It’s not unusual for the director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, Steven Warner ’80M.A., to walk into the Basilica or somewhere else where a wedding is taking place and hear “Set Your Heart on the Higher Gifts.”
If the bride and groom are knowledgeable Christians, they’re likely to recognize the source of the lyrics, especially the last line of the refrain: “These three gifts are all that remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest is love.” They’re from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
They’re less likely to realize that the composer of this contemporary hymn is standing right there in their midst: Steve Warner.
The Folk Choir, which Warner founded after completing his master’s in theology/liturgy at the University in 1980, celebrated its 25th anniversary in May with a reunion concert in the Basilica a week before commencement. The event highlighted the group’s development from a handful of singers and musicians to more than 60 members today, including directors and student assistants. The choir tours widely every year, including seven trips so far to Ireland. It even has its own jumbo-sized endowment.
Besides the choir’s growth, the reunion served to showcase the group’s eclectic, multiethnic and increasingly influential repertoire. And much of that consists of original compositions by Warner.
Since the guitarist-composer’s hymns, psalms and inspired songs began to be published about a decade ago (he now has more than 70 published), a number have become standards in parishes throughout the United States and into Canada, Ireland and Great Britain.
“Steve’s music is routinely sung by 2½ million Catholics every Sunday,” says Mary Prete, general manager of World Library Publications, publisher of the choir’s music and distributor of its recordings since the early 1990s.
Warner’s pieces appear in the Irish hymnal Veritas, she says, and some have even crossed over into Episcopal and Lutheran worship services.
The choir director modestly refers to the compositions as the choir’s rather than his own and says he’s never really thinking beyond the group and the community its serves. “It’s just a very joyful and humbling thing to contribute to the landscape of faith expression in this country.”
In addition to “Set Your Heart on the Higher Gifts,” other Warner parish hits include his musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer” (known as the “Notre Dame Lord’s Prayer” in some circles); the Eucharist accompaniment “Make of Our Hands a Throne”; “I Have Been Anointed,” commonly sung at confirmation; “Crux Fidelis,” which articulates the foundational beliefs of the Holy Cross order; and “Lead Kindly Light” based on a poem by Cardinal Newman.
“All Will Be Well,” drawn from a text by a medieval woman mystic, was frequently heard on Chicago radio during the passing of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in 1996, Warner says, and it was sung in a Dublin Cathedral at a memorial for the victims of the 1987 IRA bombing in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. (Hear the choir’s recording of “Set Your Heart” in full and samples of the other works at www.nd.edu/~folk/audiosamples.html.)
For Folk Choir fans who missed the reunion concert, which combined past and present members into a group numbering about 150, a multimedia DVD is in the works. The production will feature footage from the concert, interviews and musical cuts from the choir’s past CDs. Warner says the compilation is expected to be finished by next summer.