Music at St. Michael’s Monastery and Parish, Union City, New Jersey (1967-2005)

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by Joseph A. Neglia

Introduction by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Editor

About two months ago I asked Joe Neglia write a composition. He was surprised to learn, being a musician, that I wanted a reflective historical essay—not a musical score. He patiently listened as I told him how The Passionist Heritage Newsletter had received an article by Father Xavier Hayes, C.P. on nineteenth century Passionist music ministry. I proceeded to tell Joe that I thought his years as a music director in Union City offered readers an historical link to Father Lawrence Moeslein, C.P. Without hesitation his eyes came alive and he talked about music in Union City faster than a ragtime musician plays the piano.

His article is more than a trip down memory lane. It is a powerful reminder that Passionist music ministry—like any Passionist ministry—creates a culture of experience. In this case the experience of Joe Neglia at St. Michael’s Monastery Parish mirrors the life of any church choir. Music directors, pastors and staff, choir members, and parishioners or retreatants in a retreat house all need to share their multiple talents for a music ministry to endure over time. This process is obvious in Joe’s essay. We at the Passionist Historical Archives hope that it leads many parish or retreat organizations to write their own reflective historical essays for future preservation.

Presently, Joseph A. Neglia is Director of Music at Sts. Joseph & Michael Church in Union City, New Jersey and Director of Activities and Chair of the Fine and Performing Arts Department at Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, New Jersey —Editor

St. Michael’s Monastery Church in Union City, New Jersey has been, in many ways, the seat of many good things in my life. I began work in that parish monastery church on Christmas day 1967. The parish was staffed by the Passionist congregation.

At that time I was a sophomore in high school. My thoughts and beliefs were all over the place. The more time I spent working at the parish, the more the Passionists really helped to make me think about different aspects of my life. The Passionists encouraged me to take part in their various youth programs and Encounters. These programs were held at other Passionist locations such as their youth retreat house at Shelter Island, New York and the retreat house at Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and other sites as well. I began to meet different priests. Early on, the influence of priests like Fr. Joe Jones, C.P. was so important to my formation as a young person.

Let me go back to how I began to work at the monastery parish. It is important to confess that I was a young hotshot organist who, as a teenager, had subbed at St. Benedict’s abbey in Newark, New Jersey. I also subbed for 6 weeks at St. Aidan’s Pro-Cathedral in Jersey City, New Jersey. I even worked for one year as organist at St. Joseph’s Church in Jersey City. In this time period my father, Joe Neglia, Sr. was the bass soloist with St. Michael’s Monastery parish church choir in Union City. Back in those days—the early 1960s—there were three or four professional singers in the all male parish monastery choir. The choirmaster/organist was a man by the name of Mr. Jim Burns. He was in the line of fine musicians that had worked at St. Michael’s Monastery parish for years. My understanding is that Mr. J. Vincent O’Donald was choirmaster for over twenty-five years. He was followed for a short period by Mr. Emmanuel Lehmans. Father Alfred Weaver, C.P., as the pastor of St. Michael’s Monastery parish, had hired Mr. Burns who brought with him some musicians he had worked with before. As I said, this was when my father began. Mr. Burns was a fine musician but a very difficult person to work with, especially for any pastor. During his tenure as choirmaster Mr. Burns developed kidney stones and needed to be hospitalized. Father Weaver asked my dad to take over on an interim basis until Mr. Burns returned. My dad was a fine musician but not much of an organist. Consequently, he asked me if I would be willing to help out. We are Sicilian. I say this because even though I was asked I really did not have a choice. Someone covered for me at St. Joseph’s in Jersey City and I went to “help out” at the St. Michael’s Monastery parish.

When I saw the inside of the church my eyes nearly came out of my head. The acoustics, the choir, the opportunity to be involved in great church music was fantastic. I went from playing the basic four hymns at Mass to being involved in honest to God musical celebrations. I do not mean to infer that the music was more important than the Mass, but it was clearly highly valued. The parish staff treated me wonderfully as did the entire Passionist religious community. A large number of Passionists lived together at the monastery complex of buildings on West Street in Union City. St. Michael’s could be the monastery of Passionists or the parish or both.

In any case, I want to speak of a priest that I continue to hold in high esteem. Father Kenneth Walsh, C.P. is truly one of the finest men I have ever had the privilege to work with. He was on the staff and was the priest that I gravitated to. I thought that he was very witty and I knew he loved all good music from our conversations. Other priests on staff included the kindly Father Celestine Ricciardi, C.P.—now known as Father Sal Riccardi, C.P.—and the somewhat less kindly but solid Father Bede Engel, C.P. Much to my chagrin, my time at the Monastery parish church lasted about six weeks. Mr. Burns came back ( I hoped he wouldn’t since I thought he took a really long time to recover) and I went back to a rather dull musical experience.

