Drone pilot Kenji Sugahara of A-Cam Aerials flies a drone in the abbey church during production of the seminary benefit video. At the organ is the abbey’s head organist, Benedictine Fr. Teresio Caldwell. (Courtesy Mount Angel Abbey)
Drone pilot Kenji Sugahara of A-Cam Aerials flies a drone in the abbey church during production of the seminary benefit video. At the organ is the abbey’s head organist, Benedictine Fr. Teresio Caldwell. (Courtesy Mount Angel Abbey)
ST. BENEDICT — It is the first Mount Angel Seminary benefit to include drone footage and a shades-wearing seminarian coaxing smooth trombone tunes. But from dramatic camera angles to musical finesse, the details support the same goal: “to have people walk away from this virtual event hopeful and inspired during a difficult year,” said Karen Jacoby, Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary visual communications manager.

“Our hope is people see that in the midst of the haze from fires and the challenges from the pandemic, there are beautiful things happening here at the seminary — there are bright lights, these future priests.”

Community amid coronavirus

The fall event, the principal fundraiser for the seminary, recently has drawn more than 1,000 people to the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. It’s one of the largest annual Catholic gatherings in the region, said Theresa Myers, Mount Angel communications manager. “There’s such a feeling of communion and fellowship, and we can’t exactly replicate that,” she said. “Yet we hope to convey some of that sense online.”

Held Nov. 1 from 4:30-6:30 p.m., the gathering will feature an hourlong video followed by a webinar with a few of the seminarians and other event attendees.

“There are some gems I will not give away, but there will be a jazz ensemble, scenes from the library and quite a bit of footage of seminarians’ life,” Myers said. Shots courtesy of a drone will provide different perspectives inside the church, library and broader campus.

“The goal is to have people feel like they are here with the seminarians,” said Jacoby.

The nearly 90 men in formation hail from 18 dioceses, among them the Portland Archdiocese, with five religious communities represented.

The seminary charges dioceses about 80% of what it costs to educate a seminarian. The dinner has been the primary way Mount Angel fills the more than $1 million annual gap.

Pandemic-era production adventures

Organizers typically begin brainstorming for the next year’s fundraiser as soon as a dinner wraps up. Before the pandemic they’d chosen a theme and a vision for the music this fall. “But there was no way it would all work in a virtual setting,” said Myrna Keough, the beloved seminary music director. The plans were scrapped.

The day the film crew was set to begin shooting the video, Mount Angel and the surrounding area were placed on evacuation alerts due to the raging fires. The hilltop was unscathed, but the lingering smoke meant filming was further postponed.

With the crew days behind on an already tight schedule, rain came — good for the fires but incompatible with camera equipment.

“Every time things changed, my colleagues smiled and came up with good solutions,” Keough said. “It is amazing how adaptable and creative everyone has been.”

While in past years guests have made a donation to secure a table at the dinner, there is no registration fee for this fall’s online gathering.

“A lot of folks who will be watching have had difficulties due to the coronavirus, have lost their jobs or been affected by the fires,” said Myers of the decision to make registration free. She hopes all participants will offer support through prayer.

Myers is especially excited that out-of-state family members who might never be able to visit Mount Angel will “get the opportunity to share the life and beauty of this place as if they were here with their brother or son,” she said.

Organizers have learned a virtual event doesn’t necessarily take less time to produce than an in-person dinner, but the workload falls on fewer people. There are no chefs needed and no convention center staff. “But the audiovisual elements require a certain skill set and that means a more narrowly focused group,” Myers said.

Jacoby said there are important ways this year is like any other. “We put ourselves into these events, put our all into it,” she said. “It’s a project of the heart, and the goal is to communicate the heart of seminary life.”

‘Resilience, enthusiasm and faith’

Music is one of the highpoints of the seminary benefit dinner, and it likewise is integral to the virtual event.

Keough usually holds rehearsals for the dinner in October, after she knows who is returning and who among the new batch of seminarians has musical prowess. To allow time for film production this year, she needed to assemble a group of musicians by mid-September. She admits it was a scramble.

When Keough learned one of the new guys could play trombone, she was thrilled and went digging through the instrument closet to, with a little luck, find one of the brass instruments.

“So, it turns out we have eight trombones,” Keough said, laughing. “We don’t have much else but take your pick of trombones.”

Among the challenges to recording music were social distancing parameters and sound-muffling masks. Seminarians also needed to master songs quickly, and some rehearsals have been via phone.

“The students have been absolutely phenomenal doing things they aren’t that comfortable doing,” Keough said. “They have had good humor and have been so professional in circumstances that couldn’t get much weirder.”

One of the upsides is that she’s been able to fill out the choir with alums and men who are in their pastoral year. “That’s been challenging but fun,” she said.

Like Jacoby and Myers, Keough, a mother of five, admits she’s logged many hours into the production. More than once her kids have asked, “Are you still making that video, Mom?”

Keough is eager to share the project with viewers. “Music touches an emotional and spiritual chord with donors and with the students at the benefit, and I think that will be the case more than ever this year,” she said. “I think you can see the men’s love for Jesus through their music. I hope it raises money for the seminary, but more than anything I want it to touch the hearts of those who support us.”

The seminarians of course have not been immune from the suffering of this year.

Some have lost family members to the coronavirus; others have families with charred homes. Myers said she’s felt personally inspired by their responses to hardship.

“They are able to see signs of hope and feel God’s presence,” said Myers. “I hope in this virtual context people experience the beauty of the hilltop and gain encouragement from the men’s resilience, enthusiasm and faith.”


Attend the benefit gathering

A link will be posted at mountangelabbey.org/sbd.