Mark Swiontek, an Osceola School District music teacher, warms up before the Christmas concert Dec. 8. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Mark Swiontek, an Osceola School District music teacher, warms up before the Christmas concert Dec. 8. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald Staff

CENTURIA — Undeterred by winter and rough weather, travelers flocked to Fristad Lutheran Church Dec. 8 for the Ecumenical Choir’s annual concert.

The approximately 50-member chorale first assembled 20 years ago to perform A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a traditional English Christmas service blending Bible lessons and choral music.

Two decades later, an Advent tradition has evolved in the Polk County village of fewer than 1,000 people.

The Centuria Christmas program was the inspiration of Fr. Frederick Brost, a now retired diocesan priest who came to town to build a church. With the help of lay leader Jim Beistle, Fr. Brost recruited Brenda Mayer, longtime choir director with the Unity School District, and together they organized the first performance.

Featuring volunteer singers from nearly 20 congregations — Methodist, Lutheran, Congregational, Baptist, Catholic, Assembly of God, Presbyterian and Community Church — the ensemble includes residents of Centuria and Balsam Lake, but also Luck, St. Croix Falls, Milltown, Cumberland, Amery, Osceola, Siren, Taylors Falls, Minn., and Trade Lake.
It’s a truly ecumenical celebration.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the various churches to prepare for the season of Advent and the coming of Christmas,” said Mayer, who is also an organist and music director at Our Lady of the Lakes, Balsam Lake.

The church was custom-built for the purpose. Fristad Lutheran was constructed in 1993 to be St. Patrick’s Catholic Church; Fr. Brost made the sanctuary wide in order to accommodate a seated choir.

“He had been in various parishes in the Diocese of Superior and had organized and presented this program of lessons and carols prior to coming to Centuria,” Mayer explained.

After Our Lady of the Lakes was erected in Balsam Lake in 2003, the Centuria church was sold, but the program continued each Advent.

They’ve held 19 performances in 20 years, according to Mayer. The concert was cancelled in 1995 for lack of singers but resumed the following year.

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols begins with a procession of singers and the Christmas Proclamation, chanted this year by Charles Eldredge.

“Once in Royal David’s City” is always the first carol, and “Silent Night” is in every program. Otherwise, the songs and readings change each year. Beistle, program coordinator, chooses Scripture passages from the Old Testament, and Mayer selects corresponding carols.

“Jim is very knowledgeable on the Bible,” she said.

They always read from the Gospel according to Luke, Mayer added.

“In my mind, that’s the most beautiful one,” she said.
Musicians playing piano, trumpet, mandolin, organ, flute and guitar also accompany the choir. Cheryl Peper and Karen Paulson played piano and organ, respectively.

A lay leader at Our Lady of the Lakes, Beistle was presented with a commemorative oak plaque during this year’s performance.

“It was given by the choir for 20 years of service and for preparing Nine Lessons and Carols,” Mayer explained.
Made by high school shop students, the gift was fitting for a man who is active in local sports, local government and in his church.

“He’s well-respected, and over the years he’s done a tremendous amount of work in the community,” said Mayer. “A real, true Christian.”

Also helping out from Our Lady of the Lakes was Audrey Ruck, church organist for more than 50 years and a second soprano in the Ecumenical Choir.

Fr. John Drummy, pastor of the Balsam Lake parish, was one of 10 area clergy members slated to read lessons, although the evening’s snowing, blowing weather did alter some plans.
Every pew was filled despite the wintry weather. According to Beistle, the church is always packed in good weather.

Mayer herself has donated countless hours of choral direction to the Nine Lessons and Carols program during the past two decades. She considered turning the director duties over to someone else in 2013, but she could not find a volunteer with a music degree to replace her.

So, while Mayer might drop a few other activities in 2014, come October she’s likely to be surveying the music library, assembling a choir and taking baton in hand once more.