MUSIC AT ST MARY’S MISSION
Joseph Mansfield

A parish with an enlightened pastor, a nice pipe organ, a well educated director of music, a well trained choir, and lots of money can, if it so choose, have a great musical program.

But what about the small parish, the poor parish, the mission, with few if any musically trained people and few dollars to spare?  What sort of musical program can it have?  Must it settle for “Eagles’ wings” and a paraphrased Gloria accompanied by guitars, and those badly played?  Or is there some way it might hope for something better?  After all, in the United States, at least, far more parishes and missions approximate the latter description than the former.

I wish here to tell the story of the music program which I directed at St Mary’s, a rural mission in the southwest American desert.

*     *     *

St Mary’s mission serves a rural farming community and has about sixty active families.  Its pastor, Fr Raul, serves two parishes as well as the mission, and resides nearly an hour’s drive from the mission.  The mission has a noon mass on Sunday and adoration and an evening mass on Thursday.  A retired priest, friend of the pastor, generally helps out with Holy Week, making possible at least part of the Maundy Thursday and Good Friday liturgies.  As the St Mary’s community includes many Spanish speaking people, some of whom have no English, the Sunday liturgy usually includes the use of Spanish for one lesson, the eucharistic prayer, and perhaps a hymn.

Circumstances led to my residency in the area in 2000 and my search for a liturgically tolerable parish, which by early 2001 had turned up nothing.  In May of that year I happened to meet some neighbors who, I learned in the first conversation, were Wanderer readers.  That quickly led to discussion of churchmanship and their recommendation that I attend St Mary’s, a place I had overlooked until then.

I did visit St Mary’s and I was impressed by the young pastor and his reverent manner of celebration.  As for a music program, there was none.  The pastor had persuaded two or three choirs from his two parishes to take turns going to St Mary’s and singing at the Sunday mass.  But there was no group from the mission itself.

Now I had mentioned to my new friends that I had a bit of experience in parish music and might respond favorably to an invitation to build a program at St Mary’s.  They must have passed on my remarks to Fr Raul, for in a couple of weeks he approached me to discuss that very idea.

I took the discussion as an opportunity to outline what Fr Raul might expect of me should he offer me a position.  Specifically I said:

1)   That it would be my goal to sing the mass, rather than to sing songs at the mass.[1]

2)   That I would make extensive use of Latin, while continuing to use both Spanish and English.

I also made it clear that I had no credentials or education in music, the sum total of my training having consisted in two years of piano lessons and two summers of organ lessons when I was in high school.

Fr Raul accepted my terms and I accepted the position.  At the next Sunday mass he announced that a local choir was to be formed.  Ten people came forward, three men and seven women.  One of the ladies could read music and proved to be a pretty good cantrix.  Two of the people could not carry a tune.  The rest were somewhere in between.

Our instrumental resources included an out of tune piano and an electric keyboard.  A few months later the mercy of heaven bestowed upon us a Baldwin model C630T organ; it had been at one of Fr Raul’s parishes and was not in use.  The console conformed to the AGO standard and the specification included adequate (for an old electric organ) mutations and solo reeds but no mixtures.  In fact several registrations sounded surprisingly like a Möller organ the way they were voiced in the 1920s.

For office and practice space we were assigned a sweltering room about ten feet square equipped with a desk and a filing cabinet.  At mass, the inflexibility of the arrangement of the church required that we sit up front on the (liturgical) south side of the altar.  About a year later heaven smiled again.  In a remodeling of the building (which had not been built as a Catholic church), we acquired a new and spacious choir room, separated from the rear of the nave by a sliding partition: a marvellous convenient arrangement.

For the foundation of our program I turned to Sacrosanctum Concilium, interpreted in the light of Musicam sacram (1967) and De musica (1958), with the intention of implementing these documents as far as our ability allowed.  I studied the music documents of the American bishops and found nothing that seemed useful for our particular situation.

As a standard for selection of music I insisted that everything we used should be characterized by dignity, beauty, and reverence.

