In the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Classical Traditional Chart this week is an album called "Advent at Ephesus" — not a title that's self-explanatory, but probably better than "The Singing Nuns of Missouri," which could have revived memories of an airborne Sally Field.
In Catholic terms, Advent refers to the 28 days of spiritual preparation in the run-up to Christmas; and Ephesus is the ancient city in Asia Minor (now Turkey) where, according to tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived her last days.
Thus the 16-track album, which went on sale in November, brings together music related to Advent in English and Latin, including hymns, polyphony, plainsong, Gregorian chants, medieval harmonies, plus a couple of better-known carols.
But what has made "Advent at Ephesus" a winner is the unadorned, limpid voices — with no instrumental accompaniment — of young nuns from the northwest Missouri priory of Our Lady of Ephesus. The nuns are Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, a cloistered order that follows the rule of Saint Benedict, who lived in the fourth century AD and founded Western monastic life.
"Music is a large part of our lives, we're in the chapel eight times a day singing," said the prioress Mother Cecilia, who was classically trained at the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University and gave up a place in the horn section of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra because of her vocation. "We're not professional; it's just that we sing together all the time."
The singing nuns of Missouri have previously recorded three albums of sacred music, but "Advent at Ephesus" was the first with a major label and national distribution, and their first to top the Billboard chart. One of their earlier recordings had found its way to De Montfort Music, a recording company specializing in sacred music that negotiated with the nuns to produce a new record. Decca Records is the distributor.
As a cloistered order the nuns were not allowed to leave their 260-acre priory grounds to go to the recording studio; so they agreed to allow the studio to come to them. A mobile recording studio was set up in the convent chapel, and the album was recorded in three days.
"There's nothing like it on the market," Mother Cecilia has said to explain the album's success — in the one interview she has given. "I think the hidden desire of turning to the spiritual side of many folks — that's what is making us a success."
The St Louis Post-Dispatch says the album cuts through "the blare and noise of commercial Christmas," and calls it "an ideal remedy for jingle-itis."
The nuns will use their earnings from the album to extend their priory. In an age when 90 percent of all American nuns are older than 60, the priory of Our Lady of Ephesus appears well stocked with young sisters, all of them wearing the habit, which many other American nuns have stopped doing.
The Benedictines of Mary live mostly off the land, taking care of their small farm and orchard. But their real work is making the vestments that priests wear at Mass.
Their self-contained world is, much like their album, an oasis of serenity in a dissonant world.