On December 28, 2023, eight student choir members from Pasadena’s St. Andrew School, along with their families, traveled to Italy as participants in the Epiphany Festival Choir to sing for His Holiness Pope Francis. The choir performed a program of sacred music at three iconic locations: St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the Basilica of St. Francis in the medieval town of Assisi, and the Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles in Rome.
The occasion was historic, the first time an American children’s choir had been invited to perform during vespers at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The participating students range in age from 10 to 14, instructed by Choir Director Patrick Flahive, accompanied by celebrated pianist Dr. Hee Jeong Kim, and joined by other American choirs. Patrick Flahive is recognized as one of the preeminent conductors of student choirs in the Catholic Church. He co-founded Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley (PCSGV), Pueri Cantores translates as “children singers,” and joined the staff of St. Andrew School in 2021.
Under Flahive’s leadership as President of the American Federation Pueri Cantores (AFPC), the number of participating choirs grew from 5 to 252 over the course of 19 years. Today, his wife, Lauren Flahive, plans and coordinates tour arrangements for the St. Andrew School choir.
During a recent chilly morning rehearsal back at St. Andrew School, the young vocalists warmed up their pipes with Ríu Ríu Chíu, a 16th-century Catalan villancico devoted to an allegorical telling of the Nativity of Christ and the Immaculate Conception.
Flahive calls his vocalists “The Singing Tigers” and takes obvious delight in sharing his love of culture and history with the students, who visited the Coliseum, the Forum, the burial sites of 13 popes, assorted Catholic saints and Julius Caesar between performances.
“Now my kids will take AP Euro history and ace it!” he grins.
None of the students had visited Italy before the tour, but many happily found that their fluency in Spanish made communication molto facile (easy). During the recent rehearsal, some students shared visceral impressions of their journey. When asked what they liked best about Italy, eighth-grader Andrés Leon immediately called out, “The food! ” a response echoed by his peers, who responded in rapid-fire succession: “Pizza! ” “Spaghetti! ” and “What’s that cold stuff? Oh, yeah, gelato!”
A murky ramble through the catacombs brought shivers of a different kind. Conductor Flahive reassured the group that the ancient bodies had been exhumed from the area they toured, leaving only empty spaces. Still, sixth-grader Madeline Mercado recalled the passage through the underworld with a giggle and a visible shudder.
“I still can’t believe we got to see the burial place of St. Cecilia because she’s the patron saint of music,” she said.
Eighth-grader Mia Matson said, “Seeing the catacombs was nerve-wracking, but our trip was an experience, was something that I will remember for the rest of my life.” Andrés Leon added, “They were very dark, cold, creepy, weird.”
And the show must go on. Moving from the sacred to the sassy, many of the Singing Tigers will perform in the school’s upcoming production of “Annie” on April 24-25. The choir will then participate in LA Opera’s production of composer Benjamin Britten’s “Noah’s Flood” on May 3 and 4 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in DTLA, conducted by Musical Director James Conlon. A choir festival at Christ Cathedral (formerly the Crystal Cathedral) in Garden Grove is also on the spring playlist.
For some, music is a centering influence. Asked about the future, Madeline Mercado says she plans to stay with the choir until she’s forced to “age out.” Arturo Hernandez and Andrés Leon have both just completed their high school placement tests, but the two friends may be envisioning different potential futures. Hernandez says, “I’ll always love music, but I’m probably more interested in physics and tech for my career.” Leon says he’s considering a possible career as a music producer for recording artists.
Whether the Singing Tigers will pursue music as a life path remains to be seen. And as that mystery reveals itself, hitting those pristine high notes in some of Christendom’s most revered locations may not be merely a culmination but perhaps a beginning as well for these talented Pueri.