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.
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.