Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgical ministry in Colville: ‘Music is my form of prayer’

by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Oct. 25, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Vi Cournyer has been involved in music ministry at Immaculate Conception Parish, Colville, for more than 30 years. (IR file photo)

Vi Cournyer, of Colville’s Immaculate Conception Parish, resists anyone’s inclination to think that she is a musician. “I started doing choir work, singing with a choir, when I was in, like, sixth grade,” she says with a laugh. “It was in a very small parish back in North Dakota, where I grew up, and I guess I was involved with that until I graduated from high school. I always enjoyed singing, but I don’t play any instruments.”

Cournyer and her husband, Michael Cournyer, moved to Colville in 1966, and she taught school off and on over the years, finally retiring in 2000. “We had six children that we raised, and I was very busy with that,” she said, “and I returned to finish some of my education at Eastern (Washington University, Cheney) about 1977. We didn’t have much for a choir then, but in ’73 or ’74 our pastor was Msgr. (John) Donnelly (d. 2005), and he encouraged a good friend, Paul Springers, to start something, so he really got it started. So when I came back (from EWU) and was at home fulltime, one Sunday they were singing ‘Seek Ye First.’ I had been going to Mass in Cheney while I was in school, and I had learned the descant for that, so from the pew I started singing that, and after Mass Paul said, ‘Why don’t you come and sing with us?’ – so I did. That was in ’78 or or ’79, and we’ve been singing together ever since.”

She prefers a title such as “music coordinator,” rather than “choir director,” she says. “We have a really unique group of people, a unique choir. It’s definitely not just me. Of our group of 13 or 14 there are probably five or six of us who have been singing together for almost 30 years, and it’s a group effort. Initially we would get together and ask, ‘What shall we do Sunday?’ and we practiced in one home or another,” though now rehearsals are held in the church itself.

After she retired, Cournyer took on the responsibility of choosing the music prior to practice each week. “I coordinate with Father (Peter Amah, the pastor), and if we have funerals or whatever I coordinate with him, too. We have a choir family, that’s really what we are. We’re like an extended family, and we support one another outside of choir times, too. It’s pretty awesome.”

Immaculate Conception’s choir is a “go with what we have” group, she said. “For accompaniment, what we have is guitars, and we have a bass, and we have a flute. We rarely, rarely can find anybody to accompany on piano; we love having that, but we go with what we have. We have an organ, also, but we have no one to play it. You go with the gifts God gives you, and in our case it has been basically stringed instruments, plus our flute.”

There is a standing invitation for any parishioner to join the choir. “We have a gentleman who, I think, is in the process of relocating here, and every now and then on Sunday morning he’ll pop in and sing with us. That’s just the way we are. We’re kind of unconventional, I guess. We’re just not real formal about things. But we tend to sing hymns that lend themselves best to guitars.”

Although the choir typically practices once a week during the school year, sometimes that isn’t possible. “We’ve been together for so long that we have a good enough repertoire,” she said. “Once the music is chosen we can get together for half-an-hour before Mass on Sunday morning, and that’s enough.

“For a long time, we didn’t have a cantor, so I thought, ‘Well, okay, I can try this,’ so for a long time it was just me. But now we have four of us who can cantor, which is just great! I don’t have to do it all the time! That really takes the pressure off.”

Being involved with liturgical music for so many years has had an impact on her faith and spirituality. “Music is my form of prayer,” she says quietly. “Music just speaks to me more than anything. If I have to go to, especially Sunday liturgy, someplace where the music is – well, I don’t do well with ‘funeral dirge’ music. I guess that might be their way of praying, but I find that songs that we sing that become so uplifting here, are sometimes just really dragged down” as played in other parishes, “and that bothers me. I like to be home on Sundays.”

She truly believes that “For some reason God has really blessed us, he really has. People are always coming to us and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, your choir is so neat,’ but we think we’re just ordinary. We’re just people using the gifts that God gave us, and it’s our ministry.”

Cournyer doesn’t think of herself as the director of the choir, and she doesn’t think of herself as, in any sense, a liturgical musician. All the same, over the years she has definitely gotten her ducks in a row when it comes to understanding the role of a choir in liturgy. “The choir is there to lead the congregation in song, and the choir is there to encourage the congregation to sing,” she said. “It is so neat that our congregation really sings, and we encourage them to do that. I think they are the extension of the choir, they really are. I get frustrated when once in a while you have somebody who thinks we’re there to perform. That’s not our role. We are there to encourage and to augment the liturgy.”

Whenever an opportunity comes along for Immaculate Conception’s choir to attend a liturgical music workshop, most will be there, though offerings have been sparse in recent years. At the same time, she is a regular reader of Today’s Liturgy, a magazine for parish liturgical musicians and choirs published by Oregon Catholic Press. “This has a planning guide in each issue,” she explains, “but I kind of like to stay in the background, be there, and just do my ministry quietly, and hopefully that pleases the Lord and lifts up people so they can come to Mass and feel better for having had the music.”

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