Singing Nuns Recall Record Album, Tour

WHEELING – A rare find in a stack of old records has sparked public interest and prompted joyous memories for a group of talented “Singing Sisters” in Wheeling,

Looking through a box of vintage albums dropped off at his shop, Alan Lestini, proprietor of Words & Music at Stratford Springs, Wheeling, discovered a rare copy of a recording, “The Singing Sisters of Mount St. Joseph,” made by nuns from West Virginia nearly 50 years ago.

Lestini put the album on display in his retail book and music store where it attracted attention from customers. Last week, he sold the record to a resident of Falls Church, Va.,, who saw his listing for the album on eBay.

“It’s in really good shape,” Lestini said of the album as he prepared it for shipping to the buyer.

This particular copy of the recording was found “in a box of LPs that someone had brought in, knowing that I sell them,” Lestini said. “When I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh.’ I looked it up and it was rare.”

On a nearby hilltop, at the Congregation of St. Joseph, where several of the “Singing Sisters” are still members, the news of the valuable album’s reappearance and purchase drew surprise and nostalgic remembrances. A limited number of the 33 and 1/3-rpm album remains in the Wheeling center’s archives.

The sisters explained that the recording marked the culmination of two singing tours conducted to raise money for the education of young women entering the convent. A total of 42 sisters participated in the singing group that performed in 1964 and 1965.

Sisters still living who were members of the “Singing Sisters” are Ann Hoye, Anna Marie Cole, Joyce Ann Waltz, Rosalie Bucci, Ursula Marie Wethington, Marguerite O’Brien, Judith Ann Teufel, Mary Palmer, Christine Riley, Eileen Marie Sinnott, Joan Singer, Alicia Marie Weiskircher, Rose McBreen and Barbara Kupchak. Other original members have died or left the order.

Recalling the busy schedule of rehearsing and performing on tour, Bucci said, “That’s one of the experiences of our life that was tremendous. Even though we had to practice hard and get up early and go to bed real late and then get up and teach school.”

Looking back on the experience, McBreen commented, “Oh, it was exciting. It was like Broadway for us. We just thought it was out of this world.”

The late Jack Randolph, who was minister of music at Christ United Methodist Church in Wheeling at that time, served as musical director of the chorus, with the assistance of Sister Monica Flynn. Randolph also was well known for his work with Oglebay Institute’s musical productions.

The album was produced by Essgee Records of St. Clairsville. Recording sessions were conducted in a room on the lower level of the motherhouse. Mattresses and blankets were placed against the walls and heavy curtains were hung in front of the group for sound control, Palmer and Hoye recalled. “We were enclosed in this area,” Palmer said.

The album cover featured a large photograph of the 42 sisters, all clad in full black habits, posed with the backdrops that were used for their performances. Benton Studios of Charleston received credit for the photo.

A “compatible stereo” recording, the album featured “17 selections from Bach to Broadway.” A clever mix of sacred and secular numbers peppered the repertoire.

Side one of the album included religious and patriotic selections. For something completely different, the flip side had the sisters singing show tunes, inspirational numbers and the West Virginia favorite, “My Home Among the Hills.”

The project wasn’t prompted by the popularity in the early 1960s of the Belgian sister who performed as “The Singing Nun” or the famous musical, “The Sound of Music,” the Wheeling sisters said.

Purely economic reasons drove the endeavor. Many young women entered the religious community during that era and they required higher education in order to become teachers or nurses. As a result, the congregation had to raise funds to pay for educational costs.

“Between 1958 and 1970, a total of 162 SSJs of Wheeling received degrees or certificates,” Hoye said. “We needed money desperately to educate all these people.”

To that end, a group known as Friends of St. Joseph was established in 1963 as a fund-raising organization. In addition to collecting memberships from the Diocese of Wheeling’s seven deaneries and other donations, Friends of St. Joseph sponsored two “Singing Sisters” tours of the diocese in 1964 and 1965 and the sale of records featuring the vocal ensemble. Hoye said net income from the two tours and sale of records was close to $38,000.

The nuns had to audition for the chorus, Palmer pointed out. After being selected, the singers assembled for a lengthy series of rehearsals over a period of several months before heading out on tour.

The singing came on top of the sisters’ regular work assignments at schools, missions, parishes and hospitals throughout West Virginia. The group included sisters from Fairmont, Clarksburg, Moundsville and many in Wheeling.

“We were all over the state,” Hoye explained. “We came up here (to the Wheeling motherhouse) every other week for practice.” Rehearsals began in the fall and continued through early spring, taking place “even during the holidays,” Bucci said.

While rehearsing and touring, sisters would “rush back on Sunday evenings to our mission and try to do a lesson plan,” Hoye recalled ruefully.

Weiskircher and Sister M. Charlotte Burke were accompanists for the singers. “We had to join the musicians’ union when we went on tour,” Weiskircher said.

The nuns wore their floor-length habits and veils for the performances. “We were still in full habit then. It was about three years before we changed,” Hoye said.

Traveling by bus and performing on the tours were memorable experiences. “We had more fun on the bus,” Bucci said.

They transported risers and backdrops to each tour stop, Hoye said. “Those backdrops were gorgeous,” Bucci remarked.

The late Robert Otten, who was then vice president for design and decorating at Stone & Thomas department store in Wheeling, designed the stage setting and assisted with artistic and technical aspects of the two productions. Otten also designed the album cover.

The ensemble visited two cities each weekend over the course of a month, Hoye said. The 1964 and 1965 tours were “two entirely different presentations. The stage settings were different,” she explained.

The 1964 program was titled “An Evening of Song – from Bach to Broadway.” The 1965 program was presented as “A Choral Salute to America.”

“Singing Sisters” performed in seven cities: Wheeling, Huntington, Charleston, Fairmont, Clarksburg, Parkersburg and Bristol, Va. The group also presented a benefit concert at the federal prison for women at Alderson, where SSJ members provided pastoral care.

Recalling the touring experience, Bucci said, “Every place we stopped for a break, our sisters were there. They put a big feed out for us – doughnuts and pastries.” She added, “On the bus, we would have brown-bag lunches and also cold drinks in a big cooler.”

The concerts, which were advertised in parishes and schools and through the media, attracted big crowds. At the time, sisters from Mount St. Joseph were teaching in 26 grade schools and five high schools. “The students loved it,” they said.

Citing another reason for the pupils’ delight, Palmer quipped, “They loved it on Monday. We weren’t always alert.”

After completing two tours, the singing group disbanded. “We were worn out. It was exhausting,” Hoye said. “We’d get home at 2 a.m. and get up and go to school. It was very exhausting, but we had a lot of fun.”

Bucci recalled that after one concert, someone asked, “Who was that with the big smile?” She related, “It was me. I was up there singing my heart out. They told us to smile.”

Later, a folk group from the congregation made a 45-rpm record with six songs, Palmer said. A few copies of that recording also are still in the Wheeling center’s archives.