Some time elapsed and two great events took place. Father Kenneth Walsh became pastor. Then Mr. Burn’s delivered his final ultimatum to Father Kenneth (it has always been the case to call Passionists by their first name rather than last name). This led to my dad being hired as choirmaster and I was hired as organist. These were very exciting times. St. Michael’s Monastery parish was filled with priests, brothers and seminarians who lived in that large complex. I credit many of these men with helping to shape my faith. I worked with many of these men in various musical celebrations. For instance, there were three Passionist seminarians that played trumpet: Michael Salvagna, Theodore Vitale, and Peter Rando. There were a good number of guitar players, among them seminarian John Michael Lee who played at the parish folk Mass. He was joined by Ed “Moose” Morrow who played a “gut” bucket. This was a large metal washtub with a rope attached to a broomstick handle. The broom stick was placed at the “lip” of the bottom of the upside down tub and pulled or pushed to change pitches from the string in order to produce a back bass sound to accompany the guitar. The parish also started an interfaith choir and did regular concerts—the future Brother Gus Parlavecchio, C.P. was a baritone in that choir. Our soloists included three other Passionist seminarians: John Mark Thomas, Don Ware and Paul Zilonka. The seminarian student that I got the closest to was Paul Chenot. Paul was a profound influence on my life in many ways. I am now 52, so Paul and I are around the same age. When I was 16, Paul was a mentor. I loved mixing music: Bach, Palestrina and The Grateful DeadYat least in my mind.

As organist, we were involved in all of the Passionist celebrations that took place. It still sends shivers down my spine when I think of the Passionist ordinations that we were involved in. For years, our Monastery parish choir with additional brass and timpani players provided the music. If I remember correctly, it was common place that the newly ordained might show their musical ability by singing The Magnificat. I truly felt touched by God to be part of that moment. Our choir prepared the music with Passionist seminarians for the installation of Passionist Bishop Reginald Arliss who was assigned to the Philippines. I had the honor of meeting and talking with Bishop Culthbert O’Gara, who had been a missionary to China. The Passionist presence in my life was undeniable. I am not a holy roller by any stretch of the imagination, but I do believe that God was at work here. Maybe because I was a young “hippie” looking kid and in some ways an enigma, I seemed to hit it off with a lot of the older guys. Father Bonaventure Griffiths, C.P. was a man that filled me with awe. His knowledge was astounding.

I continued working at the Monastery Church parish into the 1970s. Many changes occurred during that time. The education program for Passionist seminarians left Union City. For the most part ordinations to the priesthood took place at Immaculate Conception Monastery, the Passionist foundation in Jamaica, New York. The “Union City” choir, as Bishop Francis J. Mugavero of Brooklyn, New York called us, continued to make our way across the Hudson River to provide music for the ordinations. The last huge class I remember at St. Michael’s Monastery in Union City was Paul Chenot’s class. If my memory serves me correctly they were ordained in a few different churches closer to their homes.

Another debt of gratitude that I have is to Father Aloysius Fahy, C.P.—now Father Joesph Fahy. He gave me my crash course in Spanish. It has served me well over the years. After Father Walsh’s time in the parish, we continued doing great music, but honestly the spirit was different. The next huge change that took place musically speaking was the addition of females to our parish choir. It became harder and harder to get the needed number of males, so we added women. This took place in 1971. This was a really big deal since our the choir traditionally performed from the same place—the main altar of the church.

It was not all that long before another great parish pastor came along. His name was Father Emmanuel Gardon, C.P. There were truly great staffs that worked in the parish church during these years. Two of the men that taught me a lot about being a teacher and a leader were Fathers Flavian Magrogan, C.P. and Jerome Mangan, C.P. In 1975 my father left Union City and Father Emmanuel asked me if I would like to be the “front man.” I enthusiastically said yes.

That led to another opportunity to work with the Passionists. During these years our choir were regulars on the television Sunday Mass. At that time the mass was taped over a porn theater located at Times Square in New York City. These were in the old WOR TV studios. The “Romper Room” set was broken down and a “church” was set up. I remember working with Mrs. Florence Roche and Father Robert Kubisiak, C.P. Before, I knew him as student seminarian at the Union City Monastery during my time there. Now Father “Bob” Kubisiak was a producer of the television mass and doing a wonderful ministry for shut-ins. The Passionists also had a radio program called Crossroads. It was run by Father Cyril Schweinberg, C.P. What a great, resonant voice. We did a live broadcast of our Midnight Mass from the Monastery church.

