Sisters find unusual way to share Franciscan spirit: Free music downloads

By Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass | February 26, 2014

Since 2006, Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity have offered ‘Song of the Month’

MANITOWOC — Julie Andrews isn’t the only one who cherishes the sound of music.

So do the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity and the thousands of people who’ve taken part in their free Song of the Month music downloads, which are available on their website.

Sarah Robele, a postulant with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, sits next to a laptop displaying the sisters’ website. Robele said she enjoys the sisters’ Song of the Month feature on their website because “it’s really good for the musicians, and it’s fun to listen to their songs.” (Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass)
Sarah Robele, a postulant with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity in Manitowoc, sits next to a laptop displaying the sisters’ website. Robele said she enjoys the sisters’ Song of the Month feature on their website because “it’s really good for the musicians, and it’s fun to listen to their songs.” (Benjamin Wideman | For The Compass)

The Song of the Month feature, which debuted in April 2006, includes a brief biography and photo of the spotlighted musician, as well as a sample of their song and a link to download it.

Sr. Julie Ann Sheahan, who oversees the Song of the Month feature, said it continues to rank among the most popular elements on the sisters’ website.

“The Song of the Month is part of trying to share the Franciscan spirit with other people,” Sr. Julie Ann said. “Music is dear to us. The fine arts find a home in our own prayer and life. Images and music are something we ourselves enjoy and hold sacred in our own lives.”

In addition to promoting the songs on their website, the sisters frequently distribute that information when talking to groups of young people and updating their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn sites.

Sarah Robele, a 20-year-old postulant who began living at the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity motherhouse in January, has been following the Song of the Month feature for several months.

“I think it’s really good for the musicians — and it’s fun to listen to their songs. For Christian artists, I think it’s good that they’re recognized for their songs,” said Robele, who has been playing piano since first grade and is also taking voice classes at Silver Lake College of the Holy Family.

This month’s featured song is “Gonna Be Alright” by contemporary Christian artist Mary Castner, the director of music and youth ministry at Christ the King Catholic Church in Mesa, Ariz.

In January, the sisters spotlighted “Children of the Sun” by Maryland native Sean Michael Showalter. “I hope my song will help us look beyond the differences in religions and ideologies that separate us,” Showalter said. “… that it can help us practice love and tolerance for one another in spite of our disagreements; that we are all God’s children, brothers and sisters, or ‘Children of the Sun.’”

Some songs come from performers as far away as Brazil. And some come from as close as Manitowoc. In December, the sisters offered “Mary Did You Know” by Marisa Tisler, a student at Holy Family Conservatory.

Over the years, there have also been a few songs performed by the sisters themselves. In December 2009, for example, Sr. Caritas Strodthoff, Sr. Myra Jean Sweigart and Sr. Winifred Crevier played “O Come Emmanuel.”

“Mostly, we’re just looking for a good song,” said Sr. Julie Ann, noting that songs often are selected to coincide with the time of year. “It might be something that’s inspirational or challenging, or it might reinforce beliefs, or it might encourage thoughtful reflection about discernment. If it’s a good song then it’s probably something that we’re interested in putting on our website.

“It’s really a privilege to spotlight a wonderful song that deserves to be widely heard, like Ralph McTell’s ‘Jesus Wept’ or Ezra Holbrook’s ‘Do People Bloom?’”

There’s no particular genre of songs Sr. Julie Ann picks. Rather, she said, variety helps keep the Song of the Month feature fresh throughout the years.

Songs have ranged from Shaker hymns  (like “I Will Walk With My Mother” by Barry Philips and William Coulter), to jazz (like Lynne Arriale’s “Kumbaya” and Jaime Ousley’s “Hymn to the Tides”), to contemporary songwriters like James Lee Stanley, Gretchen Peters, Sufjan Stevens and Tish Hinojosa, to unique instrumentalists like Paul Finley or Chris Englemann, to well-known musicians like Chris Hillman from the Byrds and Desert Rose Band, and Ricki Lee Jones. Mark Kolter, a strategic creative-communications consultant, helps Sr. Julie Ann select the songs.

Kolter oversees focus groups at various colleges, and among the questions he asks students are which musicians and songs in general they enjoy listening to. Kolter then presents his information to Sr. Julie Ann, who makes the final decision on which musicians to feature.

“We are very grateful for Mark’s help,” said Sr. Julie Ann.

She added that sometimes musicians even come to them asking to be featured as the Song of the Month.

Sr. Julie Ann said she’s grateful to all of the musicians and people who read about them and download their songs.

“I think the artists really appreciate how they are being featured in a unique way and introduced to a responsive audience,” Sr. Julie Ann said. “And we see it as a good way to have people visit our website and see what we are all about too. It’s something that benefits everyone.”

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