Music at St. Patrick's - from 1836

Music has been a noteworthy part of the religious life of Catholic Parramatta from the very beginning of its recorded history.

From 1820, a Church school operated in Parramatta under the auspices of Fr. J J Therry and he was a frequent visitor to the district.  He was also the author of a volume of hymns for school children (published Hobart, 1846).  It is not inconceivable that the children at the Parramatta school used some of his early compositions.

On 29th May 1837 an article appeared in the ‘Sydney Monitor’ that described the ceremony of consecration of the first church in the Colony dedicated to St Patrick that occurred at Parramatta the previous day.  Miss E Wallace sang two solos,  Ave Verum and Ah Perdona,  while other members of the Wallace family ‘rendered their able assistance’.   Thanks to this article we have the first documented account of service music used in St. Patrick’s.

In 1838, with the arrival of the Sisters of Charity, who came to assist the women of the Female Factory, in Parramatta, church music takes antler step forward. In the Nuns’’ archives at St Vincent’s Potts Point are two manuscripts thus inscribed;

‘This manuscript was brought to Australia in 1838 by the first sisters of Charity and was used constantly by Rev Mother M Joseph O’Brien who was the organist.’

Mother O’Brien figures in the next note concerning music that appears in the press.  Her own reception of the white veil in May 1840 was well reported in the ‘Australian Chronicle.’ The hymns used were;

O Mitte Spiritum Tuum

Veni Creator Spiritus

Regina Coeli

Tantum Ergo

O Salutaris.

The account further tells us that ‘These pieces were sung with considerable taste by the pupils of the convent and of Mrs Davis’ excellent seminary at Windsor, of whom the Parramatta choir is principally composed.’

At this time, another document was written describing aspects of the infant parish including at Mass. Some political prisoners from French Canada were confined in the Longbottom Stockade at Canada Bay.  On numerous occasions during their imprisonment 1840-1844 they walked to St Patrick’s Church to attend Sunday Mass.

Diary item dated 21st June 1840 stated:

‘In the Church at Parramatta there is a beautiful painting behind the altar – it’s of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is about 25 square feet.  In addition there are eight other pictures which are of the suffering of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  They are on both sides of the Church.  They may be 8 by10 feet, perhaps bigger.  There is also a fine organ in the loft, which plays during the mass accompanied by several fine singers.  The masses are not long.  Only low mass is said here’.

Sunday 13 Junes 1841:  20 of us went to mass today….It’s 8 miles from here to Parramatta, which makes it 16 miles for us, coming and going. It’s long enough so that we take a proper rest.  Mon 12 July 1841:  The pews in the Parramatta church rent for 10/- a place per year.  Mr Platt had Mr Guertin and Marceau and Turcot sing while he sprinkled the holy water.  Everyone in the church was surprised to see prisoners singing the church and it was the first time this ceremony was held in the church.  There is an organ and fine lady singers in the Parramatta Church.

Sunday, 25th July 1841:  22 of us went to mass today and Mr Platt had a high mass sung by Mr Guertin, Turcot and Guerin.  It’s the first time a high mass has been sung in Parramatta, which the priest mentioned in his sermon, saying that we owed this ceremony to foreigners and to reward us the priest had the daily collection given to us with a small donation from the Sisters and we thing the priest contributed a bit, although he told us that the surplus of the collection came from the congregation.  Still it amounted 25s 3d. for all of us.

[Land of a Thousand Sorrows.  The Australian Prison Journal, 1840-1842, of the Exiled Candien Patriote, Francoius Maurice Lepailleur]

Throughout the 1850’s, 60’s and 70s there were sufficient references in the Catholic Press to confidently conclude that the singing of hymns was greatly encouraged and actively fostered in the parish schools and institutions, particularly hymns in English.  Bishop Polding was keen for people to use such music at their worship and supported a William Dolman in his publication of a suitable collection of such hymns in 1857.

Following the establishment in Parramatta of the Sisters of Mercy from Callan in 1888, a new dimension was added to parish church music – orchestral ensembles.  The sisters rapidly established their foundation as a considerable musical centre.  The standard of choral singing rose markedly at this time and on special liturgical celebrations an orchestra, most likely of strings with possibly some brass, was used.  Multi-talented musical families appear from this generation;  the Watters, the Dellow, the Stevens, the Finns, to name a few.  It was during this period that the first pipe organ was installed (1892) coming originally from St. Benedict’s Broadway.  From now on into the 1950’s the Missa Cantata, of a full High Mass, was a regular feature of the liturgy in St Patrick’s.  The repertoire remained fairly constant and typical of the period, modelling that of St Mary’s cathedral.  This repertoire is summarised in the appendix.

