Music speaks when words are insufficient for the gratitude in a room. Traveling more than 3,000 miles combined, seven accomplished musicians gathered on September 2nd at Queen of Angels Chapel at St. Francis Woods, Frankfort, Illinois, to give Franciscan Sister Anna Clare Meyer a private concert for her 105th birthday.
Her family and the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart living at the Motherhouse had been eagerly anticipating the concert along with Meyer, as she is also celebrating her 85th jubilee as a Sister in the same week. Yet, it was both the kindness of family and of strangers that made the day’s festivities possible. Most of the musicians only knew of her because her nephew by marriage, Trombonist Robert Graham, invited five more trombonists and a tuba player to be a part of the celebration. Graham is a former instructor at the University of Virginia and a former player for the Charlottesville Symphony and Lynchburg Symphony. Also performing were tubist Gene Pokorney and trombonist Michael Mulcahey from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, bass trombonist Heather Miller of the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra in Kentucky, trombonist Matt Williamson who studied trombone at Indiana University, and trombonists Jared Rodin and Ryan Miller from the Indianapolis Orchestra.
Graham said that this concert would never had been performed if it were not for Emory Remington who developed the concept of a trombone choir and advocated a singing style of playing. As a result, he said, Emory Remington has significantly changed the lives of trombonists. Graham commented that what Emory did reminded him of St. Francis of Assisi, who also changed the lives of those he encountered in deeply meaningful ways.
“When they played ‘Happy Birthday,’ and then moved into Tchaikovsky—it was incredible—just beautiful,” said Sr. Joyce Shanabarger, FSSH Community Leader. “Such a very private concert, and it was amazing to be there.”
As the hour-long concert came to a close, the chapel bells rang out as the clock struck noon. Sr. Margaret Anne Floto, one of the Sisters in attendance who is also a musician, said of the concert, “The harmonies were just beautiful. I think that’s the closest to heaven that I felt here on earth.”
Several family members traveled to attend, including Sr. Anna Clare’s 98-year-old “baby brother” James Meyer. “When she saw him wearing his mask,” caregiver Alicja Kowalska said, “she asked me, ‘Is this my brother James?’ When I nodded, she said, ‘Ohhh, James!’ He pulled down his mask for a moment and she just melted. She was so happy to see him! The last time they saw each other was five years ago for her 100th birthday. Very touching.”
“To see the two of them (Meyer and her brother) was a beautiful moment,” Shanabarger said. “And you can see how much her nieces and nephews love her. I thanked them after the concert, and they were thanking us for taking good care of her.”
“I am so honored I can take care of her,” Kowalska said. “She’s a very special person to me. She’s so thankful, and many times I hear her say aloud, ‘Thank you, God, for sending me Alicja.’ Twelve years I have cared for her. She melts my heart.”
The other Sisters in attendance were visibly moved. “I thanked the musicians, telling them that the Sisters have not had stimulation like this since March,” said Shanabarger. “They replied, ‘And we haven’t had a chance to play together since March,’ so it was a special experience for all.”
“My heart is bursting with joy at being able to celebrate life, resonance and friendship,” Graham told the Sisters and her family.
The final song, “Happy Birthday,” was an arrangement by Mildred Hill and had a touch of Tchaikovsky woven into it. Graham said he “hoped that even if this rendition fell on Sr. Anna Clare’s deaf ears, she would feel the resonance and the good vibrations.” From the look in Sr. Anna Clare’s eyes, even at a distance, his hope was fulfilled. Music wove through the room and knit this close community and its guests even closer. Despite the physical distance except for a few quick camera snapshots—treasures of their musical celebration—Sisters and guests came together to honor how well Meyer lives her life with what the Sisters call “Franciscan joy” and daily gratitude. (Photos by Sr. Kathleen Moseley)