Singing and Polishing in Mater Dolorosa parish

Submitted by Phil D. Dupont on Monday, 11/16/2009, at 4:33 AM

I. Finnegan's questions in her final chapter seem to be directly pertinent to my work among the choirs of Mater Dolorosa and Holy Cross.  She asks: "But perhaps music is also in some sense 'special'?  Can we speculate that there may be something unique or additional about music-making which also gives it an additional quality beyond those it shares with other minority pursuits?"  And it seems that the Catholic Church's answer to this question is a definitive "yes".

The hour-long service is broken into sections of singing, of praying, and of listening and watching.  These different sections can be organized by the position of a churchgoer's body.  That is, the division of the hour-long ritual into parts is emphasized by shifts to standing to sing hymns, kneeling to recite the Eucharistic prayer, and walking towards the altar to receive communion (pre-Vatican II, you would go so far as to kneel at the altar while receiving the host).  These changes in physical position -- which can be seen as more "special" than simply sitting in the pews -- are accompanied by sonic changes as well.  In this way, the specialness of a change in physical state synergizes with a sonic specialness.  By "special" here I mean not transcendently special, like Finnegan asks, but merely differing from a normal, mundane state of sitting/listening.

In my interview with him, Leo Morowski referred to music as being more "reverent" and "mystical".  Stephen Tracy recounted an old Catholic saying that "He who sings, prays twice" (which Finnegan also mentions, and attributes to St. Augustine).  My feeling is, if the people musicking feel that they are producing transcendently special works, then they are -- no matter what the dispassionate anthropologists' views.  The question we fall back to then, is why these sounds and utterances are perceived as transcendently special.  I think that the sitting/standing/kneeling thing in the above paragraph has to do with it.  I would also hypothesize that the traditions and memories associated with particular hymns give them added emotional weight to those who have known those melodies their entire lives. 

NB: In my view, “transcendentally special” works can be identified by an otherwise inexplicable emotional reaction to the work by those involved.  Because of the specialness of the music, the participant feels more elated, more somber, or whatever.

Are traditional hymns more special than traditional prayers?  Both are utterances that have the potential to lodge themselves in memory to elicit emotional reactions.  But I posit that because music carries more information than spoken prayer (ie, in addition to its text, a hymn has a melody and rhythm and harmony and instrumentation), it more easily carries emotional connotations.  The effect of sung Gregorian chant right after a long murmured prayer is like a shaft of light through cloudy skies.  It stands out in its clarity, its beauty, and its simplicity, and evokes, to me and presumably to other parishioners, a brief soaring sensation of the “heart” that we can call “special.”

 

II. The most outstanding thing about, and the reason for my being at Mater Dolorosa parish is its Polishness.  This Polishness is manifested in the way it is described to strangers (it is referred to as either an “ethnic” or “Polish” parish).  It is manifested thoroughly during the 9:00 mass, which is entirely in Polish (with its own musical tradition of Polish hymns), and is led by a near-unilingual Father Stanley Sobiech.  It manifests itself in the Polish names and backgrounds of many of the parishioners.  It manifests itself in the grilled kielbasa-and-cheese sandwiches they serve at weekly bingo (Although NB, I jokingly asked Helen, who works in the kitchen, if she felt obligated to serve kielbasa because of MD’s Polishness and received a knowing laugh in response.  Here is an example distinction between things that make MD Polish, and things we do because MD is Polish, and how they form a feedback loop.) 

Many of the parishioners I’ve talked to have gone to Mater Dolorosa their whole lives, or else married into the parish.  There is a really big family element here.  So many parishioners have family connections to Poland that are just as important as their religious connection with a Polish parish – it’s not at all uncommon to hear of vacations taken to Poland among the senior parishioners.    

Much mention has been made of the services around Christmas and Easter, and there is a great deal of pride in the quality of these events.  They tend to come up in conversations about uniquely Polish features of Mater Dolorosa.  At Eastertime during Holy Week there are regular blessings of food (during which, according to Barbara R., the whole church smells of kielbasa, ham, and eggs), which is a Polish tradition.  Mater Dolorosa’s Midnight Mass is also a source of pride, although it in and of itself is not distinctly Polish.  However, it is another opportunity for Polish identity to be expressed in the form of hymns.  It is not surprising that the general quality of that service is used to bolster claims of strong Polish identity, despite the fact that superb Midnight Masses occur in Catholic churches all over Holyoke (and beyond). 

However, it is important to remember that parishioners do not choose to go to Mater Dolorosa in order to claim or bolster their Polishness.  Their choice of religious institution is motivated fundamentally by family traditions — and this is reflected most obviously to the outsider as a choice for an “ethnic” parish.  It would be easy, for instance, to explain that Leo Morowski attends MD because he is himself Polish.  But from his perspective, he attends it because it is his family’s church.  The links between ethnicity and family are thus strengthened by conscious adherence to traditions, and the role that the church plays in Mr. Morowski’s life becomes more than that of a religious institution.