Hands and heart make Mass special at Salem Heights

Six days a week the Sisters living at Salem Heights – often joined by employees and visitors – come together in the chapel for Mass. The services are inspirational with music, the Liturgy of the Word and the occasional amusing story before the homily by Missionary of the Precious Blood Father Ralph Verdi, chaplain at Salem Heights.

As stated in Our Way of Life, Precious Blood Sisters “express our deepest sentiments and manifest our redemptive vocation through Eucharistic prayer, particularly the Mass.” Eucharist is a main part of life in the central house and is the basis of the community’s charism.

And behind every Mass is Sister Pat Will (M. Terence) and her team of volunteers.

As liturgy coordinator at Salem Heights, Sister Pat makes sure liturgy happens. She also plans prayer services, coordinates extra holy hours and arranges special devotions. It’s a fulfilling job, she says, and one that’s full of details. There are the little things like coordinating cross bearers and lectors for every Mass. And there are big things, like working with a committee to plan music for Sunday Masses.

“I love what I do,” Sister Pat said. “I always want to make it better. There are so many things you can do to enhance the liturgy and provide prayerful experiences.”

While the end result comes off smoothly, there are plenty of hands working in the background. Sister Pat keeps a spreadsheet of more than two dozen sacramental ministries – from watering the plants in the chapel to serving on the liturgy planning committee — that go into the Masses. The ministries also include sacristan, altar minister, lector, Eucharistic minister and cantor. A regular group of nearly 30 Sisters participate.

Sister Pat occasionally has to “coach” the Sisters in the various elements, but many of them have been participating for so long that they know what needs to be done and how best to do it.

“We try to do everything as closely as we can to a parish,” Sister Pat said. “All these women are people of prayer and they want to do well what they can do. I’m sure that’s what God sees, what’s in the heart.”

On special days, such as Palm Sunday, there are additional tasks.

“The finished product looks so simple, but a lot of work went into buying the right palms, the person who put the palm bouquets together and the people who pulled them apart so they can be handed out,” Sister Pat said. “There are all those little things.”

Music also plays a significant role in making the celebrations a success. A Liturgy Planning Committee made up of Sister Pat, Sisters Laura Will (M. Clarus) and Catherine Nader (M. Ruth Ann), and Salem Heights music director John Buehler meets regularly to reflect on the readings of Masses for the coming months and selecting appropriate music to fit the themes. Buehler then designs and prepares the weekly Worship Aides for use at daily Mass.

The right music, played well, gives the prayers and readings added depth, Sister Pat explained.

“I think you have to have good music and a good homilist,” she said. “I think you have to have participants there who want to be there. You have to be able to engage everybody to want to pray or sing.”

Buehler, quoting from Sing to the Lord, Music in Divine Worship, USCCB, said music enhances liturgy.

“Music fosters good celebration. Poor music weakens it,” Buehler said. “Music can bring feelings and inspiration like nothing else can. It’s extremely important.”

Buehler also directs the Salem Heights choir which is made up about 8-15 Sisters who participate regularly. The choir typically practices once a week and helps lead the congregation in song.

For Buehler, good liturgy occurs when people are actively singing and even humming the hymns as they leave Mass.

“I think we all feel better if the participation is good. The job of the choir is to help promote the participation of the rest of the people. That’s our primary purpose,” Buehler said. “We can plan the music ever so carefully, but if it isn’t played in the way that helps lead the people in prayer then I’m not doing my job.”

Sister Pat, who sings in the choir and is a back-up organist, has been liturgy coordinator for about nine years. She started her ministry as a primary classroom and music teacher for 13 years. She worked at the Maria Stein Retreat House for 10 years and then spent 23 years in parish ministry.

Her current ministry has helped her grow spiritually.

“I feel that at this time in my life I’m concentrating on the tangible things of God,” she said. “I feel like I’m working more with spirituality and prayer all the time. I think the presence of God has become more real in my daily life. Since I’m so focused on liturgy, spirituality and prayer, it’s like God is always there.”

- By Dave Eck