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Kerry WeberSeptember 30, 2019
The St. Louis Jesuits come home for a farewell performance. Photo by Don Doll, S.J.

Of the 2,678 people with tickets for the sold-out final concert by the St. Louis Jesuits, it is likely that Donna Benton is the only one who brought along the program from her wedding Mass. Standing in the midst of the cream-and-gold walls and red velvet curtains of Powell Hall in St. Louis, she pointed to the pink text spelling out the name of the hymn she walked down the aisle to on Dec. 20, 1980: “Emanuel,” by Tim Manion, who, along with Dan Schutte, Robert O’Connor, S.J. (known as Roc), Bob Dufford, S.J., and John Foley, S.J., revolutionized liturgical music in the early 1970s.

Ms. Benton says her husband, Doug, who recently died, loved to play the songs of the St. Louis Jesuits. She tears up remembering the way the music always pointed the couple to something larger than themselves. “‘Emanuel, God With Us,’ was the theme not just of our wedding, but our marriage and our lives,” Ms. Benton said, adding she was thrilled that “Emanuel” is on the setlist for the show.

[See what America readers chose as the greatest hymns of all time.]

At 3 p.m. on Sept. 29, the five men took the stage as the St. Louis Jesuits for the last time and, after being met with a standing ovation, gave a three-hour performance billed as the official conclusion to a collaboration that began nearly 50 years earlier, while they were Jesuit scholastics in St. Louis. The group’s accessible and original music, now collected on 35 albums, became a catalyst for many a guitar Mass and remains a Sunday staple in many parishes.

“Someone once said to me that the St. Louis Jesuits wrote the spiritual soundtrack to our lives,” said John Limb, former publisher of Oregon Catholic Press, the publisher of the St. Louis Jesuits. “For those of us of a certain age, that was true.”

“Someone once said to me that the St. Louis Jesuits wrote the spiritual soundtrack to our lives,” said John Limb, former publisher of Oregon Catholic Press. “For those of us of a certain age, that was true.”

The concert, called Coming Home: A Final Celebration, was a return of sorts, not just for the musicians, but for their fans. One group of women religious, former women religious and former Jesuits—all students at St. Louis University in the late 1960s—reunited in the lobby of the theater to laugh and reminisce. They had attended Mass together at St. Francis Xavier College Church in the Chapel of Our Lady on the church’s lower level, where the St. Louis Jesuits began their career and where these friends had been a part of the phenomenon from the start.

“[The St. Louis Jesuits] started writing much more rich and serious music,” Greg Christoffer said, adding that he still has the original “ditto masters” used to first distribute the group’s music.

“It was controversial to use guitar and piano,” said John Niemann, who came from Denver with a friend, Carol Lewis, for the show. “It took time, but they became a real changing force in the church.”

“I had to come just for the memories,” Ms. Lewis added. “[The St. Louis Jesuits] made a difference. They made the church so much more relevant to those of us who were young at the time.”

“They were articulating our greatest hopes of Vatican II,” said Sister Barbara Franklin, a member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ who traveled from Redbud, Ill. “I think they also made us more aware of what Catholic social teaching was with their music. They reminded us to remember other people.”

While so-called Vatican II Catholics made up the majority of the crowd, there were some enthusiastic faces from younger generations, as well.

Jennifer Cashin came from Northwood, Ohio, with her daughter Abigail, 17, and Adam, 15, to attend the concert. Ms. Cashin and her daughter are both in the choir at their parish, and their entire family shares a love of the St. Louis Jesuits. “We find great comfort in their music,” Abigail said, adding that it reminds her that “the Lord’s love is everlasting and he will always be there for us.”

The family has delved deep into the group’s catalogue. “They’re always on in our house or car or…,” Cashin said. “Everywhere!” Abigail said, finishing the sentence.

The concert began with spirited versions of “Lift Up Your Hearts” and “City of God,” with the audience joyfully singing along. “Let me just say: ‘Wow,’” Father O’Connor said, visibly energized by the moment. He then offered a prayer of thanks and praise of the Holy Spirit to officially begin the show.

