Sing a New Song
At its annual convention in the year 2000, the National Association of Pastoral Ministers celebrated both its 25th anniversary and the retirement of its founder, the Rev. Virgil Funk. The occasion was marked with a special evening of songs by composers instrumental in the development of liturgical music since the Second Vatican Council. It was a fitting commemoration for Funk, longtime champion for popular, well-crafted liturgical music in the Catholic Church in the United States.
At the very end of the evening, an announcement was made. “There are four men here who have not sung together in 15 years.” An audible gasp sounded in the room as one by one, four middle-aged men took to the stage. The announcer continued: “The St. Louis Jesuits.” As one, the audience leapt to its feet. The musicians began: “Awake from your slumber....”
You may never have heard of the five men known collectively as the St. Louis Jesuits. But if you’ve been to a Mass in the last 30 years, you have definitely sung their music. Songs like “City of God,” “Earthen Vessels,” “Be Not Afraid,” “This Alone,” and “Lift Up Your Hearts” have become staples of contemporary liturgy and American culture. Music of the St. Louis Jesuits was sung at President Ronald Reagan’s funeral and at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration. A song of theirs has been heard on “The West Wing”; Susan Sarandon sang another to death row inmate Sean Penn in “Dead Man Walking.” The British Catholic journal The Tablet recently surveyed its readers as to the most popular hymn of all time. The winner was “Here I Am, Lord,” a song composed by one of the St. Louis Jesuits.
John Foley, Bob Dufford, Dan Schutte, Tim Manion and Robert “Roc” O’Connor: Many of the songs on their first album were recorded in a church basement or someone’s dorm room. On some songs you can hear a refrigerator door clicking shut in the background when the room’s occupants go for a drink. Together these five men revolutionized American Catholic liturgical music.
The Next One
As a young man, John Foley once had the chance to ask Jackie Gleason’s arranger how to compose songs. The arranger replied: “You want to learn how to write songs? Write 100 of them. Write 100 of them and don’t look back. When you find out what’s wrong with the one you just wrote, correct it in the next one.”
Liturgical music in the 1960’s was a funny hodgepodge of old and new. Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” had paved the way for dramatic changes, allowing the use of the vernacular in liturgy and calling again and again for the “the full, conscious and active participation” of the people. With earnestness and great enthusiasm, liturgy in the United States shifted almost overnight into English. Yet appropriate music was not immediately available; choirs had to make due with translations of Latin chants and sometimes ill-fitting Protestant hymns.
But this was the 1960’s; rock-and-roll and folk music were thriving. Liturgical composers quickly attempted to adapt these styles—it was a mixed blessing. “They were songs that got people to sing,” says Judith Kubicki, C.S.S.F., assistant professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at Fordham University. The music had heart and infectious, pop-style melodies. Yet focused primarily on the community gathered together, it flirted with a sort of narcissism. “Here we are,/ All together as we sing our song...”; “Sons of God, hear his holy word, gather round.” And compositionally, it was highly simplistic. “That was the moment we were in,” acknowledges Kubicki. “Everyone was picking up a guitar and teaching themselves to play. And so the music was simple, because the people doing it were amateurs. Some pieces of music were almost like camp songs.”
It was in this era that the men who would become known as the St. Louis Jesuits were growing up and training for priesthood. Bob Dufford had entered the Society of Jesus in August 1961. He loved music: “My folks had a hi-fi set. When I was a kid, I’d play records, listen to ‘My Fair Lady,’ Tchaikovsky or whatever, and imagine myself conducting the orchestra.” His dad performed with a quartet throughout the Midwest; Bob himself sang in the choir.
One day, another Jesuit arrived at rehearsal with an original song and a guitar. Seeing that guitar, Dufford thought, “There goes the neighborhood.” That Jesuit was John Foley.
As a student at Regis College in Denver, Foley used to break into school buildings at night to compose music. He had been studying piano from the time he was 5 years old. Entering the Jesuits led to unexpected changes: “There was a piano in the basement underneath the church, but we had to get permission to use it, and I could get permission maybe once a month. I’d been practicing the piano like six hours a day before I entered, and suddenly nothing.” Frustrated with the arrangement, he asked his fellow novices to show him how to play some chords on the guitar. The move would be providential, as the council soon after opened the door to the use of new instruments, including the guitar, in the liturgy.
Once they started singing, Dufford was surprised to find he appreciated Foley’s song. “You played through it and you sang it, and I thought, ‘This is not what I was expecting.’” Inspired, he began to write music of his own.