Enunciating a standard of performance was trickier because our abilities, mine as well as those of the singers, were limited.  I found comfort in Chesterton’s saying that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly.  I felt that a program carried out in conformity to the vision of Vatican II, in so far as possible, even if we could not achieve excellence of performance, was better than a program contrary to that vision, even if performed with excellence.  The only standard possible for us was to work hard and do our best.  In a humble spirit we took as our motto, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

We set up a weekly practice time and began practice about the first of July, 2001.  Practice time included some instruction in the documents that were our foundation.  Early in September we sang our first mass.

*     *     *

I wanted the very first word we sang to be Latin.  To this end I taught the choir to sing the antiphon Introibo ad altare Dei: ad Deum, qui lætificat juventutem meam to a simple melody I wrote, not too far removed from Anglican chant.  Between repetitions of the antiphon a cantor monotoned  Psalm 42 two verses at a time.  We used this as an entrance song for the first several weeks of our work.

We inherited the practice of singing four metrical hymns along with some of the ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus, and the memorial acclamation).  Aside from using Psalm 42 as mentioned, we initially continued singing these same elements.

Almost all the music we used was drawn from three sources:

1)   Flor y canto, Oregon Catholic’s Spanish hymnal, first edition.

2)   The Episcopalian Hymnal 1940.

3)   The Adoremus hymnal.

The ordinary of the mass was taken from Flor y canto.  I selected what seemed to me the most dignified and worthy settings of the movements we sang, within the limits of our performance ability.

Metrical hymns were selected from all three main sources, with most of them chosen from the Hymnal 1940.  I should have liked to select hymns appropriate to the proper of each Sunday.  But without a liturgical index such a task would have required much more time (and patience) than I had.  As an alternative in ordinary time, I resorted to one of those lists of monthly devotional themes that have circulated from time to time (e.g., July, month of the Precious Blood; October, month of the Rosary, etc.), and selected hymns appropriate to those themes.  But the hymn at communion time was always a communion hymn.  As a rule if a hymn was originally written in Latin, we sang it in Latin.[2]

When Advent rolled around, we added to our program the singing of responsorial psalms and alleluia verses.  We used both the Respond and acclaim and Responde y aclama put out by Oregon Catholic, with full choir singing the antiphon and alleluia and the cantrix singing the verses.  We used the Spanish version when possible; that is, when the verses of the responsorial were not too hard to learn in the limited practice time we had.  On the remaining occasions we used the English, where the psalm verses were always easy.

Likewise, in Advent and the other proper seasons, we used metrical hymns appropriate to the season or to the day.

For about a year we used the same Spanish ordinary all the time.  We alternated two settings of the Gloria and sang a single setting of each of the other movements.  With regret we used a paraphrased Gloria.  Our Spanish materials did not include a literal Gloria and I did not permit mixing of languages in the ordinary; these constraints left us nothing but paraphrased versions. 

In our second year we went over to a simple English ordinary in Advent.  We also went to Latin for Lent, using selections from masses XVI and XVIII in the Kyriale.  Also in Lent, at the pastor’s suggestion, we suspended singing of the responsorial psalm and the gospel acclamation, letting the lectors read these.  When we resumed these at Easter they seemed to have a renewed freshness.

Excepting the Latin ordinary in Lent, the Palm Sunday procession, the part of the Maundy Thursday liturgy after the Gloria, and the Good Friday liturgy, everything we sang was accompanied by the organ.  We simply did not have the skill to do without it.

With due regard for payment of copyright fees for what was not in the public domain, I made up ring binders for the choir, each containing all material for a day, month, or season, in the order it was to be sung.  Making copies and keeping the binders current involved considerable labor and it devolved upon me, as I had no one with both the ability and the will to act as librarian.  The alternative was for each singer to juggle a lot of books and papers.  My efforts paid a handsome return, as no singer ever got lost during the mass.

I also made up song sheets for the congregation, each sheet containing exactly what was to be sung for a month or for a proper season or day in the order it was to be sung.  The song sheets included translations of Latin materials, explanation of monthly devotional themes, and occasional comments on liturgical themes, provenance of hymns, etc.  We did not press the congregation to sing.  We gave them access to the material but let them choose their own mode of active participation[3] as they saw fit.

