Passionist Music Ministry A Commentary on “History of the Monastery Choir” by Father Lawrence Moeslein, C.P.
By Father Xavier Hayes, C.P.
Introduction by Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Editor
Music has been an important part of Passionist religious life and ministry. The two articles in this issue of The Passionist Heritage Newsletter invite readers to reflect on this topic. Traditionally, Passionists may sing together during their times at common prayer. Over the years, Passionist-sponsored retreat houses and parishes in the eastern United States have upheld the importance of music ministry in a way that reflects the theological and cultural values of the Passionists and people who worship and pray at a particular location. In other cases, individual Passionists or friends of the Passionists have shared their musical abilities to enhance the Gospel message.
This unsolicited article by Father Xavier Hayes, C.P. provides a means to learn about that Passionist music ministry of the past. Passionist seminary education gave him a first-hand experience of sacred music. He took his vows in 1952 and was ordained in 1959. In 1965 he received an M.A. in Liturgy from The University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana. As a teacher, member of a retreat or parish staff, preacher, or community member he has continued to nurture and express his love for music.
This article represents Father Hayes’ long time desire to study the historical roots of Passionist music ministry. He has breathed life into a nineteenth century document by Father Moeslein. Even though this essay describes the former St. Michael’s Monastery Church in then West Hoboken, [now Union City] New Jersey—with imagination we can hear music practice or the performance of the choir at Mass—it names an experience of Passionist music ministry that still touches many a contemporary believer or listener. Father Hayes’ fine historical analysis reminds us that all of us hold the creative responsibility to support the Passionist musical tradition. Presently Father Xavier Hayes is a member of the Passionist Historical Commission. He resides at the Passionist community in Pelham, New York.
Our Passionist archives holds the hand written manuscript of Lawrence Moeslein, CP, giving the history of the St. Michael Monastery Choir which was under his direction from 1875 to 1896. There are two interesting sections in this manuscript. One is entitled “Appendix”, a one page document written by Fr. Nicholas Ward, CP, and the other, the 57 pages describing the story of St. Michael’s Choir under the direction of the writer, Fr. Lawrence Moeslein, CP.
The short account of Fr. Nicholas (21 written sentences) tells us quite a few things. But first, a note on Fr. Nicholas, Ward, CP. He was the younger brother of the famous Province historian, Fr. Felix Ward. Born in 1859 Nicholas was professed in 1872, ordained in 1879 and died in 1922.
Nicholas writes after Lawrence had written his account. It is written on the last page of the Moeslein document. Nicholas wants to point out that the Monastery choir really started before Lawrence’s organization. It consisted mainly of four or five Passionist students. These were Lawrence’s first male choir. Though Nicholas does not mention it Lawrence says that there was a mixed (men and women) choir before he began the male choir. To the Passionist students Lawrence added the school boys. Ward says that is where “Lawrence’s troubles began” indicating that the boys were unruly and hard to manage. At this point the CP students retired and the history of the choir, as Lawrence writes, began.
The main document is written by Fr. Lawrence Moeslein, CP, the organist and director of St. Michael’s Choir in West Hoboken, New Jersey. It is written in a very careful and legible handwriting.
A bit about Fr. Lawrence, a significant contributor to the history of music in the Province of St. Paul of the Cross. Lawrence Moeslein was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania June 13, 1850. (Recall, the Passionists came to Pittsburgh in 1852.) In 1865 he was professed and spent the next eight years studying in preparation of his ordination in 1874. In his obituary notice it is pointed out that he had “a nervous hesitation in his voice” which precluded his ability to be a preacher. He was encouraged to develop his ability for music. For forty years he taught our Passionist students Gregorian Chant and was the organist and choir director at St. Michael’s Monastery in West Hoboken. He was a prolific composer of music though presently we only have a few compositions extant. He was of the age and style of what is called the romantic period. This is not to be confused with sentimental. Today his work may be more appreciated by study than by being listened to.
We must point out that Lawrence, like Nicholas Ward above, is also associated with a famous member of the Province, his brother being Fr. Mark Moeslein, CP, the 75 years old founder of the North Carolina missions and Province leader.
The Passionists founded St. Michael’s Monastery in 1861. The foundation stone of the monastery was laid in 1863. The dedication of the large monastic-parish church was in 1875. This was the year that Lawrence organized the monastery choir. So his reflections also shed light on the beginnings of St. Michael’s monastery and parish.
Lawrence’s obituary note tells us something of his personality. He was “simplicity itself”, “straightforward as a child”. These elements come through as you read his document.
The “history” of the choir goes from 1875 to 1896. It tells us the names and attendance records of the 33 choir members. The choir sang at the High Mass each Sunday and at Vespers on Sunday afternoon. Lawrence notes that this took place each week during the year except on one Sunday when he was on vacation. Two practice sessions were held each week. The account lists the music used for various occasions not the least of which were Lawrence’s own compositions. The music was of the classical romantic period including Rossini, Lambillotte, Hayden, Mozart, Gounod and Beethoven.
Today’s reader finds humor in the “rewards” for choir service: “a beautiful album”, “a nice xylophone” and a “circus horse toy”. Annual outings and dinners cooked by faithful parish woman took place each year where monastery. or parish officials praised the choir for its work
There is a detailed description of the composition of the new organ built in 1877 that replaced an original second hand organ. The cost is listed as $6,000 with an additional $1,025 for the case. Lawrence adds that the price for the planned completed organ would be $10,000. I am not sure how much of that organ was renewed or left undamaged by the 1934 church fire. Mention is made of the need to replace the motor which supplied the bellows of the organ because the water pressure was so low where the motor was placed. Until a new motor was purchased hand power was used for the bellows just as it was when the organ was first installed! Felix Ward tells us that the organ was completed in 1894.
Of special interest was the placing of the choir and orchestra in the dome over the sanctuary. This took place on special occasions like Christmas or the feasts of St. Michael or St. Paul of the Cross. It must have been quite an acoustical phenomenon. Living members of the Province today cannot remember this happening probably because the use of instruments other than the organ was forbidden in the 1903 reform of Pius X.
The account includes articles of praise for the choir from local papers but also a report on an incident that brought attention and reaction. This was an anonymous letter that had been sent to the lay leader of the choir in 1895 criticizing the quality of the music and its rendition. Needless to say that in the parochialism of the day this took on great reactions both from the director as well as the choir. The plus part apparently from Lawrence’s point of view was that it caused the choir to get reorganized and be more attentive to its work.
This report, though rather schoolmarmish, is important because it reflects some aspects of St. Michael’s Parish in these early years and also because it describes for us today the musical history of our Province in these early days where there are so few resources.
In 1912 Lawrence published several compositions through Fischer Brothers in New York But time for retirement was at hand. In 1913 he is given a new assignment in Pittsburgh. One can tell that Lawrence was a popular community member. The house chronicler gives a significant amount of space lamenting his transfer and lauding the forty years of musical service that he rendered as well as the years of ready sacramental ministry which he performed with the many people who regularly came to the monastery for spiritual direction. A new musical director, Walter N. Waters, was placed in charge of St. Michael’s choir.
Lawrence Moeslein’s time in Pittsburgh was brief. His own health had begun to break down in West Hoboken. His once rugged constitution began to fail. Diabetes set in and he began to lose his strength. His obituary tells us simply that he died assisted by the prayers of the community on December 13, 1914.