A parishioner, overwhelmed with emotion, starts crying at the front of a small chapel along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. There was something on his mind. He had been there for three hours, but when students from SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music started singing in unison, the beauty and emotion from the music echoed through the tiny chapel. “He just started shaking uncontrollably because he was so moved by the music,” said Jeffrey Francom, an associate professor at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, who led the trip to Spain.
Eighteen students from Crane’s Concert Choir just completed a remarkable journey as they hiked a 200-mile section of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. They traveled through desert-like conditions, mountainous terrain and a hail storm during a pilgrimage from León to Santiago, Spain—an ancient route that pilgrims have used since the ninth century. The route leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, believed to be the location of St. James’ body, one of the apostles of Jesus.
“It was spiritual, emotional and physical, and it demanded everything of them,” said Francom. “We sang all along the route and every time we sang, other hikers on the Camino would break out in tears—every single time without exception…it was incredible!”
The trip was an extension of the Concert Choir’s performance of “A Path of Miracles,” a 17-part a cappella piece staged this spring at the Sara M. Snell Music Theater, that tells the story of the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. “We loved that piece to begin with, before going on the trip and we got to experience the places that the piece talked about,” said Dominique Santiago, a junior music education major at SUNY Potsdam.
“Originally, I was interested in going because I just wanted to go to Spain, but I also had a connection with this piece, because my last name is Santiago. I always felt like something was calling me to go to Spain and go to Santiago...But it became so much more than that,” said Dominique.
Despite heat stroke, heat exhaustion and severe blisters all being issues during the trip, the physical challenges seemed to create a great bond between the students—such as Dominque’s memorable experience during a hail storm. As she reached the top of a mountain she was greeted by a column of nasty looking black clouds as hail the size of golf balls started spilling out of the sky. Without any tree cover, she was forced to huddle under her backpack with three other Crane students to take shelter from the storm.
“We literally just prayed and most of us aren’t religious… I would consider some of these people my best friends now after experiencing that,” said Dominique.
The Crane students started their journey on May 22 and finished the hike on June 6 in Santiago, walking between 10 to 20 miles a day as they trekked through the Spanish countryside. They met people from 50 different countries and 25 different states. Every night they would arrive at a different albergue (hostel) where all of the hikers convened to socialize and rest for the night. “People were giving away sunscreen and treating blisters together and sharing stories over wine,” said Karina Roman, who just finished her junior year at Crane.
Roman was impressed with the communal spirit on the trail, the support of her classmates and in particular the support of her voice professor. “Dr. Francom changed my life. We actually had a day where I was in a lot of pain so he stayed with me in the back and we walked very slowly—that was the day after my heat exhaustion. We shared life stories…he’s just someone that everyone on this trip trusted with everything, actually so much so that we called him dad the whole trip, not even in a joking way, at least for me I view him very much as my paternal figure. Without him, none of this would have happened,” Roman recalls.
Two former associate professors at Crane battling cancer, Dr. Rebecca Reames and Dr. Heather Eyerly, remained in their hearts and minds during the pilgrimage. “We carried stones for both of them. We left the one for Dr. Eyerly at the place called Cruz de Ferro, where pilgrims have been leaving stones for over 1000 years,” said Francom.
Reames, a former associate professor of choral conducting, passed away during their trip. She had been influential in their lives while conducting choirs such as the Phoenix Club, an all-treble chorus and the oldest choral group on campus. “The first week we found out that she passed away it just hit us so hard,” said Dominique.
Francom collected a rock from Reames’ garden before the trip and they carried it with them every day during their hike on the Camino. On their last day, before descending down the mountain to Santiago de Compostela, they placed the stone on Monte do Gozo. They joined together in front of a statue of two pilgrims to sing “Shenandoah” for her, a song about the Shenandoah River and one of her favorite places.
“We got in a circle and sang that piece for her and we just sobbed. People around us, that didn’t even know us, sobbed because you could just feel all the emotion and love from those moments…Along the way in those moments, we felt like she was with us and that she knew what we were doing for her, trying to make a tribute for her in our music,” said Dominique.
The trip was a truly cathartic experience for them. Standing in front of Francom’s house back in Potsdam after the trip, senior music education major Kyle Souhrada, reflects back on the journey. “We couldn’t have picked a more genuine group of people…I think all of us are incredibly close now, I would consider all of us very, very good friends. We all know so much about each other and we’ve seen each other at our weakest points,” he said.
Jaci Gonzalez, a junior music performance major at Crane, said that “after the span of just three weeks I feel so close to them and I know the bond I have with them now is going to last a very long time and it’s really special,” she said. “This trip has just taught me so much…I did that, I did the Camino de Santiago. I can do this so I can do anything,” she said.