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Lit candles line the window sill during Immaculate Heart of Mary Church's Tenebrae Lenten service in North Little Rock (Marche) March 27. (Katie Zakrzewski) A volunteer extinguishes candles during one of the choral pieces of the Tenebrae Lenten service at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) March 27. (Katie Zakrzewski)

Tenebrae service reminds faithful of Jesus’ suffering

Scripture and music service at NLR parish focuses on darkness of crucifixion

Published: April 4, 2024      
Lit candles line the altars and form the shape of a cross in front of the altar during Immaculate Heart of Mary Church's Tenebrae Lenten service March 27. (Katie Zakrzewski)

As more than 225 Catholics and Protestants filtered through the front doors of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock March 27, they were greeted by the warm glow of hundreds of candles. 

Lit candles lined every window sill and glowed on tables down the center aisle and on every square inch of the church’s side and primary altars. But as the service — a reflection on Jesus’ suffering, betrayal and death on a cross, interspersed with choral performances — drew closer to the crucifixion, more and more candles were extinguished until only cold, quiet darkness remained. 

The Holy Week Tenebrae prayer service at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in the Marche community has grown each year since 2017, when it was first held, thanks to the collaboration of clergy and laity from North Little Rock, Little Rock and Conway. 

The service is divided into seven sections, called nocturnes. Each nocturne represents part of the story of the Passion of Christ, with a reflective song after that section. With each section, light begins to disappear, and more darkness spreads until only the Paschal candle remains, representative of Christ. When Christ’s crucifixion in portrayed in the Tenebrae service, the Paschal candle is extinguished, and silence echoes through the darkness.

Tenebrae — meaning “darkness” in Latin — has its roots in sixth-century monastic prayer. But the version of the Tenebrae service held at Immaculate Heart is the brainchild of Father Shaun Wesley, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in Carlisle and Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Slovak, who’s also a composer and tenor.

“Back when I was in seminary — it was probably 2003 — I went to seminary at St. Meinrad (in Indiana). Back then, they historically had a Tenebrae service for the seminarians, and I think it had taken a hiatus,” Father Wesley said. “When it would have been my class’s turn to be in charge of it, they decided to do it again. So I took it and made a more modern twist on what the traditional Tenebrae would have been … because it was really monastic choirs and Psalms. … I was like, ‘OK, let’s reenvision this to have the same effect but in a more emotional way, focusing on the Gospels and trying to choose music that fits with each part of the Gospel.’ 

“So we did it back then when I was in seminary during Lent, and I know that they continued doing it the same way for at least a few years after that at St. Meinrad. After that, Christie Powell (youth director at Immaculate Conception in North Little Rock) … started doing it … and since I’ve been down in this area, we’ve started working it out together. It’s just wonderful, 20 years later, to still be part of the service … for it to still be fruitful. It was amazing tonight to see the church filled.”

Powell became familiar with the Tenebrae service while she was the youth director at Immaculate Heart of Mary. 

“(Father Wesley) told me about this particular Tenebrae that he put together. We all know the story, but he set it to music,” Powell said. “He gave it to me and was telling me about it, and I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I was youth director here at Immaculate Heart of Mary at the time, and I said, ‘Let’s try it.’ We got together, we had a choir director here, and she helped, and we got the readers and started getting the candles and stuff, and we did it. We did it for several years here, and … they did it a few years after I left.”

Powell said when Immaculate Heart’s new music director, Steven Shook, came to the parish, the Tenebrae service was revived again after a hiatus. 

“He reached out to me and said, ‘I want to bring it back,’” Powell recalled. “They handled the music part, and then I got the readers and all of the candles. It’s just grown, it’s evolved. But that’s the beauty of it. We know God has his hand in it because of the way that it’s grown. … We’ve never had this many people here. … People are saying now that this is part of their Holy Week.”

Shook became the music director at Immaculate Heart in 2014 after building up a large network of musicians in Central Arkansas. He had previously been part of the music ministry for Our Lady of the Holy Souls and Christ the King churches in Little Rock and St. Joseph Church in Conway. He had also been involved in the music programs at the University of Central Arkansas and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. 

As Shook was getting acclimated at Immaculate Heart, his choir members told him about the Tenebrae service they used to have. 

“For a few years, I just kept looking at it like, this is a great opportunity, and something that could be really neat,” Shook said. “So we tried it (in 2017) and people started coming back. Then I tried it again, and people kept coming back.”

As Shook, Powell and Father Wesley helped grow the Tenebrae service, they caught the eye of other denominations. 

“It really has grown a little bit each year to where we now have so many parishes and churches of people coming,” Shook said. “Even non-Catholics have attended this event — Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans actually come to this event since it’s not a Mass.”

“The way (Father Wesley) composed this and put it together in seminary, is more personal,” Shook said, compared to traditional, monastic versions of the Tenebrae, where the congregation does not get to participate as much. 

Father Rubén Quinteros, pastor of St. Mary and Immaculate Heart of Mary churches in North Little Rock, said the Tenebrae service feels like a “mini-retreat.”

“It’s only an hour, and we are part of the city, but it feels like we are outside of the city,” Father Quinteros said. “So people come to the hill and the church is here, and they start this service and experience everything from the darkness to the music to the listening. I’m just so happy that all the parishes are helping us with the resources, with candles, with musicians and helping in different ways.”

Father Quinteros said this event is unique, dwelling on the despair of the crucifixion instead of the triumph of the resurrection. 

“Praying with Jesus during this time is the heart of having this celebration,” Father Quinteros said. “It places people in the right path to have a prayerful Holy Week … just to have quiet time and remain with Jesus.”

As Tenebrae attendees left in silence in the dark, they filed past a statue of Christ after the crucifixion. Outside of the church, many attendees seemed stunned and overwhelmed with emotion. 

Janice Bankowski, a member of St. Jude Church in Clinton, drove an hour to attend the event. 

“I feel wonderful,” Bankowski said. “I’m going to tell everyone that it was amazing.”

Chris Arnold, a parishioner at Immaculate Conception in North Little Rock, said this is her third Tenebrae service. Her husband, Barry, voiced Peter the disciple in the Tenebrae service.

“It’s just wonderful,” Arnold said. “I encourage other people to come. My friend Rose Mary came this time, and she loved it. It’s just so moving — so so moving.”

Julie Chudy, a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary, has volunteered at the Tenebrae service for the past four years. She helped extinguish candles throughout the service. 

“I’m feeling very emotional. I have goosebumps because it’s a very powerful service right before Easter. It gets you,” Chudy said. “You feel it inside when you’re putting out each candle, and …  it gets darker and darker until the very end.”

Tenebrae is unique because of its darkness, Father Wesley said. 

“The Tenebrae symbolizes the light to the darkness,” Father Wesley said. “The candles really represent us, and us as we follow the disciples because even the disciples fled from Jesus toward the end. All of us, in our own sinfulness, leave Jesus in some way or another. … I think this is a powerful thing for us to do during Holy Week to really hone in on what it is that Jesus offered for us.” 

“We need to walk to Calvary — we need to walk with Jesus,” Powell said. “This gives us an opportunity to do that.”

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