“Your singing to us today will be one of the greatest gifts of our lives,” Dan Schutte said. “This is as much a celebration of the people as it is of the music.”

The concert was the brainchild of Father O’Connor, who said he had hoped it would help provide an “intentional transition” as the group’s members grew older. The underlying theme of the show was gratitude—much of it directed toward all who collaborated with the St. Louis Jesuits and supported them along the way, including the late John Kavanaugh, S.J., and especially the people in the pews, those who have kept the music alive in parishes for decades.

The crowd was given the music and lyrics and encouraged to sing along. “Your singing to us today will be one of the greatest gifts of our lives,” Mr. Schutte said. “This is as much a celebration of the people as it is of the music.”

The St. Louis Jesuits offered short reflections between songs, joked with each other and placed the occasional supportive hand on one another’s shoulders. They also recalled the inspiration for several songs, some born of private, personal struggle and others a bit more straightforward.

Father Dufford told how “Sing to the Mountains, Sing to the Seas” was prompted by a drive up California’s Pacific Coast Highway: “There were the mountains; there were the seas!” Even tiny mishaps—a misplaced capo, a forgotten verse, a pause to tune a guitar—made the afternoon feel richer for the camaraderie they produced on stage.

For all the memories it prompted, the concert was not intended simply as a look back. Before the final song, Mr. Manion reflected on the divisions and tensions in our country today and asked, “Are we just here to be nostalgic or does this music still call us to…?” He stopped, overcome by emotion.

As if on cue, the crowd began to applaud and answered enthusiastically, “Yes!”

Correction: Oct. 10, 2019: This article previously misstated the number of attendees at the concert. There were 2,678, not 2,422.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Todd Witherell
4 years 6 months ago

Saturday Night at the Springsteen show ("She's the One!")
And Sunday morning singing this: Yes!

I the Lord of Wind and Rain
I have borne my people's pain
I have wept for love of them
They turn away

I will break their hearts of stone
Give them hearts for love alone
I will speak my Word to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the Night
I will go, Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your creatures in my heart

Reyanna Rice
4 years 6 months ago

Great article! Wish I could have been there! I hope the concert will come up for live-streaming.

Sha'Pearl Jones
4 years 6 months ago

I'm in the generation that came after the St. Louis Jesuits. I grew up in a traditional suburban parish. We sang a blend of old traditional hymns and so of the STL Jesuits songs. While our parents liked the more modern hymns, my siblings and I never much cared for them. The timeless traditional hymns still resonate.

Sha'Pearl Jones
4 years 6 months ago

I'm in the generation that came after the St. Louis Jesuits. I grew up in a traditional suburban parish. We sang a blend of old traditional hymns and so of the STL Jesuits songs. While our parents liked the more modern hymns, my siblings and I never much cared for them. The timeless traditional hymns still resonate.

Phil Lawless
4 years 6 months ago

They all must be as old as me, which means nothing, for the music has kept me young and hopeful. We formed a folk group from amateurs in 1972, when we were starved for music to sing. The SLJ provided continuous resources for us, though i am not proud to say we plagiarized much in the early days. We had little experience in the justice involved. Nonetheless, the American church would not be where it is today without their influence.

Mary Kay Horan
4 years 6 months ago

I was so lucky to be there yesterday. I didn’t realize I should have brought Kleenex. It was moving and joyful. Then tonight at choir practice four songs from various members of the St. Louis Jesuits were a part of our repertoire. Their music will live forever.

Craig B. Mckee
4 years 6 months ago

I was lucky enough to be at the Institute of Pastoral Studies when then-director, Fr. Jerry O'Leary, who always had an eye for new talent, brought the SLJ to Loyola/Chicago for a summer concert
50 years later, their music became a hallmark of my journey with my younger sister, Kathleen, as she battled with cancer. On her way to hospice, she told me she was "leaving" and she was just "a little afraid," at which point I tearfully accompanied her to the transport with the strains of "Be Not Afraid."
For this and so many other moments share during her two year ordeal, I will always be grateful to the SLJs.