By the 1950’s the wind of reform in the Church was blowing steadily.  The extravagant and choir centred massed of the classical and romantic periods were no longer welcome in the official repertoire.  Gregorian chant was considered more appropriate and more authentic’, particularly in regard to the reformed ceremonies of Holy Week.  The choir seems to have fallen away at this time and the church once again had to rely on the school, the Marist Brothers themselves or groups such as seminarians, to provide the lead in solemn ceremonies.  Traditional hymns persisted for congregational worship at Mass and Benediction.

As with most parishes, the change to a vernacular liturgy shattered musical life briefly.  By the early 1970’s Sister Anna Conway, ably assisted and encouraged by the indomitable sister Aidan Codd, who had maintained a great choral tradition both in the convent and the school of OLMC over a long period, had gathered a group of parishioners to lead the congregation of the 9.30am Sunday Mass in learning the new versions of the common, singing the responses to the Psalm and introducing the new musical forms for English liturgy.  As in the 1800’s, students of OLMC, now directed by Sister Christina brought distinction and solemnity to important ceremonies by their string ensembles.  Once again a family of extraordinary talent has been a mainstay of this renaissance in Parramatta’s Church music – the McFadden family of Fennell Street.  Other families have been prominent as well – the Newport, the Boyle and the Curran families.

Good music always attracts more musicians.  So it is that St Patrick’s can assemble ensembles of considerable size, variety and high standard – comprised of musicians, Catholic and Non-Catholic dedicated to the enterprise of raising and maintaining standards in church music.

The recruitment of choirs has always been a task of varying success.  The choir has its ‘ups and downs’.  In late 1980, Father Larkey, the Parish Priest, proposed that a body of choristers be recruited from the Marist Junior School to sing at the 9.30am mass each Sunday and on solemn feasts and retained on a permanent basis under scholarships provided by the parish.  The choir replaced the ‘special occasion’ group which has persisted throughout the 70’s, often recruiting singers from outside bodies such as musical societies and State schools.   Since June 1981, first under the direction of Jeff Loche and latterly Robert Beazley, this choir , supplemented by older interested men and women, has provided a Choral Eucharist each week and appropriate services on solemn feasts.

At the same time a permanent choir was being re-constituted, a new pipe organ installed, the previous instrument of 1892* had fallen into disrepair and been vandalised during the 1950’s.  (John Boyle, now Father John Boyle and once Dean of the cathedral admits to have been a party to this).

The new pipe organ had previously been used by the Masonic Lodge in their Temple in the city.  Whereas previously the organ had been located in a  transept niche of the gallery, the new instrument was positioned in the middle , facing up the nave of the church.  This has greatly enhanced the quality of the instrument’s sound and those who recalled the older instrument have commented that the newer organ sounds ‘bigger’.  Bother instruments compared fairly equally in size.  St. Patrick’s now has five competent organists providing service music at the various weekly liturgies, with another undertaking appropriate studies at the Conservatorium of Music.  These church musicians follow in a long tradition of organists at this cradle shrine of Australian Catholicism.   Robert Beazley 1986

*What remained of this instrument was sold – to whom, for what price and even at what time, is not known.  This left music in a very parlous state.  Mrs Monica O’Keeffe, organist at the time, supplied the church with an instrument of her own – an harmonium played in the gallery.  Mgr Kerr purchased a small electronic Hammond organ.  This was kept in the old baptistery and had to be ‘man-handled- through the doors each time it was required.  Eventually it was moved to a musically/acoustically better position at the front of the church.  Father Don Peisley recognised the limits of this instrument and permitted the purchase of a larger electric organ, the present Con 632.

There follows three lists of interest in the story of church music at St Patrick’s The organists and choirmasters are in some appropriate order of time – it should be obvious how each list is dominated by one section of the community; female for the organists and definitely male for the directors of choir.

A repertoire list contains the titles of works which newspaper reports, the evidence of old music cabined and personal interview, corroborate as being used a mass during the last 150 years.