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Para Continues Tradition Like Nun Other With Winter Fest Invitation

Published: February 1, 2011

Provost Don Para (back row, far right) invites a group of Carmelite sisters to the Winter Festival Concert every year.

As provost and senior vice president at CSULB, Don Para can get pretty busy. Still, every holiday season, there is one tradition he finds time for – inviting a group of Carmelite sisters to the popular Bob Cole Conservatory Winter Festival Concert every December at the First Congregational Church in Long Beach. This year was no different.

“It started about 15 years ago when my wife Sandy worked at a Catholic school as the music teacher and was also the music director at the church where the Carmelites ran the school,” said Para, noting they were members of the parish at the time. “The principal was a Carmelite and three or four of the teachers were Carmelites and had a convent next to the church. We wondered what we were going to give them for a Christmas present and we decided on tickets to Winter Fest, so we bought them a half a dozen tickets. They really appreciated the event.”

In the beginning, it was just that small group that attended, but because word got around at how much they enjoyed the event, the number of sisters gradually began to grow.

“Since these Carmelites are often reassigned every year or so the next year there were a number of different Carmelites and the ones who had been to Winter Fest the previous year loved it so much they wanted to go again. Now there were three or four more, so the number continued to grow,” said Para.

To many in attendance, having the Carmelites at Winter Fest greatly adds to the Christmas atmosphere, making the Sunday event even more special.

“They have been coming for years because of Don and Sandy Para,” said Lee Vail, professor of music at CSULB, undergraduate advisor, and conductor of the CSULB Forty-Niner Chorus at Winter Fest. “They always come to the Sunday performance and it really adds something to the event.”

Para noted that over the years numerous individuals, as well as the Carmelites, have told him that the Winter Festival Concert marks the official beginning of their holiday season. For the Carmelites, it’s one of the few outings away from their regular church-related responsibilities.

“We always enjoy seeing them,” said Jonathan Talberg, the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music’s Director of Choral, Vocal, and Opera Studies and one of the conductors at Winter Fest, “and it’s special for us that on one of the few occasions during the year they do to go out that they chose to spend it with Cal State Long Beach students.”

According to the provost, the Carmelites always dress in their brown habits. They wear a white covering over the habit when they go to mass. When the 32 Carmelites attend Winter Festival in their habits, they are quite a sight.

“I think this year more than past years I had people come up to me and say they just love seeing that many nuns because where do you have the opportunity to see that many nuns in one place?” Para laughed. “I think it really does add to the holiday, Christmas atmosphere of the event.”

A couple of years ago, the Carmelites were so impressed with an arrangement of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” that was performed at Winter Fest, they requested a copy for their own use. They were quite surprised and pleased to hear the arrangement was not done by a professional, but rather student composer Alex Stephens. At the time, he didn’t have it in a form he could immediately provide them, but he didn’t forget.

“They did try to get ahold of me right away,” said Stephens. “They liked it enough to want it and contacted the school a few weeks after Winter Fest to see if they could have the score and we printed one out and I guess they sang it at one of their events.”

Stephens had never met the nuns until the most recent Winter Festival, where he presented them a different piece that he had written.

“Before this past Winter Fest, I had no contact with them at all,” he said, “but it was really a nice experience to finally do so.”

“Alex got to speak with them and he evidently made a good impression,” said CSULB library assistant Judith Bell, who has been decorating the church for Winter Fest for more than two decades, “because when he was coming down the stairs, one of the sisters was saying to him, ‘Now Alex, we’re all going to be praying for your career’, so that certainly couldn’t hurt.”