By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator

In a corner of Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel on the grounds of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a half dozen men stand in front of an upright piano, belting out hymns before the start of Mass. This is the Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Celestial Men’s Choir, directed by Lester Williams. 

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Lester Williams, choir director of the Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Celestial Men’s Choir, plays the piano for the Mass at the chapel on the campus of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Nov. 21, 2019. Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator

 

Williams, who began serving a life sentence in 2009, said not long after he arrived at Angola he was asked by Father Todd Lloyd to lead the choir, replacing the former choir director. 

“I’ve been a musician all my life but I never thought I would be allowed to do the work of the Lord,” said Williams. “My career has been that of band director but I never thought I’d do this work. I prayed to do this work after I retired but I never thought I’d be doing it in prison, so we have to watch what we pray for. Because sometimes when we pray for it, even though it’s good, be aware, this is what you prayed for, this is what you got.”

Williams, a cradle Catholic, was an altar server as a young boy. The former high school band director said his primary instrument was the trombone. Now, he plays the piano for the Masses at Angola, something he had to get used to in his new gig.  

“I seriously started playing the piano when I got here,” recalled Williams. “I was placed in a position where I really had to step up so that’s what I did. These guys are fantastic. They’re my motivation other than the Lord himself. They’re nice guys to work with. We just make a joyful noise that’s all.”  

From hymns to Christmas carols, the Celestial Men’s Choir is ready with song. Choir practice is typically on Thursday nights and Saturdays and choir members are only required to attend one weekly practice session. However, according to Williams, the men make most of the practices and are available for all Masses.  

“We make ourselves available for all times because we’re not doing this for ourselves, we’re doing this for the Lord and for the people,” said Williams.  

Williams said the vocal group follows the guidelines set out by the priest celebrating the Mass. He added the choir is there to “motivate and to help the people engage in the Mass because in the singing is the word of God.”  

Williams said leading the choir has also deepened his faith. He said he prayed God would rely on him during retirement to do God’s work.  

“I thought about doing it in church as a ministry but never in prison. So this is where he has placed me and I’ve accepted that. It made me realize that he does hear prayers. We may not understand but that’s what happens,” said Williams.