So many wonderful things happened during Father Emmanuel’s tenure as pastor. He was one of the greatest bosses that anyone could wish for. You always knew where you stood; but he gave great latitude. I loved working for him. We instituted a Parish Theatre Group. Our first production was “Damn Yankees.” Father Emmanuel played Mr. Applegate, the devil. Father Jerome was one of the ballplayers and even Father Egbert Gossart, C.P. played the part of a sports reporter. The parish was vibrant. Later on a young deacon would come along. He played Mr. Gibbs in Arsenic and Old Lace. He was the one “old” man that got away from Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha. That character was played by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P. We worked hard but we had fun. More and more young people were involved in our Choir. This was a direct outgrowth of our Theatre Group and legendary Sports Association. The credit, in large part goes to Father Emmanuel. He had young guys like me and Steve Ricciardi ( the head of Sports Association. His mom Irene, worked for years at The Sign Magazine ) and he let us run with the ball. I can honestly say that I loved the vitality and good works. It was a source of pride to me that our parish seemingly had it all.

I was somewhat naïve. We did have it all…except for money. Great priests like Father Jerome McKenna, C.P. spoke to the local people about options for the future—that there might be a time when we might have to think about the Monastery church building in a creative way. Passionist rectors, or Monastery leaders during my association with St. Michael’s have been Father Stanislaus Wasek, C.P., John C. Ryan, C.P., Justinian Manning, C.P., and Damian Towey, C.P. My memory of Provincial Father Flavian Dougherty is particularly poignant. He was a great man in that he revealed the humanity of priesthood. It was not uncommon to see this priest who led the Passionists to be walking through the monastery first floor corridor smoking a cigar; shirt sleeves rolled up. Then I had the opportunity to see him as a leader of prayer at mass. Keep in mind I was fifteen, and at the time all this was pretty cool.

We know now that eventually the Monastery and parish church did close. Ultimately our parish merged with St. Joseph Church in Union City. My great joy was that the Passionists were to continue to staff the parish. I was not a stranger to this parish because back in that day it had also been a Passionist parish and I, being the organist at the Monastery, was responsible for funerals and special event coverage that the organist there did not cover. I worked with great priests at St. Joseph’s as well. Father Cletus Dawson, C.P. was the pastor. Two of the other men I worked with there were Fathers Kenan Peters, C.P. and Alexis Paul, C.P. Father Alexis was a fine musician in his own right. My path crossed once again with Father Kenneth Walsh. The newly named parish of Sts. Joseph & Michael was to be run by Father Charles Sullivan, C.P. It was a diverse staff. It included Father Godfrey Kasper, C.P., Father Egbert Gossart, C.P., Father Teodoro Aguirre, C.P., and Father Neil Teidemann, C.P. The parish had two choirs, two organists…two of everything. It was decided that I would remain. This was what I had hoped for.

I have worked at Seton Hall Prep since 1976 and I love many of the priests that I have worked with over the years. I, however, wanted to remain working with Passionists—these religious I felt so close to. When Father Charles Sullivan left to return to Florida, Father John C. Ryan, C.P. came in as the new pastor. I felt so blessed. Father John was a great man. My understanding is that he came to Union City at the request of Father Egbert to keep the Passionists in the church. The Music Program continued to flourish. We got involved in some liturgical decisions during this time that I found to be questionable, but the music remained wonderful.

The last of the Passionist parish staffs at Sts. Joseph & Michael was led by Father Jim O’Shea, C.P. He brought a renewed vigor and sense of commitment and evangelization to the Parish. Father Neil Teidemann was back. These guys were great to work with. Over Father Jim O’Shea’s time as pastor we also had priests like Fathers Rick Frechette, C.P., Larry Rywalt, C.P., and once again, Father Kenneth Walsh. Father Jim was all embracing and did everything in his power to make the parish one community. We did more bi-lingual masses and we celebrated our diversity in the most positive of ways.

Writing this has brought alive a wealth of memories. So many more Passionists and local people in Union City could be included. I am limited by space. Still I want to end with two events. One of the really enjoyable services that we did was the 50th Anniversary celebration for Father Kenneth Walsh. It consisted of beautiful choir music as well as some Vivaldi played by a friend of Father Kenneth on oboe (accompanied by me). The other important event was that my years at St. Michael’s Monastery parish allowed me to meet and marry Theresa Reynolds. She was in the choir. Our two boys, named Joseph M. and Michael have also been choir members.

I remain at Sts. Joseph & Michael Church even to this day. Father Richard J. Carrington is the new diocesan priest assigned there. He loves music. Who knows, maybe I’ll stay a little while longer.

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