My interest in liturgical music began during my time in the seminary, which coincided with the Second Vatican Council. The reform of the liturgy mandated a shift from Latin to the vernacular, and so we needed some liturgical music in English. Fr. Jerry Blackburn of the Archdiocese organized a group of seminarians to produce a series of musical settings for the Proper of the Mass (Introit, Offertory, Communion), the parts that changed from week to week. Each of us was assigned five Sundays. In my enthusiasm I also contributed a setting for the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). This was performed in the Cathedral, for the inauguration of the Archbishop. I think it went well, though being only a seminarian I was not invited to the Mass.
In my first assignment at Saint Columbkille parish in Dubuque, I wrote the Folkpsalms collection for the World Library of Sacred Music . The publisher wanted me to go on tour, but as I was second assistant in a parish, that was not really an option. Also during that time I composed the set of songs for Openings, which was conceived as a LP with liturgical songs on Side A and personal songs on Side B. “The Father Prayer” was an enduring item in this publication. The cover includes a drawing of the view from my window in the rectory.
My next assignment was at the Newman Center at UNI in Cedar Falls. There I continued the project of writing contemporary music for the psalms. It is then that I wrote the A Gathering of Psalms and Pilgrim Songs. The first is a loose collection of psalms that appear frequently in the liturgy. Again the effort was to produce a contemporary musical version.
The second is a project inspired by the book of Psalms itself, in its character as a collection of collections of sung Jewish prayers. Psalms 120-134 are subtitled “A Song of Ascents” in the Bible. They are thought to be songs sung on pilgrimage going up to the festivals in Jerusalem. I imagined them to be like songs sung on chartered buses traveling to special events, and tried to set them as such.
After my time at UNI, I was admitted to the scripture faculty of Aquinas Institute in Dubuque. At that time I had a liturgical folk music group for which I wrote a set of 30 plus response psalms. These, however, have not been published, since the refrains were rewritten versions of the songbook in the pews, and the publisher did not approve of my efforts.
In all of these efforts, the impulse was to respond to Vatican II’s call for liturgical music in our own native language and traditions. It was a time of excitement and enthusiasm, and I have a few tunes to show for it.