God’s Greatest Hits

Three Irish priests who won’t leave their parish for more than three days at a time are the newest pop idols

God's Greatest Hits

Last month, North American journalists convened at the midtown Manhattan supper club Providence for the first glimpse of Sony BMG’s next hot breakout act, the Priests. We’re not talking heavy-metal Judas Priest aspirants here. The Priests are three actual practising priests from the Down and Connor diocese in Northern Ireland.

Radio producers, magazine editors and bookers from The View and Live with Regis and Kelly nibbled sushi and mini-burgers awaiting the arrival of the ecclesiastical crooners who’ve been singing together for three decades. Buzz has been building since April when the trio signed what was hyped in the press as a £2.6-million recording contract on the steps of London’s Westminster Cathedral. The publicity machine is now at full throttle on the eve of the mid-November release of their first CD, The Priests, timed for Christmas sales.

Nick Raphael, managing director of the Sony BMG-owned Epic label in the U.K., takes to the small stage to introduce them. “This isn’t a religious project but one of passion,” he tells the crowd. “These guys are singing some of the greatest pop songs of all time.”

That he’s talking Passion with a capital “p” becomes evident with the arrival of Father Eugene O’Hagan, 49, his younger brother Father Martin O’Hagan, 45, and Father David Delargy, also 45. Outfitted in trim black suits, punctuated with the flash of white clerical collars, they perform a sampling from the CD—liturgical chestnuts such as Schubert’s Ave Maria, César Franck’s Panis Angelicus and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu. On stage, they’re serene: when one takes the lead, the other two gaze beatifically into the near distance. Their harmonizing is flawless, the delivery exultant. The crowd, a group jaded by the usual press junket grind, is in thrall. Following the finale, a traditional Irish blessing, everyone leaps up, amid cries of “Bravo.”

The arrival of three middle-aged priests as pop stars definitely signals a culture in need of some sort of salvation. Or maybe they’re simply a much-needed correction in a music market weary of R. Kelly bad-boy antics and Amy Winehouse meltdowns. Raphael says the Priests will chart unmapped territory. He first heard them while soliciting demo tapes for producer Mike Hedges, famed for his work with the Cure, U2 and Dido. Hedges, an Irish Catholic, had told Raphael it had been a lifetime desire to record a Latin mass. The priests were prodded to send in a tape by Van Morrison’s drummer, Liam Bradley, with whom they had performed. Raphael says he thought at first he was being pranked: “I was sure it was the Three Tenors.”

Hope is high that the O’Hagan brothers, both tenors, and Delargy, who sings bass and baritone, will join a long tradition of holy hitmakers, including Belgian nun Jeannine Deckers, who became famous in the 1960s as the Singing Nun, the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, who’ve sold millions of copies of their Gregorian chants, and Cesare Bonizzi, the 62-year-old Franciscan monk inspired by Metallica and Megadeth. More recently, an appetite for liturgical tunes is reflected in the popularity of the Simon Cowell-discovery Angelis, whose debut album in 2006 sold more than 350,000 copies.

PBS, which is airing The Priests in Concert at Armagh Cathedral later this month, is among the new faithful. A PBS producer in the crowd at Providence says the Priests are a natural fit for the channel’s older audience, a demographic more likely to buy a CD than to download it. “Do you know how many Catholics there are in the U.S.?” he asks. That number is even higher internationally, somewhere around 1.1 billion. Raphael says the label is targeting the classical listener who buys Il Divo. Catholics, particularly Irish Catholics, are another marketing focus.

Part of the Priests’ appeal is their backstory, one they tell affably at Sony’s New York headquarters the morning after their performance. Their emerging celebrity status clearly bemuses them. As Father David Delargy steps off the elevator onto the 14th floor, he checks out huge photographs of the label’s big names, among them Usher, Chris Brown and T-Pain. “Hmm, our image is very staid,” he jokes. “What we need is some bling.”