Exactly two years after my approach to St Mary’s circumstances caused my removal from the area and termination of my work at the mission.

At the time I left I had been teaching the choir to sing the little oration, “Oremus pro pontifice ....  Dominus conservet eum ....”  I was planning to try this little prayer in place of a closing hymn on most Sundays, since the proper provides nothing to cover the exit of the ministers nor to give a sense of (musical) conclusion to the people.

I had also just begun to explore what might be available for the singing of the proper introit, offertory, and communion verses, preferably in Latin.  I had intended to get a Graduale simplex (which I had never seen and still haven’t) and see if it were simplex enough for us to handle.  If not, or as an occasional alternative to it, I had in mind setting these propers to simple melodies such as I had done with Psalm 42 in the beginning.

Subsequent plans included teaching the pastor (who wished to learn) to sing the gospel and the preface to the Sanctus, and to teach pastor and people to sing the dialogues preceding these and other elements of the liturgy.

*     *     *

The single largest problem I faced in implementing the program I have described was the resistance of the people, some of the people, some outspoken people, who frankly preferred “Eagles’ wings”, “Hosea”, gospel soft rock, and other toxic substances to the wholesome meat of organ, chant, and theologically and liturgically sound texts, and who suffered severe withdrawal pains when their drugs were taken away cold turkey.

The single greatest asset I had, the sine qua non of our program, was a pastor who, though hemmed about by contrary forces, favored the musical and liturgical implementation of the Council and gave me a pretty free hand on the musical side of it.

As director of music, I reserved all decisions regarding music to myself.  I always listened to all who wished to comment on any matter, and occasionally accepted suggestions.[4]  But the decisions were mine.  Without the free hand given me by my pastor, I could not have managed the choir successfully nor developed the program I did.  Nor could the program have survived plebiscitary democracy in choir or congregation.

*     *     *

On Maundy Thursday of 2003 our liturgy was celebrated by Fr Raul’s elderly friend, who in his young days had celebrated the tridentine mass.  At the procession to the altar of repose we sang the Pange lingua to the customary gregorian tone but using English words, the singers having had some trouble with the Latin.  When our celebrant placed the sacrament on the altar we began the Tantum ergo in Latin, using the familiar “St Thomas” tune.  All the people knew this, the pastor having used it for years at Thursday adoration, and all joined in.  And our saintly old celebrant fell on his knees weeping, and wept for the duration of the hymn and some time after.

If the joy on that man’s face had been the only reward I got for two years of labor and trial, it would have been sufficient for me.

[1] Having, as I do, little access to scholarly resources, I was at the time unaware that by happy accident I had used almost the very words of Pope St Pius X.

[2] I note in passing that most of my singers could speak Spanish, and therefore had little difficulty with Latin pronunciation.

[3] In harmony with De musica, I understood participatio actuosa to be primarily interior, and to be fulfilled as much by listening to music as by listening to a lesson or homily.

[4] I even went so far, in the second year, as to let the people ingest “Hosea” and a couple of other brain-rusters in Lent.  I reasoned that (1) some folks were about to go into convulsions if they didn’t get just a little fix and (2) as it was Lent it was a good time for me to suffer and offer it up.

This article was published in Sacred Music, the journal of the Church Music Association, in the Summer 2005 issue, vol. 132 no. 2.  The published version is at this link.

This article is available on the web at http://grandboy.net/music_en.htm or in Spanish at http://grandboy.net/music_es.htm.   The author gratefully acknowledges the help of Dr Lilvia Soto in producing the translation.

© 2004 Joseph Mansfield

The published version of this essay carried this biographical note: Joseph Mansfield is an amateur organist who played his first service at age 14 in a Baptist church.  He served various churches in 27 years as a high Anglican and entered the Roman Catholic Church in 1989.  He took B.A. and M.Ed. degrees in psychology, then made a career in computer programming.  He retired to a small village in Mexico in 2003.



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