Maria Fidelis School Choir

Karen Gibson and Lyn Newell speak in the measured tones one would expect of teachers but occasionally let slip a look of wonder ­as if they can’t quite believe it is all true.

As the two teachers behind the Maria Fidelis Convent School gospel choir, they have seen what started out as a school lunchtime club little more than a year ago become a heart warming success story, having won a major national competition and sang for the Pope and for royalty. Now they even have plans to make an album.

“It has been fabulous,” declares Lyn, the choir’s manager, still basking in the glory of the girls’ performance for the Queen at Westminster Abbey for Commonwealth Day. “The girls are so committed and their success has brought the whole school together, which is fantastic.”

It was Karen’s idea to enter the 2010 edition of the Songs of Praise Senior School Choir of the Year competition that first got the ball rolling. A former music teacher at the Somers Town school and a leading light in the world of British gospel both as a tutor and a choir director, she had recently returned to run the new gospel choir lunchtime club. 

It was open to all comers, the only qualification being an enjoyment of singing. “We had never entered a competition on any level but I thought it would give us something to work towards,” she says, smiling at the memory.

When the choir sailed through the auditions, Lyn and Karen were pleasantly surprised but neither imagined that they would go on to win the event, especially as they were up against some stiff competition in the finals – previous winners, St Aiden’s C of E High School from Yorkshire, and top public school, Rugby, who were third time finalists. 

But Maria Fidelis dazzled the three judges – Howard Goodall, David Grant and Claire Sweeney – with their soulful singing and technical virtuosity. “We were absolutely blown away when they announced that we were the winners,” exclaims Karen. “But when I saw Claire Sweeney crying during our second song, As the Deer Pants for the Water, I kind of knew we had won it – our girls had sung with such power and passion.”

Catapulted into the national limelight, the Maria Fidelis Gospel Choir found themselves on TV again after being called up for perhaps their greatest honour – to sing for  Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the UK last September.  “In preparation for Songs of Praise we took the choir to see the West End production of Sister Act, which finishes with the choir singing for the Pope,” remembers Lyn, an assistant head teacher at the school. “As we left the theatre I half-jokingly said this would be us when the Holy Father visited, never knowing this would become a reality.”

Since then the 50-strong choir in their distinctive royal blue jumpers and tartan skirts have become a familiar sight at a wide variety of engagements, from the Camden Schools Jack Petchey Awards night last November to a gala event for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall at Buckingham Palace on behalf of the Prince’s Trust in February.

Earlier this month, the girls rounded off an emotional talk at the British Library by Martin Luther King’s speechwriter Clarence B Jones with their rendition of We Shall Overcome. “Clarence asked the choir especially to sing it and was so moved that he went up on stage and joined in. It was an extremely powerful moment,” remarks Lyn.

Watching the girls perform, most people are struck by their professional poise and modesty. Their new-found celebrity has clearly not gone to their heads. But then, Lyn and Karen have got bigger things in mind for them. “Singing is not the main priority,” declares Karen with feeling. “It is all about developing children’s capacity for excellence and transferring this to leadership roles in their careers. It is about developing an understanding of who they are and what they can achieve. It is about going for gold every time.” 

With plans to launch a fundraising drive to make a Maria Fidelis CD album of inspirational songs, it seems the sky’s the limit. She adds,  “They are amazing young ladies and they have worked very hard. We are so proud of them.”

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