ATLANTIC CITY — In an empty, quiet church, the sound of songbook pages rhythmically flipped every other minute.
It’s early on a Sunday morning, and the St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church is dark. Light only just starts to shine through the large stained-glass window on the Pacific Avenue side of the Roman Catholic church.
Underneath the looming pipes of an organ, five young adults sing in a seldom-heard language.
The group, four of whom are Rowan University students and the fifth a volunteer, are performing this 100-year-old music for the first time in the city’s parish in more than 50 years.
Songs such as Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” and “Dextera Domini” can be heard in Latin from the entrance of the church. The entire repertoire changes from week to week.
When the Rev. Thanh Pham brought back Masses in the Latin language to the church a year ago, Steven Ball, organist and director of outreach for Boardwalk Hall, said he jumped at the opportunity to work with the church to provide a more robust musical experience with classic hymns to accompany the Mass in Latin.
“What the minimum requirements are for the Mass, compared to what these students are making, it’s like the difference between a Big Mac and caviar in terms of (their) skill and technique as musicians,” Ball said.
The first Mass performed by Ball and the students was Nov. 27, the first Sunday of Advent. They take place 7 a.m. every Sunday.
St. Nicholas of Tolentine, one of the churches in the Parish of St. Monica, holds three Masses on Sundays. The first Mass is from prior to the Vatican Council, meaning it is in Latin.
Ball said this gives him and his singers the opportunity to sing songs that would otherwise live only in old choir books.
“People are very interested in this music, but there’s no place they can go to understand what its proper context was, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” Ball said.
What Ball loves most about the music, he said, is the songs have a specific time of the liturgical year for them to be performed. The students are learning new songs every week depending on the season for the church.
The Rowan students joke around with Ball as they focus on learning their new music.
It’s a work in progress. And it’s one the students seem to enjoy.
“It’s a great experience in the long run, because this is difficult music, and we’re all early musical-style voices, and it has definitely made every one of us a better song reader and performer,” said Josh Bodanza, 21, of West Berlin, Camden County.
The students all had to audition for Ball before they made the team, and some are still taking in the music mixed with the vibe of the 100-year-old church.
“This space is incredibly beautiful, and the acoustics are amazing,” Bodanza said. “I can hear myself talking, and this echo goes all the way around: a nice resonance.”
Olivia Roland, 23, of Wenonah, Gloucester County, hopes to apply her knowledge of the classic songs when she graduates from Rowan.
“I know I want to work in Europe after I graduate, and they still do this music over there. To have that knowledge beforehand is going to be great, so I go and know what I’m doing to get a job, so that’s really good,” she said.
Ball considers himself a history teacher to the students. He said even the audience is learning something new.
“It’s just as much an opportunity for the people coming in. Where else can you come to experience this anywhere?”
He believes this is a time for the city to show off the arts like this.
“I think A.C. itself is what makes that possible. Sometimes when things aren’t the greatest, then that’s the greatest opportunity for art,” he said.
He paused and thought back to Catholic history.
“The Renaissance came from the Dark Ages,” he said.