Roc O’Connor had always wanted to be a drummer. His parents had different ideas. “We were a family with a ton of kids and a small house. So my parents decided they weren’t going to get me drums.” They got him a guitar instead. Upon entering the Jesuits in 1967, O’Connor met a whole group of young men eager, like himself, to play, sing and learn more chords, new styles. They planned the music for liturgies; they also organized a rock-and-roll band: Mogen David and the Grapes of Wrath.
Among these men was a second year novice from Milwaukee, Wis., named Dan Schutte. If O’Connor’s hero was The Who’s Pete Townsend, Schutte’s were Peter, Paul and Mary, and Simon and Garfunkel. In high school he had been “one of the geeks in the band.” He played clarinet, saxophone and later guitar. As a novice he and a Jesuit classmate used to sneak down to a basement trunk room, where the walls were thick, to practice, write songs and critique one another.
Visiting the novitiate at this time, Dufford was shocked; they were playing his songs and the songs of Foley. He had no idea that their compositions had been circulating. In fact, their music was stimulating the compositions of the novices. Schutte remembers, “Their stuff was singable and scriptural and it reached your heart in way that was more than the sentimental group stuff that was being produced.” While he was there, Dufford wrote them an Easter Alleluia.
Jesuit formation takes a long time. A man entering the Society of Jesus today at age 23 might not be ordained until he is 34 or 35. Two years of initial study and experience as a Jesuit lead to first vows, by which the man makes a permanent commitment of poverty, chastity and obedience. This is followed by years of additional study of philosophy, full-time work for several years in a Jesuit apostolate and then a return to the books for three years of theological study—all before ordination. As some wags have noted, by the time a Jesuit is ordained he has seen enough to write a play, learned enough to run a school and old enough to retire.
In the 1950’s and 60’s Jesuits generally entered young, most often right out of high school. They left their families and homes to move into large-scale, old-fashioned religious communities set apart from the hubbub and spectacle of the world. Latin was the lingua franca, cassocks the haute couture and “in common” the modus operandi.
After his two years of novitiate, vows and two additional years studying the humanities, Schutte moved in 1970 to the Fusz Memorial Jesuit Community at St. Louis University to study philosophy. O’Connor came soon after, as did a young Jesuit from St. Louis named Tim Manion. Manion had started playing bass and guitar for Mass as a high school student. “We had this very cool Mass at midnight on Saturday nights. People went on dates and then came to the midnight Mass.” His director of novices was a musician as well. “He used to sit and play piano, sing ‘Foggy Day in London Town’ and ‘Danny Boy.’ He encouraged music among us.”
Dufford and Foley had long since finished philosophy, but they, too, were stationed in St. Louis, studying theology in preparation for ordination. Both had continued to compose music, but things had changed. Foley had grown tired of being the point man for Jesuit liturgy: “I was the only one doing it. I had to play all the Masses, and it was too much.” After years of work in the field, he had largely given up the genre and was now producing a folk album, “Ways to Get Through,” with a fellow Jesuit theology student, John Kavanaugh. For his part, Dufford saw himself headed toward an advanced degree in mathematics. Music was consequently diminishing in importance.
At Fusz, though, something was happening. The Masses there were well known for their great preaching. Now Schutte, Manion, O’Connor and others were organizing, playing and writing music for them as well. The combination began to draw attention, and crowds. “On a Sunday, we would totally fill the church,” remembers Schutte. “They’d be spilling into the side chapels along the back and up into the choir loft.... My last two years there we had to give out tickets for the Easter triduum, because the fire department was upset and had put limits on how many people we could have in there.”
Dufford soon joined the group. Foley, too, grew intrigued. It seemed that everyone who came to Mass at Fusz wanted copies of what they heard. Dufford remembers, “We’d go back to the file cabinet to get more copies to hand out, and they were all gone.”
Making duplicates was no easy matter. These were the days before Xerox; mass production involved carbon paper and a Ditto machine. From one master copy, Schutte remembers, “you’d probably get 35 to 50 copies.” For a congregation of 200 to 300, each piece had to be rewritten four to eight times to make enough masters. The more people liked a song, the more copies taken, the more times it had to be written out again for the next rehearsal and the next Mass. The recopying was endless and the ink stains seemingly permanent.
