BISMARCK, ND — Who knew 55 years ago would mark the beginning of a beautiful tradition at the University of Mary that, through music, brings joy and happiness for the anticipated birth of Christ? Perhaps President Emerita Sister Thomas Welder, who was one of the founders and directors of the first Christmas at Mary concerts, knew of the impact it would have as a community event and also as a gesture of hospitality to people in the surrounding areas and all of North Dakota.

In the mid to late ‘70s, one of the many Mary students the Christmas at Mary concert profoundly influenced was a music performance major from Mandan named Tom Porter. For Porter, his fondest memories are not only from the music they performed, but where they performed it — in the Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel where it is still the centerpiece today.

Tom Porter University of Mary Music Chair

Tom Porter
University of Mary Music Chair

“During my time at Mary, the Sisters of Annunciation Monastery were still living in the building that is now the Benedictine Center and Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel was their worship space, so the opportunity to sing in the chapel was more rare than our students experience today,” said Porter, who is now armed with his doctorate as chair of the University of Mary Department of Music and is directing choral students at the Christmas at Mary concert for the ninth year. “The chapel was designed by world-renowned architect Marcel Breuer. Its rock walls and unique design elements make it a visually stunning as well as acoustically perfect setting for choral music performances. Of course every year as I prepare for this wonderful event, I think about my own classmates and the gift of music and community that we shared here as students. Many of them became teachers who influenced future generations of students, some of whom have been in my choirs.”

And now, decades later, due to popular demand and overflow crowds, Christmas at Mary has grown to include more students, more concert date performances and more music. For many, it is the kickoff to the holiday season the first weekend in December. The public is once again invited to the Christmas at Mary Concert Friday, Dec. 2, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 4, 3 p.m., in the Our Lady of the Annunciation Chapel located inside the Benedictine Center for Servant Leadership building on campus. The University of Mary Music Student Organization is using the opportunity as a service project to collect food for the food pantry at Bismarck’s Ministry on the Margins, founded by Sister Kathleen Atkinson of Annunciation Monastery. Since this event is not a ticketed event and is free and open to the public, there is limited seating. It is greatly encouraged that people arrive early.

christmas-at-mary-2The concert features the 95-voice University of Mary Concert Choir performing a variety of music, this year including a Russian setting of the “Hail Mary,” a theme and variations on “Jingle Bells,” and a lively version of the traditional carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” Also featured on the concert is Vocal Jazz performing a cappella arrangements of “Let It Snow” and the contemporary Christmas piece, “Welcome to Our World.”

One of the pieces on the program, “White Promise,” was composed in 1998 by Porter. The text is by a North Dakota pioneer woman, Eva K. Anglesburg, who was North Dakota’s first native-born published poet. The music was premiered by the Bismarck-Mandan Civic Chorus and, since publication, has been performed on “A Prairie Home Companion” and concert stages around the world, including Carnegie Hall.

christmas-at-mary-1The Gabrieli Brass, directed by Dennis Gowen, professor of music and director of bands, is a perennial favorite at Christmas at Mary. Performing music by the Renaissance composer Giovanni Gabrieli, the brass ensemble forms three groups positioned on three sides of the chapel. With the organ pipes joining from the back of the chapel, the ensemble surrounds the audience in sound as it builds to a thrilling climax.

In all, the Concert Choir students represent 19 states and majors from every school (business, education, arts and sciences and health sciences) on campus — a testimony to the power that music has had on their lives. Similar to the one that it had on the young Porter when he took part in his very first Christmas at Mary concerts.

“In 1978 I wrote my first choral piece and the Concert Choir premiered it at Christmas at Mary, ‘A Christmas Prayer,’” added Porter. “It was dedicated to Jack Ferderer, a classmate and University of Mary music student who died from cancer that year.”

When Porter came to Mary in 2008 as the choir director, he found the piece in the choir library—the original copies from when he was a student.