In the sleepy parish of Ballyclare and Ballygowan, in rural Northern Ireland, 40 parishioners sit silently in the Church of the Holy Family. Shortly after 9 a.m., the sanctuary doors open, light floods the modest building and Father Eugene O'Hagan glides down the aisle in a white cassock, singing, "In my justice I shall see your face, O Lord."
His tiny flock has long known O'Hagan as their shepherd, guiding them from baptism onward. But in recent weeks they have also come to know him as one of the three ordained clergymen who make up a much-ballyhooed singing trio called the Priests, which recently signed a $2 million recording contract with music giant Sony BMG. O'Hagan, 48, sees no contradiction. "I have two arms — the ecclesiastical arm and the musical arm," he says after Mass. "If one is tied behind the back, I'm not functioning at my fullest potential."
For Father Eugene and his musical collaborators — his brother Martin O'Hagan, 45, and their childhood friend David Delargy, 44 — the path to stardom seems ordained from above. Earlier this year Epic Records, a division of Sony, scoured Europe for clergymen with the chops to record a Latin Mass album. Word of mouth led them to the trio, who started singing together 35 years ago at a Belfast boarding school, and later performed at their seminary in Rome. After hearing a demo tape, Nick Raphael, the managing director of Epic in the U.K., raced to sign them. "Is any one of them a potential Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra? Probably not," he says. "Do they have the potential to be one of the world's biggest musical acts because what they do is compelling and has historical relevance? Absolutely." And they sing like angels: their powerful voices blend effortlessly to create harmonies rich with emotion.
That's one reason they're off to a remarkable start. Sony affiliates in 32 territories — including the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and largely Catholic nations like Brazil and the Philippines — have agreed to release their debut album. In an age of illegal downloading and music piracy, Sony is betting that the Priests are a financial godsend that should resonate with the world's 1.1 billion Catholics — and Raphael figures the devout might also be more likely to pay for music than steal it.
For the Priests, the decision to commit their talents to a commercial venture was hardly automatic. "I prayed very long and hard about it," says Delargy, who counts Tina Turner and Sting among his musical idols. Ultimately, Pope John Paul II's decree to spread the gospel in new ways inspired them to seize the chance. "Music has always been part of our lives and our missionary work," says Martin. "Now it's being expanded to a wider audience." As for the money, the trio will take home only a small percentage of the profits; the lion's share will support their parishes and charities that help retired priests.
From a management perspective, these men of the cloth present fewer challenges than high-maintenance newbies with legions of stylists and image consultants (not to mention debauched groupies). "Their brand isn't something that's been invented; it's been around for 2,000 years," says Samantha Wright, the group's manager. The Priests' first album, to be released in November, will include Catholic favorites like Ave Maria, O Holy Night and Panis Angelicus. Mike Hedges, a producer who has also worked with U2 and Welsh rock group Manic Street Preachers, won't be setting those tracks to a funky beat, but will be infusing them with piety: members from two Vatican choirs will record the accompaniment in St. Peter's Basilica. And the Priests aren't about to don sequined outfits. "We wouldn't be able to match Britney for bling," Eugene confesses.
Nor do the Priests intend to quit their day jobs. "Weddings, funerals, baptisms — all of these things must go on," says Delargy. To enshrine their priestly duties as a priority, their contract includes a clause freeing them from promotional events when parish duties call. They have also insisted their images not appear in promotional campaigns that seem to endorse behaviors that violate Church doctrine, such as abortion or premarital sex.
The Priests' lightheartedness and diplomatic skills have already seen them through potentially awkward situations. During their first shoot, photographer David Bailey showed them a painting of a crucified Jesus with the phrase "Was it worth it?" across the front. "He was very earthy," says Eugene. "He certainly got a lot of facial expressions out of us." With countless interviews ahead, they're now girding themselves for plenty more uncomfortable moments. If called upon to defend the church, says Eugene, he's ready to declare that "Priests are not pedophiles."
But the biggest challenge for the clergymen may be coping physically. Their liturgical calendar involves up to two Masses a day, visits to the infirm and serving as local school chaplains. It's easy to see why Delargy, slouched on a couch at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios, already complains of exhaustion. Yet they will only get busier. A British film team is shadowing them for a documentary airing this fall, and in September the group will record a concert at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Armagh, Northern Ireland, for future broadcast on public TV stations across the U.S. The promotional travel will be punishing, too. Wright, their manager, says: "They'll work as priests until the end of Tuesday, wake up early Wednesday, fly wherever, work all day Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, fly back that night and start priesting again Saturday. They think they're tired now; they might not know how tired they're going to be."
For now, at least, the Priests have faith that there is more than one way for them to glorify God. On a recent Saturday evening, after four days of recording in Dublin, Eugene drove three hours to his home in Ballyclare. Sometime after 10 p.m., he made final tweaks to the church newsletter before saying his prayers and going to bed. The next morning he delivered a sermon reminding parishioners that they must constantly nurture their relationship with the Lord. "As with any garden," he said, "if you don't tend to it, the weeds begin to take over." Good advice to those nurturing any vocation, from the recording studio to the pulpit.