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September 26, 2015

Youth choir kids amped to sing for Pope Francis in Philadelphia

Sixty members of the Pennsylvania Girlchoir and Keystone State Boychoir to join Juanes at Festival of Families concert

For 60 young choir singers from Pennsylvania, it will be one of the most momentous nights of their lives – singing for arguably the biggest celebrity in the world right now: Pope Francis.

The singers, selected from the Pennsylvania Girlchoir (PG) and Keystone State Boychoir (KSB), will accompany Latin American pop star Juanes during his concert before the pope during Saturday's star-studded Festival of Families concert on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, hosted by actor Mark Wahlberg.

Stefan Rogowski, 11, will get an opportunity to see a role model, not just in his advocation but vocation, as well. Stefan, a first generation Polish-American from Northeast Philadelphia, wants to become the pope himself someday, following in the footsteps of Poland's John Paul II.

"My religion is something that just feels right to me," he said. "I hope that I can have the chance to meet Pope Francis."

On Friday he ran into Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who let him try on his zucchetto, the skullcap worn by Catholic priests.

"He was in this white car, sitting shotgun," said Rogowski, pictured left with Chaput. "I shook his hand and then he gave me the purple cap to wear. We even took a selfie."

In addition to Juanes, Italian classical tenor Andrea Bocelli, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, will play live on the Parkway for Pope Francis after marquee performances by Aretha Franklin, The Fray and several others throughout the afternoon.

Anna Guaracao, a 16-year-old Colombian-American who has been with PG since fifth grade, said the chance to sing with Juanes is a dream come true.

"Juanes was the first CD I ever got," Guaracao told PhillyVoice. "I have so much appreciation for what he's done for Colombia's image around the world, the gifts he's given. This is extra special for me because I have family still living in Colombia. They'll be able to see us on TV."

"This has been an amazing place to grow as a person," she said about being a member of the choir. "I've met so many talented people, learned how to be confident singing as a group and in solos. I've seen the world."

The choir groups have sung at major events worldwide. They've performed for Nobel Prize winners Malala Yousafzai and Aung San Suu Ky, but the opportunity to sing at the Festival of Families concert came to them through an odd coincidence.

"It's sort of interesting," said choir director Steven Fisher. "Everybody wants to sing for the pope, so we thought someone else would wind up with it. We actually didn't pursue it, but sometimes when you don't seek something out, it finds you."

Because of the organization's extensive experience singing to VIPs – presidents, heads of state, ambassadors, you name it – their reputation earned them a call from festival organizers. Fisher gladly accepted and got to work preparing his talented group for the concert and the world-wide attention it will bring.

"I was raised Catholic, graduated from Cardinal O'Hara High School," Fisher said. "I remember as a child, my parents put us all in the station wagon and we waited for Pope John Paul II. I remember vividly how absolutely riveting that was. Thirty-seven years later, I'm in a different place. I'm the founder of an organization with over 600 young singers. This is a chance to have these kids not just standing by, watching the popemobile, but really within a stone's throw of such an influential figure." 


Tamir Oliver, 14, joined KSB through the organization's "Find Your Instrument!" outreach program at local underserved schools. In three years with the choir, Tamir has already performed on Broadway with a Tony Award winner, at Carnegie Hall and on tour in Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania.

"I think this event is special because you see all the people it goes out to," said Tamir, who has seen the choir open up incredible doors for him (he's even held a koala) and given him confidence no matter where he's singing.

"I think the song we're singing is perfect because it's the truth," he continued. "The world needs more love."

As for the occasion, Tamir said that if he gets to meet Pope Francis, he plans to thank him for the honor of coming to Philadelphia.

Fisher has a specific wish of his own. During the concert, Pope Francis will be joined by people representing six of the seven continents of the world. As it turns out, the Pennsylvania choral organization is the only one of its kind to ever travel to Antarctica.

The Keystone State Boychoir and Pennsylvania Girlchoir hope to present this Antarctic rock to Pope Francis at the Festival of Families concert. (Contributed Art/PhillyVoice)

"We brought back a rock from our performance in Antarctica," Fisher said. "It would be a tremendous honor to present this rock to Pope Francis – the rock of Peter – to represent the elusive seventh continent."