Simply Sacred

Holiday Music at Cathedral Basilica:
A Matter of Tradition and Family

It should surprise no one that the music that will fill the magnificent 14,000-square-foot St. Mary's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption on Christmas Eve will be directed by an organist who honed his skills playing daily mass at Covington Latin School.

What is surprising is the simple choir room atop narrow linoleum steps where a choir of volunteers works with that organist, Gregory Schaffer, to prepare for the holiday masses. Or the unguarded and straightforward way Schaffer describes his work, never failing to credit the choir, the rector and his parents.

"I just want to deliver the message, not a performance," says Schaffer, adding with quiet humor, "this isn't American Idol."

In the decades-old Schaffer tradition, he is preparing for the Dec. 2 Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day masses at the Cathedral, which rises in Gothic splendor at Covington's Madison Avenue and 12th Street. He calls his job as assistant director a part-time position with a full-time commitment.

Father and son

His father, Dr. Robert Schaffer, is director of music. A plaque honoring him for 60 years of service at the Cathedral hangs outside the Christ prayer chapel.

His mother, the late Rita Schaffer, also an organist, co-founded the Cathedral Concert Series with her husband. The couple schooled their three children on piano and a two-manual organ at home. His brother, the late Mark Schaffer, became an organist and his sister, Rebecca, chose woodwinds.

A simple filing cabinet, stretching nearly wall-to-wall at the top of the stairs to the choir room, holds the music for the Cathedral.

One drawer alone holds hundreds of Christmas hymns. "That's part of the blessing, you have all this great music," says Schaffer. Years ago, Robert Schaffer started the tradition of a 60-minute prelude before the Christmas Eve midnight mass, allowing them to use so much more of it.

Schaffer will work in some of the beautiful Christmas music written by his father as well as hymns that bring home the memories and meaning of the holiday.

"There are certain pieces that when people come to church for midnight mass, they assume they are going to hear it and when they hear it, for them that's Christmas," says Schaffer.

One Christmas Eve "must" is "Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming." Another, "Angels We Have Heard on High," will be sung, in part, in the original French. In addition, sometimes a new arrangement or new song is built into the program, he says, gesturing to a stack of music from publishers.

"It is a beautiful puzzle to solve," he says. "It's just a joy to put these things together because there is so much to work with."

The hard work has been done, he says. "I give credit to my dad for all of that. I'm trying to continue the tradition. My dad has built up a program that is known not only here but throughout the country."

He balks gracefully when asked who is the star "” the organ music or the choir. Neither, he says quickly. "What we do is hopefully not directed to ourselves. We're giving praise, we're giving glory.

"Our aim is to enhance the person in the pew's experience of worship ... our aim is always to embellish the liturgy and not take it over."

But, he adds, "If I had to choose, it would be the choir because they are actually delivering the actual message of the scripture."

Concert Series

The Cathedral Concert Series, founded by his parents, is in its 37th season. It started in October, includes the Advent Festival, and continues through an April 21 performance by organist Earline Moulder of Drury University (details are at With a mailing list of more than 3,000, Schaffer estimates 99 percent of the audience comes from outside the 200-family parish that calls the Cathedral home.

His favorite? The Jan. 6 performance of "Epiphany Epilogue." It's a dynamic combination of sound from the delicate single voice of soprano LeeAnn Kordenbrock to the power of the Brass Quintet from the University of Dayton. The Basilica Concert Choir also performs, and Schaffer brings a synthesizer into the mix.

Across the Parking lot

A choir boy at the age 8, he started playing the organ at 11 at the Latin school across the parking lot from the Cathedral. He and his late brother Mark were the only ones able to play the organ. So they were tapped for the task at daily mass.

"One of us played every day," he laughs. After his brother graduated, Schaffer played every mass for his remaining two years at Latin. By age 18, he was assistant organist to his father at the Cathedral.

In his spare time, he played with local pop bands and that, he says, taught him how to deal with the unexpected in music. "If you have to play liturgies, you have to be able to improvise," in case the activities of the service aren't finished. The organist has to keep the music going.

"I kind of prided myself on ending the music just as the bishop finished up or headed to his chair," he says.

Well, one time it didn't exactly work.

It was the inauguration of the Rev. Bishop Roger Foys 10 years ago. "It was a huge event, everybody was here. He was thanking people, it was unscripted, just some comments to thank people."

Schaffer was getting ready for the next hymn, pulling this stop and that stop on the four-keyboard organ when he reached down to pull something off his shoe. Down went a pedal "”making a noise like a tuba.

"And the bishop, without losing a beat, says "That's OK, I'm almost done. I just went ice cold, but he was OK."