Mass choir, ‘biggest family in Mississippi,’ hits highest notes

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The Mississippi Mass Choir will perform Aug. 12 in Natchez for Make Us One, a fundraising event that will benefit Catholic Charities’ domestic violence shelter.

Executive Director Jerry Mannery believes performances like this one are at the heart of what they do.

“Our key word is ministry because we realize we are ambassadors for Christ,” said Mannery, who was voted executive director after founder Frank Williams’ death in 1993. “Music is just a vehicle we use to carry the message to the masses. Our message is the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Thirty years ago, Williams had a vision of using music to reach into the souls of people. He knew from his time in the music industry that it had a power to lift people up when times were hard and give them an outlet of praise when times were good. He believed music to be a language that transcends economic, racial, geographic and political lines, and he wanted to use that supernatural healing power to minister to people.

Williams grew up in southwest Mississippi and began performing gospel music in the 1960s. He became executive producer of Jackson’s Malaco Records in 1979, and in the spring of 1988, began working on his biggest project of all, the one that would become his legacy. Gathering around 100 vocalists and musicians, he started the Mississippi Mass Choir, a booming group who would proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ through their songs.

“I was drafted into the choir,” said Mosie Burks. “I’d never felt qualified to the standard they were looking for. I was very excited to get to audition and then join. Being together with all the saints has been a joy to me.”

Doris Vickers also answered the first call for auditions back in 1988.

“We had so much energy because we were so much younger,” she said with a laugh. “It seems we just hit the ground running after that first rehearsal. We started getting invitations from all over.”

In October 1988, after a mere five months of rehearsals, the choir released its first album. The self-titled Mississippi Mass Choir Live remained No. 1 on the Billboard Magazine Top Gospel chart for 45 consecutive weeks and set a record for a debut recording. The choir has performed in Spain, Greece, Italy, South Africa, Japan and the Bahamas, as well as 40 states within the U.S. The group has won or been nominated for every music industry award, including the Grammys, the Soul Train Music Awards, the Dove Awards and the Stellar Gospel Music Award.

A Mississippi Mass Choir member waves a small American flag during the group's rendition of "America the Beautiful." at the inauguration of Gov. Phil Bryant at the Capitol in Jackson on Jan 10, 2012.

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

A Mississippi Mass Choir member waves a small American flag during the group’s rendition of “America the Beautiful” at the inauguration of Gov. Phil Bryant at the Capitol in Jackson on Jan 10, 2012.

The choir has grown to 240 members from all over Mississippi, and even though they have traveled the world, they are most proud of their Mississippi roots.

“I think the Mass represents Mississippi in a way that no one else has,” Burks said. “There’s nothing else in the world like the Mississippi Mass Choir.

“I don’t travel as much anymore, but I love coming with them when I can,” she said. “We prosper when people come to the Lord and when weak believers grow strong through the music. That’s still my motive after all these years of singing.”

The members who sang under Williams’ direction remember him fondly as his legacy lives on through their work today.

“Frank was my best friend,” Mannery said. “I talked to him probably as much as I did my wife. That was so devastating to us, but we have not deviated from Frank’s vision of ministry.

“We focus on the music, but behind all this is ministry,” he said. “We have devotions before each rehearsal. We check on each other when people are sick or down on their luck. We take care of each other. It’s the biggest family in Mississippi.”

Mannery believes one of the loudest messages the choir sends is one of reconciliation and bridging the gap between those things that divide people.

“We believe we are part of the solution,” he said. “We know there are so many problems going on in the state and in the country, but we’ve seen so much healing as a part of this group. We are so proud Mississippi is in our name.”

The choir often collaborates with groups such as the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and the choir of First Baptist Church of Jackson. Ballet Magnificat!, a Jackson-based ballet tour company, will join the choir in Natchez. Dorothy Sylvester, a victim services coordinator with Catholic Charities in Natchez, said that the Mississippi Mass Choir was an easy choice for their event.

“When you see that display of passion, you know it’s not just another performance,” she said. “It’s one of the unique things about that choir. It’s our hearts’ desire to cross barriers, and those barriers come down when they perform.”

That is exactly Mannery’s goal for each performance.

“And we absolutely want to minister to the people coming to see us,” he said. “We present Jesus, we preach Jesus and we sing Jesus. If you take that out of the equation, we might as well fold up shop and call it a day.”

Tickets to Make Us One in Natchez are $20 per person and are available at the door or online at www.catholiccharitiesjackson.org/makeusone. The performance will be at the city auditorium at 207 Jefferson St., and will begin at 7 p.m. Doors will open at 6:30.

  • Charles Pearce

    Yes, yes. Thanks, MMC, for your effective message to the world; and thanks, MT, for sprinkling in uplifting Mississippi stories.