4 years 6 months ago

Impertinent question: how many of the St. Louis Jesuits are still .... Jesuits?

Christopher Minch
4 years 6 months ago

Was there a troll-like smirk somewhere in you as you wrote this down?--by being daringly "impertinent"? What do you gain, John by being insincerely curious because you can surely look this up yourself? Doesn't really make a difference if all or some or none of them are still Jesuits does it to you? It doesn't to me. I really liked many of their hymns but not all. Or do you just get bored and wish to belittle people here or this group and their spiritual thoughts and feelings which isn't really very christian is it?

Joan Roccasalvo
4 years 6 months ago

As a graduate student of musicology at NYU in the late '60s, I had the privilege of taking a course in Medieval music and a separate course in Renaissance music, both with the renowned Gustave Reese, a Jew who loved the pre-Vatican II liturgical music of the Church. At my first class with him (there were at least 20 of us), he flung off his glasses and addressed me: 'Sister, what have you done to your music! Don't you know that the insertion of the guitar into the Church's liturgy has been the most noticeable and consequential change of Vatican II? The Catholic Church no longer owns its pre-eminent gold crown of liturgical music.' Your music is no longer beautiful.' I have never forgotten that moment as I took a hit for the Church from an international figure in the world of musicology. We have banished the exalted sound of the organ, queen of the instruments that accompanied those courageous and enduring texts.

J Rabaza
4 years 6 months ago

Sr Joan, The organ has not been banished. The genre of music of which SLJ pertains produced innumerable trained parish music group directors like myself, vocalists, soloist players, guitarists, harpists, flautists, music liturgy groups, and brought lay Catholics closer to Christ by giving them opportunities to share their diverse musical talents, as well as access to lay ministry. The majestic and powerful organ, in a choir loft elevated way in the back of the church, is still there for those who know how to play it well for the few parishes who have the thousands and thousands of dollars to replace its outdated technology. At our cavernous cathedral our very young and talented music director refuses to allow any SLJ or similar type music but works earnestly to play a broken pipe organ of > 100 years that is working at less than 50% with 5 choir members who can not be heard from the choir loft hidden from the congregation. Our liturgies lack music that stirs the soul even if the music director insists on being a renowned musician....in his mind.

Joan Roccasalvo
4 years 6 months ago

No one should play a broken-down organ. No amateur should play an instrument at liturgical services. In most of this discussion about the impact of the St. Louis Jesuits, I think we have forgotten the word quality. Why is it that when we purchase clothing, electronics, cars, homes, one of the first words we consider is that of quality. We don't ask that question when it comes to church music. It 's almost always how it makes one feel; the subjective aspect. Does anyone ask about the quality of the melody, the rhythms, whether they are singable. Much of the music of the St.Louis Jesuits, when sung according to the notation, is unsingable because there are too many rests in between phrases; the rhythms are often double-dotted. Vatican II brought about the demise of poor hymns that had been sung for years. Vatican II and the banishment of chant and later of the organ (yes! ) necessitated music composed in a hurry. Enter the St. Louis Jesuits, most of whom did not know how to read or notate music. Their music fit the bill because in the '60's, "Michael, Row your Boat Ashore" and "Kumbaya" had become popular. The St. Louis Jesuits were in good company. One Jesuit Provincial ordered a young Jesuit to compose music for the guitar using scriptural texts. He came to me asking how he should start to compose. Father John Foley was the only Jesuit who knew music in the '60's. Ask yourself: ' What is the quality of the music I play at, in, and during the liturgy?'

J Rabaza
4 years 6 months ago

I am a trained classical pianist and vocalist who was recruited to play guitar in college, self-taught, back in the 1970s. “Glory and Praise”, all three volumes, were how I learned guitar and used to lead a liturgy music group at a jesuit college. The Jesuits offered numerous liturgies throughout campus where grand instruments were not possible (e.g. dormitories) but guitars and flutes did superbly. Forty years later I still weep when listening to Fr John Foley, SJ, “Redeemer Lord” and recall how my humble college liturgy group tried in honest to be instruments of the Holy Spirit. Grace builds upon grace.

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