September 18, 2012 // Local

Prayers of St. Francis of Assisi come alive in music

MISHAWAKA — As any young child will tell you, one of the easiest ways to remember something is to set it to music. Who over the age of 40 doesn’t remember singing the A-B-C song to remember if Q came before R in the alphabet?

St. Bavo parishioner Joe Higginbotham, a musician, and member of the Secular Franciscans, wants people to remember the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi and composed a songbook and CD called “To You We Give All Praise,” which includes many of St. Francis’ prayers and words, in addition to biblical references set to music.

Sister Agnes Marie Regan, a Sister of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration who serves as the spiritual assistant to the Secular Franciscans in Mishawaka, encouraged Higginbotham to pursue the “To You We Give All Praise” project.

“One of the things that I have always thought about as an educator is that if people can sing the text of something, regardless of what it is, they can remember it better and return to it when they want to pray. There is something about the cadence and rhythm of music, which makes the text very learnable,” Sister Agnes emphasizes.

Beginning in the fall of 2011, Higginbotham began the process of composing the hymns that would be included in the songbooks.

“I was amazed with how many of his prayers worked with Gregorian chant tunes. I knew that the religious folks and that older people in the parishes and fraternities would be familiar with these tunes. With the words of St. Francis, they come alive,” says Higginbotham.

Sister Agnes notes that the Gregorian chants gave the music a more medieval sound, which would have been characteristic of the time of St. Francis.

“The other tunes I tried to make interesting, learnable, and to spice them up and enrich them with four part harmony,” Higginbotham adds.

Father Bob Lengerich, pastor of St. Dominic Parish in Bremen and Stacie Bert, a parishioner from St. Bavo, were the two vocalists on the CD.

“Joe stayed very close to what St. Francis actually wrote. He took very few liberties with the translation. That means a lot because it captured the spirit of St. Francis,” says Father Lengerich.

Bert’s favorite song on the CD is “The Praises of God.”

“The words have such beauty and strength and the way that Joe has arranged them to music is beautiful and powerful,” Bert says.

Some interesting facts of St. Francis’ life are described in his writings. Sister Agnes recalls that “Canticle of the Creatures” was the first poem written in the Italian vernacular. She also remembers that the poem has historical significance about the mayor and bishop of Assisi, who were at odds with each other during the time when St. Francis was writing the poem.

“St. Francis ordered several of his friars to go to the mayor and the bishop to sing the ‘Canticle of the Creatures.’ He had added a phrase on the importance of forgiveness and afterwards the two mutually forgave one another,” Sister Agnes recalls.

St. Matthew Cathedral parishioner and fellow Secular Franciscan Mary Andrews is involved in the marketing of the “To You We Give All Praise” songbook and CD. Andrews notes that St. Francis, who is usually associated with preaching to animals, was not allowed to preach to people because he was not a priest.

“At the Basilica of St. Francis there is a fresco of the Sermon to the Birds, which is a very popular image of St. Francis. If you read the homily that he gave to the birds it has nothing to do with the birds. In the fresco you see the friars standing around and listening,” says Sister Agnes.

In addition to his personal observations, St. Francis’ reliance on Scripture is also shown in his writings.

“Joe explained to me that St. Francis took Scripture from throughout the Bible and put them together that speak of the depth of his relationship with God. St. Francis knew the cross — he had stigmata at the end of his life. Psalm 1 on the CD is our crying out to God in our greatest hour of need and trusting that He is there when no one else is,” explains Father Lengerich.

The release date of the songbook and CD was Sept. 18. “This 24 hymn collection will be a welcome companion for those working with Secular Franciscan fraternities, Franciscan religious communities of men or women, Franciscan parishes and/or retreat centers,” says Sister Agnes.

In addition, parishes and families can benefit from the writings of St. Francis found on the CD and songbook, Higginbotham notes.

The website for ordering the songbook and CD is The cost of the songbook and CD is $15 each. Discounts are available for larger orders, and youth groups interested in fund raising venues are encouraged to inquire. The CD is also available on iTunes.

Franciscan Father Chuck Faso, the former pastor of St. Peter Church in Chicago, notes the inclusion of the songbook and CD as an important part of understanding the impact of St. Francis.

“St. Francis of Assisi, the Troubadour of the Great King, wrote prayers, rules of life, admonitions, letters and his last will and testament. His prayers express the struggles and joys of his soul-searching experience of God. Joe Higginbotham expresses well in music the spirit of Francis’ prayers. ‘To You We Give All Praise’ is a welcome and needed addition to sung prayer of all seeking a closer union with God,” concludes Father Faso.


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