The eye might think she does not blend well, but the ear disagrees. When singing Eric Whitacre’s “Lux Aurumque,” a contemporary hymn composed of tight harmonies, Callista Gingrich’s is just one of 26 voices blending to form a ripe sound that rings through the basilica’s apse.
For 15 years, Gingrich, 45, has performed weekly with the choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. She and the other choir members are paid, professional singers who can sight-read on command and easlily distinguish Gregorian chant from Renaissance polyphony. She is one of the choir’s most senior members, a steady force in the alto section. Only now is her presence becoming a minor distraction for the congregation, which attends High Mass on Sundays at the Roman Catholic church in Northeast Washington.
“That’s Newt Gingrich’s wife, the bright blonde,” an attendee whispered during their recent annual Christmas concert for charity, where 2,500 listeners recently gathered.
“Reeeaaallly?” A woman reacted as the choir begins to sing a piece by Camille Saint-Saens.
The country’s largest Catholic church may become subject to new distractions, ones that could involve traffic jams and the Secret Service. The choir, too, finds itself in the spotlight, particularly because Newt Gingrich, now the Republican front-runner in Iowa, often praises it when explaining his religious conversion to Catholicism from Southern Baptist.
If Gingrich captures the Republican nomination, he will be the first Catholic-convert nominee on a U.S. presidential ballot. This choir, he says, played a significant role in his spiritual quest.
“It brought me here,” Gingrich said, pointing to the altar after the concert, where he remained in the first pew long after “Joy to the World” ended. “It brought me here to experience the Eucharist and this basilica. It shows that as part of the liturgy, a choir can inspire hearts.”
He pauses, looking up at the altar again. “I had a tear in my eye on the last song, because it reminded me of my mother. My mother sang in choirs her whole life. . . .”
So has Callista.
In debates and stump speeches, Gingrich’s religious conversion is the centerpiece of his maturation as both man and politician. Callista’s participation in this choir is a large part of that narrative. After their marriage in 2000, he accompanied her to Mass regularly, first to watch her sing, and then, later, for reasons of his own.
“I’m genuinely surprised by what a comfort the church has been,” he said. “It’s comforted me in ways I would have never expected 25 years ago.”
Throughout their ups and downs in the public eye, Callista’s devotion to this choir hasn’t wavered. She still arrives on time to Thursday rehearsals, overdressed in stately suits. She still sings at noon Mass, even when she has to walk the Kennedy Center’s red carpet hours later. But to this close-knit group of singers, the candidate and his wife are just their friends “Callista and Newt,” a couple juggling responsibilities like everyone else. Even the newest young members of the choir look upon Callista as a talented musician, whose husband just happens to be running for president.