The Chantels Come Home to Bronx Church Where Their Music Began

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The Chantels came all the way back to the beginning of their musical journey this month at St. Anthony of Padua Church on East 166th Street in the Bronx, where they first performed in the girls’ choir as elementary school students in the 1950s.

The occasion April 5 was a ceremonial renaming of the street on the corner of East 166th Street and Prospect Avenue as “The Chantels’ Hit Record ‘Maybe’ 1958.” They played a mini-concert of their songs in the church before an audience including friends and neighbors from years gone by.

The five original Chantels—Arlene Smith, Sonia Goring Wilson, Renée Minus White, Lois Harris Powell and Jackie Landry Jackson—attended St. Anthony of Padua elementary school, where they met as choir members and learned to sing together under the direction of Maryknoll Sister Richard Marie.

“She strove for perfection, and she got it from us in most cases,” said Ms. Smith in an interview with Catholic New York.

Singing in Latin and learning Gregorian chant, “we had to follow the music. We got a real theory lesson,” said Ms. Smith, who still lives in the Bronx.

Describing how the girls became friends, she said, “We navigated toward each other…We used to sit in choir practice and make up parts.”

Both she and Ms. Harris Powell, in separate phone conversations, recalled local and national Catholic singing competitions, including an annual one at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

“It was exciting to sing, and to come home with a trophy,” Ms. Harris Powell said.

The Chantels, as the story goes, got their name from another Bronx parish, St. Frances de Chantal, then a CYO basketball rival to St. Anthony of Padua teams, for which several of the girls played.

The Chantels were among the first African-American girls’ groups to hit the charts, and certainly the first and maybe the only one ever to credit their Catholic school choir experience.

“They had a very sweet and innocent sound. It was also very disciplined,” said Edward Hawkins, a parishioner of Holy Innocents in Manhattan who formerly managed Ms. Smith and several musical groups.

The Chantels had a number of hits including “Maybe,” which sold over a million copies, “Every Night,” “The Plea” and “Prayee.” The lyrics of several gave nods to their Catholic school upbringing, with references to prayer.

The special gathering this month also served as a reunion of sorts. It brought Ms. Smith, the former lead singer who no longer performs with the Chantels, together with the other original members who are living and the current lead singer, Ami Ortiz. (Ms. Landry Jackson died in 1997.)

The musical performances included tributes from two other popular “girl groups,” The Cookies and The Toys, as well as the Chantels themselves.

Ms. Smith said the parish’s pastor, Father Joseph Espaillat, remarked that it was like the “daughters” of the parish had come home.

“Usually, that’s said at funerals,” said Ms. Smith, who added that she was happy to be able to enjoy the occasion.

Ms. Harris Powell said the day brought back a lot of memories, and was “better than to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” for which the Chantels have been nominated.

“The church was so welcoming,” said Ms. Harris Powell, the mother of two adult daughters who now lives in Delaware.

“It stayed pretty much the way I remembered it,” even if she thought the choir loft seemed a little bigger back in her school days.

She was a bit older than the other girls and went on to school at St. Helena’s High School after St. Anthony of Padua, which she recalls fondly. The Maryknoll Sisters who taught her and the others at St. Anthony’s helped to make the school “a wonderful place to be.”

“They didn’t make us feel like outsiders, they were always encouraging. I have fond memories of them, and remained in touch until my adulthood.”

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