Chapel Hill, NC – The annual St. Paul A.M.E. Church Christmas Cantata & Holiday Reception is always a memorable time for the Chapel Hill community, but the upcoming performance will hold a special significance. This marks 40 years of the annual musical event gracing the rafters of the 152-year-old church.
The cantata will return on December 11, to St. Paul at the corner of Franklin Street and Merritt Mill Road. And with its return brings memories of Cantatas past for Johnnie Ponder who has performed in every single one of them – all 40 years. For Glenda Harris, it’s been about 16 years, but still she holds a special affinity for the music and the story the Cantata tells.
“Having a program that has survived for forty years, I think reflects stability and dedication for a church, especially when you have a core infrastructure – dedicated choir members and the same multi-talented musician-directress,” Ponder said. “For the community, we provide a par excellent program that catapults everyone into the Christmas spirit.”
The Cantata is performed by the Senior Choir each year under the direction of Minister of Music Deborah Woodward and it has amassed a dedicated following of attendees.
Also, it has produced some special memories over the year. One of those for Ponder was singing at the Carolina Inn on December 11, 2011 for the 35th Cantata. “Being there, surrounded by the Inn’s Christmas decorations, gave an added boost to our program,” Ponder said.
Other memories include having Vivian Walker, NY Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano, direct the first Cantata, “Born a King.” Also, Jeanette Blackwell, was the narrator for many years; Patricia Gregory Lynch, soprano and Ponder’s friend; and Prince Taylor, Sr., baritone-soloist. There was also the time Ponder’s son, John Ponder II, had prepared to surprise the group by playing “Ava Maria” on his clarinet for the 2012 Cantata. Unfortunately, the 40-year-old died suddenly on September 12, 2012 after collapsing during a recreational basketball game. Other family members have also joined in the Cantata, including Ponder’s daughters, Joi
Harris recalled that Johnnie Ponder and past choir president, the late Ruthena Sanford, were among the originals.
“Ms. Sanford loved the Cantata and had a powerful and beautiful alto voice,” Harris said. “She often sang a solo in the Cantata. It was so inspiring to see how much she worked to ensure that the Cantata was a success. Our Music Director Dr. Debra Woodward is so awesome. She has so many wonderful musical gifts and works to bring out the best gifts in us. She puts tireless hours into selecting songs and thinking about the best voices for a song. “
Rehearsals begin in late August and continue through the day of the performance on the second Sunday in December each year.
“I truly enjoy the worshipful experience of rehearsing and being a part of the production of the Cantata,” Glenda Harris said. “As we rehearse the songs, we are actually singing about Christ our King and the perfect and eternal plan of God to redeem mankind. Dr. Woodward also teaches us the history of certain music and background information around the composing of the songs.”
Harris added that the Cantata has become a part of church history.
“The primary thing I would want a person to know about the Cantata is the songs and narration tell the story of God’s perfect plan to save the world from sin and establish the Kingdom of Christ,” Harris said. “The songs and narration represent several genres of music from different cultures and countries. There are times in our history that we have also included instrumental accompaniments and liturgical dance.”
The church is located at the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Johnnie Ponder said she can’t imagine not being a part of the annual program.
“I think it has lasted because of the passion of the faithful participants,” she said, adding “and the support of the community at large.”
The Cantata will take place at 4 p.m., December 11, 2016 at St. Paul AME Church at 101 N. Merritt Mill Road, Chapel Hill, NC 27516. For more information, visit www.stpaulamechapelhill.org/