Documentary short on African-American Catholic music culture

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This past winter break, I had the chance to travel to Mississippi on a research stipend through the Hurford Center in order to film a short documentary on African-American Catholic music culture in the Deep South. During the filming, I collaborated with film students from The University of Mississippi, and throughout the editing process I will be working with Brandon Kelly ’15. A screening of the film will take place on Haverford’s campus later this semester.

Martin Luther King once made the penetrating observation “that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” Unfortunately, this remark remains true today in Mississippi. Segregation in church has continued for the most part, despite increasing integration in other institutions. A consequence of this fact has been the formation of a distinct African-American gospel music, separate from white, European church music. Just as churches have often been segregated, religious music styles and philosophies have traditionally been divided by race. However, African-American Catholic church music may not be understood based on these conventional parameters about race and tradition.

Before the Second Vatican Council, all Catholic churches were limited in their freedom of musical expression during the Mass. For example, the use of any percussion instruments (including piano) was prohibited. In addition, it was required that the Mass be said in Latin. These constraints created a uniformity to religious Catholic worship that crossed both national and racial borders. No matter where you walked into a Mass, it would theoretically be the same. After the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, this all changed. The Vatican lifted restrictions and Catholic churches could now use their own language during the Mass and explore a newfound musical freedom. Churches across the world were afforded the opportunity to craft unique musical identities based on their own musical standards, rather than those laid out by the Vatican. This raises the question: how did churches react to this new freedom? This question is particularly pressing for churches from non-European communities with musical cultures much different than those formerly required in the Mass.

Before I began filming, when people asked me what the project was about, I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond. I started out with a lot of questions but no specific answers. I interviewed people who had grown up in and worked with Holy Child Jesus Church, a black Catholic church in Canton, MS. I also had the privilege of recording their choir to see how their music culture exists today. Holy Child Jesus is especially significant as it is the home parish of Sister Thea Bowman, a well-known and influential figure in the African American Catholic community. I was especially interested to speak with older church members who could comment firsthand about their interactions with Sister Bowman and their experience with the changes that occurred as a result of the Second Vatican Council.

I spoke with Father Joseph Dyer, a former priest at Holy Child Jesus, who noted that during the Second Vatican Council, “church leaders realized that communities should be able to worship in their own musical traditions. They didn’t need to be told what music to use.” He pointed out how the vibrancy and spontaneity of the music at Holy Child Jesus allowed the service to become much more meaningful for parish members. “Grammar alone isn’t sufficient to talk to God. We have to have music and art and ritual and dance. I can’t imagine worship without music. It’s the only way to say some things.” This idea of divine communication through music connects directly to the importance of switching the Mass from Latin. Music is often discussed as a universal language, but these musical shifts that occurred after the Second Vatican Council illustrate how this idea is incorrect. The ability for a parish to use their own musical traditions was just as important as their ability to say the Mass in their native language. Meaning gets lost in the translation of musical cultures just as it does in language.

Sister Thea Bowman was a major proponent of change in the liturgical music while working at Holy Child Jesus. Myrtle Otto, a former choir director at Holy Child Jesus, commented that Sister Bowman “wanted the black Catholics to sing and praise God in their own heritage. She would explain to us how black gospel got started with people singing in the cotton fields. She wanted things to change. Not just for us. She wanted every culture to sing songs in their tradition. It makes it better for the church and the Mass.”

Otto pointed out that these changes didn’t come about easily. Drastically changing the music in the Mass sparked kickback from some church members and leaders at Holy Child Jesus. “At first we were just singing the old Gothic songs that father and the sisters wanted us to sing. We weren’t allowed to clap our hands and say amen. We were very solemn. But after [Sister Bowman] got there, she took me aside one Sunday and said, ‘Get up and dance around and praise the Lord!’ and I said, ‘Oh Lord, they gonna throw me out of here.’ For a long time we were scared to say anything.” Otto felt that although the changes took some time to settle in, the new freedom was very meaningful for most in the church. “Music was really important for us during the Civil Rights Movement, and it was great to gain this freedom at church in the Mass. We were able to sing tunes that had a lot of meaning for us and it felt great.”

An important distinction that everyone I spoke to made about the story of Holy Child Jesus was that musical freedom isn’t just important for African Americans, it’s important for all different races and cultures. When I asked Otto what different religious communities could learn from Holy Child Jesus and Sister Bowman, she said, “I think they can learn that it’s okay to be yourself. Don’t be afraid.”

–Andrew Burke ’14

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