They’re as synchronized in conversation as in song, telling for what must be the hundredth time the tale of how they met and began singing in the early 1970s at St. Macnissi’s College in Ballymena. They’d been sent there to board by parents concerned they’d get caught up in the Troubles. The O’Hagans grew up singing show tunes; the first music they sang together was from The Sound of Music, says Father Eugene, the more theatrical of the brothers. He recalls a performance at home of Lulu’s Boom-a Bang: “We’d do actions, choreography, the whole works.” To this, Delargy raises an eyebrow. “I’d have loved to see that,” he says.

All three attended Queen’s College in Belfast, where they took turns as choirmasters of the seminary choir. Later, at the Irish College in Rome where they completed their religious education, they dubbed their ensemble “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The Priests is a name their managers came up with. “We were ‘Ah well, that speaks for itself,’ ” says Delargy.

Their primary motivation is the desire to spread the Word. Their website includes links to their diocese and Catholic news; their promotional photos eschew glamour shots for images of them in prayer and officiating over Mass. At first, they were hesitant to submit a demo tape. What propelled them was Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Put Out Into the Deep,” which called for the Church to take bolder measures to spread the faith. “But not in an aggressive manner, in a very gentle way,” says Father Martin. “We hope the music will appeal to people of all faiths and those of no faith at all.” He believes the music has universal traction: “Maybe it will affect people in terms of faith. Maybe it will resonate with a memory or experience, but at least the music is echoing in some way with the audience.”

Most of the music on the CD, which was recorded in Ireland, Prague and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica, are tunes Father Eugene jokingly calls “God’s greatest hits,” a line that might not play well in the Muslim world. But they hope lesser-known works such as Haydn’s Mit Würd und Hoheit Angetan will gain popularity as a result. “I can’t imagine that many between 20 and 30 would know it but it’s the most wonderful melody about the creation of the world,” he says.

The contract signing happened so quickly their parishioners heard about it on the news. “Phone lines were buzzing,” says Father Martin. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, he says: “They felt that it had brought some good attention to our parish and they’re very proud of us.” They’ve seen no swelling in their congregation sizes, yet. They also appear impervious to the notion that secular fame, which drove Sister Deckers to suicide in 1985, will have any effect.

Rather, they plan to harness it to bring favourable attention to a calling tainted by scandal. Father Eugene tells the story of how they tried to forewarn their bishop about news of the recording contract. They reached the diocese’s media officer, who expressed relief when told. “Good news at last!” he said.

Media interest has taken them by surprise, they say, noting that the Westminster photo op was unexpected. Journalists, used to plumbing the personal lives of celebrities, don’t quite know what to make of the celibate trio who by definition reject the trappings of fame. Still, they’re routinely asked questions about their personal lives, such as what it was like growing up during the Troubles and what music they listen to (to which Delargy once answered Blondie because it was the first singer to come to mind). Personal preferences define people to a point, says Father Eugene: “But they’re only accidentals, they’re not the essence of an individual.”

The Priests’ unwillingness to kowtow to secular demands has, ironically, become part of their charm. Their New York media blitz, which allowed them quick visits to the Empire State Building, Ground Zero and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, was limited to three days because that’s the longest they’ll leave their parishes. Their carefully negotiated contract, one Raphael says is the most unique in Epic’s history, stipulates their priestly duties come before performing and publicity; Delargy interrupted one junket to conduct a funeral. That makes a Two Tenors and One Baritone World Tour unlikely. They also refuse to associate themselves with anything that runs contrary to their religious beliefs, which means no headliners with Britney. The label is hoping they’ll record five albums, says Raphael, but their schedules will dictate.

A portion of the CD’s profits will be donated to charity, but how much and which ones have yet to be announced. Nor have they decided whether they’ll donate individually or as a group. “We’ve discussed it,” says Delargy, “but we haven’t really come to any clear idea for the simple reason we have to wait and see what kind of income there might be from the CD. We’re not going to count our chickens before they’re hatched,” he says.

Such modesty is prudent. But if the reaction of the crowd at Providence is an indication, the Priests have some major poultry-counting ahead of them. For their timing does indeed seem providential. As one woman said out loud to no one in particular after their performance: “I just want a blessing. That’s all I want.”

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