Out of that “purple poop,” as they called it, the St. Louis Jesuits were born. The constant, mindless rewriting led to the question, why not publish this music and be done with the busy work? In 1973 timing called forth action. Many of the men involved were completing their studies and would soon move to new places and apostolic assignments. It was now or never.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1973 Schutte set out to write a fresh master of every song the men had composed. Recordings were undertaken as well. “Nobody was putting metronome markings on songs, so you had no idea how fast or slow to take it,” Dufford explained. Gary Daigle, of the contemporaneous liturgical group the Dameans, remembers: “Their music was published as a melody, guitar chords and a word—‘gently,’ ‘steadily.’ A trained musician asks, what is this music telling me? They made those recordings as demos to say: ‘This is how we heard it.’”
It was a mammoth and sometimes arduous undertaking that produced in the end a staggering 57 songs written by six different composers and performed by the singers and musicians of the Fusz liturgies. Almost half were recorded in a dorm room, the Fusz chapel or the Fusz basement during that spring and summer. As the group ran out of time, the final 35 pieces were recorded over the course of six days in a marathon session at a studio. Each song received roughly five minutes of attention.
Originally, the group envisioned the project as something the Society of Jesus itself could distribute upon request. Foley, however, had been approached previously by a small liturgical publisher, North American Liturgy Resources. Initially uncertain—says Foley, “Perhaps it was excessive naïveté, but we just wanted to have something to give out”—they eventually agreed. “Neither Silver Nor Gold” came out in 1974 as a four-album set with a price tag of $18. Its cover quoted from the Acts of the Apostles: “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have, I offer to you” (3:6). Regarding the composers, it said simply, “Liturgical Music of St. Louis Jesuits.”
Finding, Being Found
“When you think of the whole notion of providence in this whole deal, it is more than remarkable,” remembers O’Connor. “It wasn’t like we were trying to create a revolution. We were just doing this stuff. We went to Mass every day, and other songs wore out pretty quickly. There was a sense that there was a need for more music for more occasions for the Mass. That’s what called it forth.
On the one hand we found our way, on the other hand we were found.”
At a time when records generally sold for $5, a four-album set of liturgical music, recorded both quickly and poorly, did not seem poised to sell well at $18. But demand was strong. It was also international. St. Louis University was home to the Institute for Religious Formation, an international training center for spiritual directors. Active church ministers came from all over the world to study there. And for their daily and weekend liturgies, these students went to Fusz, providing the young Jesuits with an open-minded, enthusiastic forum in which to try new things. They were also an unforeseen market. When I.R.F. students completed their programs, they took home with them not only diplomas but also sheaves of dittos. And thus what was happening in St. Louis slowly was becoming known around the world.
Ray Bruno of N.A.L.R. asked the group to record another album. It was an unexpected request; new assignments had spread the many people involved literally all over the country. “Neither Silver Nor Gold” had been envisioned as an ending, the culmination of three years spent working together. Furthermore, the idea of doing a studio album was unsettling. “This was music for the people,” Foley recalls. “The people playing guitars were younger. We felt if they heard something highly professional, they would say, ‘We could never do that,’ and it would discourage them.” Dufford concurs: “We were not unprofessional, but we didn’t want the sound to be something high above the people who were going to perform it.”
On the other hand, they did have new songs to record. Jesuit superiors had invited some of the men involved with “Neither Silver Nor Gold” to spend a summer learning more about music. In the end, four had agreed: Foley, Dufford, Schutte and O’Connor. They were joined by Manion, who had left the Jesuits but continued to sing and compose with them. “It was a central moment,” remembers Manion. “It was the first time that we acknowledged to ourselves and to each other that we were trying to do something together that was more than a bunch of guys hanging out and working on this Mass ritual program.”
The 12-song album that emerged was called “Earthen Vessels.” Like the previous set, it included material that varied in sound and theme from gentle invitation, in compositions like “Be Not Afraid” and “Turn To Me,” to the passionate yearning of “Seek the Lord” and the joyful confidence of “Though the Mountains May Fall.” The material also varied in structure, allowing for a variety of liturgical uses. Many songs offered the interchange of soloist and group refrain ideal for the responsorial psalm. “Praise the Lord My Soul” had a rising, repeated melody clearly intended for the community as a whole. Still other material, including “My Son Has Gone Away,” was so personal in voice and tone as to suggest performance by a soloist after Communion, while the community quietly prayed.
“Earthen Vessels” became and remains one of the top-selling Catholic albums of all time. Like “Neither Silver Nor Gold,” the record bore the imprint “Music from St. Louis Jesuits.” But Dufford remembers, “We learned from Ray Bruno, we were now called the St. Louis Jesuits.”
Coming: Part II—Critical Acclaim, Endings, the Legacy