The flag was flying from its flagpole over Buckingham Palace and 12-year-old Henry Kirk nodded knowledgeably. “Royal standard,” he said. “That indicates that the Queen’s at home. She’s been there all week. We noticed it when we were running yesterday.”
Henry should know. He is living in the heart of London, just a few minutes’ walk from the palace, at Westminster Cathedral Choir School. One of the boys’ running routes is around Green Park, alongside the palace. The choir school adjoins Westminster Cathedral, just off Victoria Street. Its tall tower is another of London’s attractions and is visited by numerous tourists every year.
There are some 30 choristers in the Choir School, and they are joined by some 120 other pupils, day-boys. The red-brick building is not merely alongside the cathedral but is effectively part of it, as a warren of fascinating internal corridors and staircases connect the two buildings, along with Archbishop’s House, the Cathedral Hall, and the crypt. The whole complex has a feeling of permanence and of history, although in fact it is not very old, and dates back only to the beginning of the 20th century, when the cathedral was designed by John Francis Bentley in neo-Byzantine style. The buildings were formally opened in 1902, the brainchild of Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, and a symbol of resurgent Catholicism following the great revival of the 19th century.
Life as a chorister sounds tough. They stay at school over Christmas and Easter, rise early each day to fit in choir practice in addition to ordinary lessons, sing at the daily Sung Mass and are part of every major event at the cathedral, of which there are a great number as this is the primary place of Catholic worship in England, the seat of the archbishop of Westminster, and the focus of attention at each and every event of importance in the life of the Church in the United Kingdom.
“It’s fine—I really like it,” is Henry’s comment on school life. He enjoys being a boarder. What’s the food like? “It’s super actually. I mean, it really is. They have top chefs.” And they do: the school’s website boasts, “All food is home-cooked on the premises by our team of hard-working young chefs, and served piping hot. No additives, no preservatives, no lunch boxes in sight. No fads, no fashions, no Atkins…. Just delicious, proper, home-cooked food.”
And accommodations? Henry enjoys being with other boys, and the rooms are pleasant and comfortable. “But when everyone’s talking and laughing and making a noise about after Lights Out, then Sir comes up and we all get into trouble. And then you get handed demerits, that’s annoying.” The school is divided into houses: Wiseman, Manning, and Vaughan, named after three of the great cardinal archbishops of Westminster. “Wiseman’s the best, actually,” says Henry, who as a member of Wiseman House is clearly not biased.
Christmas at boarding-school? That sounds grim. “It isn’t—honestly. We sing at Midnight Mass, and we have a special breakfast on Christmas morning— sausages, things like that—and then we sing the main morning Mass, and then our parents are there, and we all have an enormous Christmas lunch together. And there’s a big Christmas tree and the archbishop hands out presents,” says Henry. What sorts of presents? Books? Musical things? “Good heavens, no. I got a radio-controlled model helicopter. It’s great— I’ll show you. Then we sing vespers and then we all go home with our families, and have Christmas all over again when we get there.”
Parent Jeremy de Satge, whose son Louis has been at the school for two years, agrees. “Actually, Christmas celebrated that way has a pattern of its own. The big lunch together is great fun, with all the boys and their siblings, and it all becomes part of your own family tradition, your way of doing things.”
De Satge, a musician himself, is involved with another of the school’s projects—a Westminster Diocesan Children’s Choir, which uses the choir school facilities and is extending to a wider range of children some of the expertise and tradition of the Choir School. “It’s open to all children in the diocese, and is part of a government scheme called ‘Sing Up,’ which is encouraging children to sing, and to learn good music. It’s beginning to flourish, and you’ll be hearing them singing in the cathedral and elsewhere soon.”
A glance at the weekly program for the Choir School shows it packed with things like a geography trip to Brighton, an Under-13s rugby tournament, clubs for Greek, cricket, Judo, film, guitar, and fencing, a swimming gala, a meeting about a ski trip, and lots of involvement with playing various musical instruments. Academic standards are high, and the school also prides itself on its pastoral care. As part of this, they use the Alive to the World course program exploring issues like loyalty, teamwork, and family values. The school is one of several around the country using the books, produced by a Catholic publishing firm, and they reinforce the values and message that the schools seek to promote at every level.
There are regular Open Days for visitors, and boys can have a try at being “a chorister for a day” to see if they like the life. Parents are very much involved with the life of the school, and as they gather to collect their offspring at the end of a busy Friday, to take them home for half-term, there is a buzz of talk and exchanging of news. The boys come tumbling down the stairs, tugging off their crisp white cott as and the starched Norfolk collars that make them look so angelic as they walk solemnly in procession in the cathedral. The school is a bright and cheerful place, the walls displaying some of the boys’ work in art and religious education classes and projects on various topics.
The choristers form only part of the choir. There are also men who sing tenor and bass. The choir school is a fee-paying establishment, but the fine music tradition at the cathedral also depends on donations from the faithful. Unlike the great Anglican cathedrals, there is no financial endowment for it dating back down the years.
The choir school was founded as a national Catholic institution, with the aim of training boys who would later bring their musical skills to the Church throughout their lives. Many have gone on to do just that, helping with music in parishes or schools.
Westminster Cathedral is unique among the Catholic cathedrals of England in having a choir school, and it almost lost it. In the 1970s, it was about to be closed as financial constraints seemed to make it impossible to continue. But it was reprieved by Cardinal Basil Hume and has since gone from strength to strength. CDs of its music sell well, and the choir has also sung at many famous places around the world. On one trip to America they flew over Ground Zero in New York and as the plane circled the boys gathered and sang a requiem hymn for the dead.
The liturgical life at Westminster Cathedral is centered on the daily sung Mass. The boys have a choir practice first thing in the morning, and another in the evening. They sing in both Latin and English, and it’s everything from Gregorian chant to Mozart to contemporary composers such as James Mc- Millan. Before Mass there is a warm-up in the school’s paneled library, then prayers in the sacristy, before a procession into the cathedral which fi lls that whole vast space with song.
“The acoustics are good,” says Henry with knowledgeable pride. “Bett er than in St. Paul’s Cathedral.” What about devotion during Mass? Do they all pay attention? “Well, er, perhaps the homily isn’t the first thing on our minds. But for the Mass itself mostly you do, because you don’t need to fuss about the music—I mean, it’s all set out.” The boys are not performers; each Mass is an act of worship for them as for everyone else present, and they file down from the apse for Communion.
It’s a London life—the boys’ playground is next to the cathedral, the dome and the great St. Edward’s Tower rising above them. For sports they use the green lawns of nearby Vincent Square or cross the Thames to a sports field at Battersea. Just down the road are Westminster Abbey—with more than a thousand years of history, the site of Britain’s coronations and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior and of many of the nation’s most distinguished men— and the Houses of Parliament.
The Kirk family is clearly proud of its association with the Choir School. Henry followed in the footsteps of two older brothers. “Of course we miss Henry, and I always hate it when the moment comes to take him back,” says mother Louise. “But the reward is to see him flourishing, and to watch his skills and friendships growing. He is a happy boy and as a Catholic family, I am always aware that the children belong to God even before they belong to me. We pray together at home, and it’s the same faith that is at the heart of the cathedral too.”
At 13, Henry will leave soon—off to a new school and the next chapter of his life. Music will certainly continue to be part of his life, as will the Catholic faith. “Well, of course,” he says.