After more than 40 years, it will be a silent night this Christmas Eve for the Bergen Square neighborhood's lively church choir, La Tuna de la Alegria.
Every Sunday until recently, choir members of all ages - many of them second- or third-generation relatives of those who founded the Camden choir in 1969 - sang and played traditional Puerto Rican religious music for Masses at Our Lady of Mount Carmel/Fatima Church.
Two years ago, the Camden Diocese ordered the parish to merge with North Camden's Holy Name and downtown's Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The attempt to merge the three church choirs, however, caused discordant notes.
La Tuna caters to mostly Puerto Rican parishioners. The Holy Name congregation, also Spanish-speaking, was of mostly Mexican and Dominican heritage; at the cathedral, parishioners were mostly African American and Filipino and English-speaking.
With sharply different spiritual traditions and musical tastes, getting all three choirs on the same sheet was difficult, and now La Tuna won't be singing with the two others.
It's not clear who initiated the final split, which happened in June. La Tuna director Edna Paris says the group was cast out by parish officials, and the choir hasn't performed much since. The Rev. Matthew Hillyard, rector of the Parish of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, says La Tuna decided to leave.
This year will be the first time La Tuna choir members will not perform at Christmas Mass.
"I'll probably be crying . . . going home," said longtime La Tuna soloist Yvette Verticelli.
Although congregants from the former Holy Name parish, which was shut down with the merger, also are Latino, their Catholic traditions are not quite the same as Puerto Rican Catholic culture, parishioners and Hillyard said.
So when the three parishes merged, Hillyard said, he had to try to please several different cultures.
To create unity, Hillyard tried to blend all the ministries together, including the choirs.
At first, La Tuna agreed to sing once a month in the cathedral; the Holy Name choir sang at Fatima, which is still open for 10 a.m. Mass every Sunday, and all three also sang at the cathedral. The intent was to get parishioners accustomed to one another's musical styles, Hillyard said.
Then Hillyard said he asked the choirs to practice together and decide on what songs to sing.
But Paris said the practices were held too early in the day and her members were not given enough time to learn the new songs, given that some of the older members don't know how to read music and sing or play only by ear.
Frustrated by what he saw as a lack of will to merge, Hillyard said he told La Tuna in May, "We really need to do this to show we are one church."
La Tuna members had other grievances. They said instrument players were too often chosen from the other choirs and not theirs. In addition, Paris said, La Tuna was unwilling to give up its name and be blended into what was labeled a "community choir."
"They wanted us to get rid of 43 years of history," Paris said. "You have to say, 'Stop. Enough is enough.' "
The same went for Hillyard.
"I just thought two years was enough," he said of trying to get everyone to come together.
Like most of La Tuna's 25 members, Verticelli grew up going to Our Lady of Fatima, which was initially its own parish on Benson Street and in the mid-'70s merged with Our Lady of Mount Carmel on South Fourth Street.
Her aunts and uncles were among new arrivals from Puerto Rico who started La Tuna as a way to keep their religious traditions alive, Verticelli said.
Since its inception, the choir has had generations of neighborhood families involved in singing and playing traditional Puerto Rican church music with instruments such as the cuatro, similar to an acoustic guitar, and the guiro, a gourd-shaped percussion instrument.
"I grew up in that church," Verticelli said. "I remember ironing the priest's linen napkins."
Verticelli lives in Westmont and works at St. Margaret's Regional School in Woodbury Heights. She has stopped attending Mass at Fatima.
Yvonne Soto, another longtime La Tuna singer, has never lived in the Bergen Square neighborhood and says she passes about five churches between her home in Pennsauken and Fatima but until now had never considered going anywhere else.
La Tuna, which has recorded several CDs and traveled to Puerto Rico to perform, will continue as a popular group, Paris said. But the core of the group is religious music, and moving away from that will be hard, members said.
They hope the Camden Diocese at least gives them a blessing at a retirement Mass for the choir.
And if they are asked to return?
"We'll always go back," Verticelli said. "You don't sing for 30 years just to sing. It's spiritual."
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