister Ambrose would become dear friends and musical collaborators. Sister Victoria composed songs; Sister Ambrose was a prolific writer of verse and prose.
"I've read that they actually did a lot of songs for the school (former Mount Gallitzin Academy) in honor of different occasions," said Barbara Hecht, director of communications for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden.
But one stood out for its simplicity and poignancy -- a reverent lullaby about Christ's birth.
Written and copyrighted December 1916, the song was originally titled "Christmas Carol" with no mention of either sister.
"In the good, old days of Sister Victoria, your name wasn't attached to certain things only through the memory," Sister Donna Marie said. "So on the music itself, it just says 'Sister of St. Joseph.' It's supposed to be kind of a humbling experience, you know, offering your gifts, but don't shout about it."
Most people, she said, came to know the carol by the first words of its lyrics -- "In a Manger Lowly."
"I think these women were women of deep prayers," said Sister Gerrie, and from prayer and meditation came inspiration.
"Who knows whether the poetry was written first and the music put to that or vice versa. We don't know," she said.
What we do know is that the carol -- then and still today -- is beloved in parishes throughout western Pennsylvania, even Ohio.
"I think the sisters learned the music and it became very special to them because we used it in the chapel all the time," Sister Gerrie said. "And then the sisters who knew the music took it to the classroom and that's how it became disseminated to the world. It became popular."
Indeed. A standard at Christmas Eve Masses in Donora, Monongahela, Greensburg, Kittanning, Johnstown, Wilkinsburg, Beechview, Duquesne and beyond.
Hecht said "In a Manger Lowly" has been played at St. Mary's in Kittanning ever since first copyrighted.
It was taught in parochial school music classes in the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Altoona-Johnstown, Greensburg and Columbus, Ohio, said Hecht, "primarily where our sisters served." She estimated thousands of pupils were introduced to it.
"We still sing it in our parish at home," Sister Donna Marie said, referring to the former St. Patrick's in Gallitzin, Pa., now St. Demetrius as the result of parish mergers.
"I used to get many requests from soldiers asking for that music," said Sister Ruth.
Though she can't recall his name, Sister Gerrie said last year a man from Beaver County told her that "playing 'In a Manger Lowly' in his house is more important than having a Christmas tree. It's what makes Christmas."
About this time each year, Hecht said, "interest seems to be renewed." She fields requests -- "anywhere between maybe six to 12 emails" -- from people wondering if sheet music or a recording are available.
Yes, sheet music is available and so is a CD.
"We got so many requests for it ("In a Manger Lowly"), probably someone said, 'You should put this on a CD and that's what the sisters did," said Hecht, when the original album was reformatted a few years ago.
'So simple and touching'
On the recording, chimes introduce the melody followed by an organ interlude. And then -- unison voices, sweet and angelic.
"In a Manger Lowly," scored in A-flat major, flows in waltz-like, three-quarter time. Three verses, each with refrain.
"It's so simple and touching," Sister Ruth said.
Sister Donna Marie, professor emerita in the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University, credits Sister Victoria's composition skills with notes that descend on the verse, but ascend on the refrain.
"It takes you down and psychologically brings you up this way . Each time it's repeated there's a different nuance in the voice and in the heart and in the soul."
And Sister Ambrose's lyrics, she said, invite all to share in the glorious experience of Christ's birth.
"'Then haste and let us welcome, with joyous happy lay, the infant king of glory born for us today.' Wow! Gets you all excited and the children love it. They love it."
"It's easy for children to learn," agreed Sister Gerrie. Usually once or twice through is all it takes.
"Every time I hear it and sing it, it reunites me with the entire community of the Sisters of St. Joseph and the outreach that it has made to God's people through our sisters in teaching it and through our parishes.
"Very lyrical, very simple," she said. "It kind of sticks with you after you've sung it and you tend to hear that melody in your mind all day long -- which is a nice one to hear."
Sister Crescentia Mulvehill, director of novices in the '60s, suggested recording an album of Christmas carols to raise money to expand the sisters' novitiate program.
Anthony Allegro and Associates, an audiotronics engineer in Ambridge, donated recording services.
That fall, 2,000 records were pressed on vinyl by a New York recording firm, Hecht said, that charged the sisters 42 cents for each album -- albums that sold for $3.98.
Side one had nine traditional carols; side two had eight, including "Joy to the World," ''It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," ''Hark the Herald Angels Sing," ''O Holy Night" and, of course, the original carol, "In a Manger Lowly."
Not all went smoothly, however.
"I remember the Teamsters were on strike and the records did not come in time to put them out for sale for Christmas," said Sister Barbara Czyrnik, now a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph Leadership Team. "The trucks wouldn't deliver. And so we sold a few, but we waited for the next Christmas because they weren't available."
In the '70s, a priest at the former Transfiguration Church, now St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Monongahela, "took our recording and piped it through the town from the church," Sister Donna Marie said, "which I thought was really a nice gesture on his part. And next door was the Methodist church so they heard it, too."
And so can you.
At 2 p.m. Dec. 4, the Sisters of St. Joseph will present an Advent-Christmas concert in the chapel to celebrate the 100th anniversary of "In a Manger Lowly" and to honor Sisters Ruth and Donna Marie.
Among the approximately 50 singers will be some heard on the 1961 album, along with choir members from St. Damien of Molokai, directed by Kathy Wray, who was taught by Sisters of St. Joseph. Proceeds will support the congregation's elder sisters.
A loving gesture
Sister Ambrose died at age 75 in 1949, 12 years before the recording of "In a Manger Lowly."
Eventually, Sister Victoria became blind. No one was certain of the cause, but the sisters suspected glaucoma or macular degeneration that accompanies the aging process. She died Oct. 27, 1963, at age 94, two years after the album was recorded.
"I was a novice when she was in the infirmary," Sister Barbara said.
In the quiet of one Christmas evening, she and another sister "went to her room and sang that song to her. She was so touched because we loved it so."