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November 18, 2013   •   VOL. 51, NO. 20   •   Oakland, CA
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Friar Alessandro sings in the Cathedral of Christ the Light, backed by members of the White Horse Chorale and the White Horse Youth Chorale.
FRANCIS IN THE SCHOOLS/COURTESY

Rene Alvarez clutched the flowers, autumnal golds and purples, as he walked into the Cathedral of Christ the Light with his sixth-grade classmates from St. Martin de Porres School.

"They're for the friar," he said. At the urging of his classmate, Hanok Tesfay, he said the flowers were the idea of "Miss Flicka."

Frederica von Stade, friend of the Oakland school, knows a thing or two about bouquets. She received gardens of them during her illustrious operatic career.

This day, the students she helped chaperone had a part to play.

Rene and Hanok were among 1,400 pupils from inner-city schools in Oakland and San Francisco, invited to an Oct. 30 program put on by Francis in the Schools.

In addition to the students from St. Martin de Porres School, the students of St. Elizabeth Elementary School had been invited. A combined 100 children from these schools receive tuition assistance from FACE, Family Aid Catholic Education.

First, there was a concert by the friar, Brother Alessandro Brustenghi, who just weeks earlier, had sung in Assisi for Pope Francis on the Feast Day of St. Francis. This was a rare North American appearance for the friar, who has recorded two albums for Decca Records.

Peace, love and respect for nature were the key themes of the day, with the story of St. Francis of Assisi, told in words and music, serving as the canvas. Volunteers, whom organizers said had come from as far away as Hawaii, donned pastel colors, with women of all ages wearing garlands of flowers and ribbons in their hair.

Interspersed among the make-believe friars, sisters and saints were a cadre of real Franciscan friars, who greeted children as they arrived at the cathedral, and were prepared to read stories of St. Francis to them later in the day.

The star among them — although he would hesitate to call himself that — is a diminutive man with a voice so rich that critics compare him to Andrea Bocelli.

It was without a microphone that he sang a half-dozen songs in the Cathedral of the Christ the Light, accompanied at times by a chorus of adults and children.

He sat good-naturedly on a chair on the altar, as the story of St. Francis unfolded, told by a cast full of smiles, sweeping theatrical gestures and a keen sense of playing to the audience. The cathedral was ringed by pastel-clad volunteers.

"I want to sing one in your language," the friar said, rising for his final song. "Forgive me," he said, before launching into the musical "Prayer of St. Francis."

The students were escorted to Lakeside Park, where an Umbrian-style festival awaited them. Games, story-telling, face-painting and flower-arranging were on the afternoon schedule, after a homemade, nutritious lunch was served. Organizers said volunteers prepared 70 restaurant-size trays of macaroni and cheese for their young guests.

Volunteers processed 20,000 stems, including orchids, for the event. Young children deftly arranged flowers in baskets, which were labeled to take home.

Here and there, a child would offer a flower, usually a sunflower, to Friar Alessandro as he walked among them, learning about his new American friends.

Sister Kathleen McAvoy, OP, principal of St. Elizabeth Elementary in Oakland, got a report from one of her students that summed up the day.

"Now I know what it's like one day in heaven," the youngster told her.

The pupil felt that he and his classmates had been in the company of angels.

"They were so kind," she said of the volunteers. "They were so loving."

The entire St. Elizabeth student body, from the students in the transitional kindergarten to the eighth-graders, attended. They rode from the Fruitvale district school to the cathedral on comfortable buses the Francis in the Schools organizers chartered for them.

"We are so blessed," she said.



Rene Alvarez, left, and Hanok Tesfay of St. Martin de Porres School in Oakland were among the more than 1,400 children who attended the Francis in the Schools concert and the fair that followed it.
MICHELE JURICH/the catholic voice

The friar with the voice of gold

Friar Alessandro Brustenghi's voice has been compared to Andrea Bocelli. The young man, the first Franciscan friar to sign a major recording contract, welcomes visitors to the basilica in Assisi when he is not away on one of his rare concert or recording engagements. After singing for the schoolchildren on Oct. 30, he joined them at the Umbrian Fair in Lakeside Park. Some handed him flowers. When offered a cookie, he chose the one with M&M's.

For more information on him, and his music, visit http://friaralessandro.com. All of the artist proceeds are directed to The Order of Friars Minor, a registered charity benefiting Franciscan efforts worldwide.

Do you often sing for children?

Not often. Every time I give a concert, I don't want to give a concert by myself. I ask the organizers if they have a musician in the parish or the city. Sometimes they have a choir of children. Sometimes it happens that I sing with him, and for them.

Would this be the largest gathering of children you've sung for?

I've never sung for this many children.

Could you see their faces?

Their faces inspired me. I see their faces and I feel, inside of me, their pain, their joy. I collect all that together, and give this to God. It's the power of music. Every time I sing for people, sometimes I close my eyes because I need to sing to God, but sometimes I see their faces.

Does this gift enrich your vocation?

It is a special gift. It is a very, very special gift. It is a gift to share your life with all the brothers and sisters.

On singing for Pope Francis, during the pope's visit to Assisi on Oct. 4.

We played and sang for him, two songs. Pope Francis is a special man. When you meet him, he is a very humble man, a very simple man. This is beautiful because it is easy to establish a connection with him. But he's able to take you with him to heaven. He's a special person, Pope Francis.

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