It was a typical after-school rehearsal, with 34 members of Our Lady of Lourdes choir polishing their Christmas program. Some of the kids were antsy and couldn't sit still.
One boy insisted on wearing his sporty sunglasses to try to distract three soloists. Another jerked to the beat of "Calypso Noel," and his body moves drew a stern glare from a parent.
But a year from now these children will be all business as they perform at a once-in-a-lifetime concert.
Their audience will be the pope.
"I'm going to be nervous," said 14-year-old Arline Cana.
She and her fellow choir members will join 10,000 children from across the globe to sing at the first Mass at the Vatican in 2000. Altogether, 14 American groups will perform, half of them from California--including choirs from the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and the San Francisco Bay Area.
"This is something that's not going to happen again in our children's lifetimes or our children's grandchildren's lifetimes," said Kevin King, director of Our Lady of Lourdes choir in Tujunga.
The local choirs include: St. John Baptist de LaSalle in Granada Hills; a boys choir from St. Mel Parish and a coed choir from St. Mel School, both in Woodland Hills; Our Lady Queen of Angels in Azusa; and the Choir of Mary's Children in Claremont.
Every continent will be represented at the Jan. 2, 2000, Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, said Patrick Flahive, president of the American Federation of Pueri Cantores.
Pueri Cantores--Latin for Child Singers--is an international organization of children's choirs that was invited to sing at the millennium jubilee.
Pope John Paul II issued the invitation after hearing 10,000 members sing at the group's International Congress in 1993 in Rome. "Upon seeing you, I think of the eternal youth of the church," he said in a published statement. "You are the future of the church."
Although Pueri Cantores is traditionally a Catholic organization, the pope has encouraged Christian choirs of other denominations to join.
Next summer at Our Lady of Lourdes, King said, his choir of second- through eighth-graders will attend a two-week camp at church. "The kids will spend time learning music in different languages--definitely Latin and probably some Italian," he said.
While preparing to sing for the pope will take hours of practice, raising money for the two-week trip is also a time-consuming task. Fund-raising efforts will extend beyond traditional raffles and rummage sales.
In Azusa, the Choir of Our Lady Queen of Angels received a $3,000 grant from the Rio Hondo Foundation to record a holiday CD in the summer, which will go on sale in the fall.
At Our Lady of Lourdes, in addition to traditional candy sales, the choir is selling long-distance phone cards and has created an Internet Web site for donations--www.rome2000.org. The choir members are expected to work up to 200 hours to raise $2,000 each, said parent Nancy Garcia.
Marilyn Avengoza of Sunland will go with her daughter, Lara, 11, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes choir. She's also taking along her 72-year-old mother, Mary. "It's my dream for her," she said.
Like many of her fellow choir members, Lara Avengoza has never traveled outside of the United States.
"Singing in front of the pope," she said, "it will be very exciting."