Catholic Free Press

Catholic Free Press Digital Edition

  • Aug
  • 21

Composer J. Gerald Phillips, 85; wrote first musical Mass setting in English

Posted By August 21, 2013 | 12:55 pm | Lead Story #1

J. Gerald Phillips, 85, composer of the first English setting of the Mass and many other works, died Monday at Leominster Hospital, surrounded by family and friends.
Mr. Phillips, of Fitchburg, worked briefly with the Trapp Family Singers and helped found Trivium School in Lancaster, and a choir school and a church organists’ guild. He was assistant editor for a sacred music publishing company, organist and choir director at several parishes and a music instructor who wrote his own textbook.
A Mass of Christian Burial is being celebrated  at 10 a.m. Saturday in St. John the Evangelist Church, 80 Union St., Clinton, where he was music director for several years, and was still playing for funerals up until a few weeks ago. Present and former members of Mr. Phillips’ choirs, and the Trivium Chorus, are expected to sing at his funeral.
His wake is from 5-8 p.m Friday at Philbin-Comeau Funeral Home, 176 Water Street, Clinton.
“Jerry’s love, knowledge and cultivation of the great tradition of sacred music – from Gregorian Chant to Renaissance Polyphony and beyond – was a treasure that he imparted to countless others throughout his career,” said Paul Jernberg, who has been music director at the Clinton parish, St. John, Guardian of Our Lady. “His teaching, directing and composing showed how this living musical tradition, far from stunting creativity, is a strong and indispensable foundation on which creativity is able to thrive.
“I am deeply grateful to Jerry for his constant witness to this truth, and his faithful encouragement to me in my own work as teacher, director and composer,” said Mr. Jernberg, who met him 18 years ago when coming to teach at Trivium School.
“He was very unassuming and minimized his own importance. He was so generous to all these different people.”
Mr. Jernberg said he received an e-mail last week from a music director in San Francisco, where one of Mr. Phillips’ daughters is a parishioner. The man remembered Mr. Phillips’ first Mass in the vernacular.
This Mass, first sung at St. Mary Church in Shrewsbury in 1965, was then sung in St. Louis at the National Liturgical Conference, for which the Mass was commissioned, and subsequently sung widely, with almost two million copies sold throughout the United States.
Before this, in the 1950s, Mr. Phillips composed three settings of the Latin Mass. Following it, he composed three other English Mass settings. He also composed many hymns, anthems and acclamations, and secular works for piano and voice, continuing until last year.
Mr. Phillips and others worked with Luke Richards, organist at St. Paul Cathedral, to found the Pius X Guild of Church Organists, which helped musicians adapt to the revised liturgy after Vatican Council II.
During the 1960s, he worked with Theodore Marier as assistant editor of McLaughlin and Reilly Co. in Boston, publishing many works of chant and sacred polyphony from the Catholic tradition.
Over the past 59 years, Mr. Phillips was organist and music director at parishes throughout New England, beginning with Sacred Heart in Roslindale, and most recently at Immaculate Heart of Mary in Winchendon, where he played up until two weeks ago. He was also organist for many years at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester.
“We could absolutely count on him, and there wasn’t going to be anybody better,” said Father William G. O’Brien, a retired priest who was pastor of St. Leo Parish in Leominster during part of Mr. Phillips’ tenure there. When people came from Canada to rebuild St. Leo’s organ, Mr. Phillips supervised the work, he said.
In 1966, in collaboration with St. Paul Cathedral, Mr. Phillips founded St. Peter’s Choir School at St. Peter’s Elementary School in Worcester, and directed it until 1971.
In 1979 he co-founded Trivium School, for which he and co-founder John Schmitt composed the school song. Mr. Phillips taught music there until 2008, and continued as tutor emeritus until last year. He was also choir director.
Mr. Phillips was music teacher and choir director at St. Thomas More Preparatory School in Harrisville, N.H., from 1962 to 1966; music lecturer at Clark University from 1966 to 1976, music instructor in the Worcester Public Schools from 1971 to 1977, and professor of music and choral director at Thomas More College in Merrimack, N.H., from 1981 to 1990.
He was a private instructor of piano, organ and music theory, and wrote his own textbook, “Perceptions in Music,” and numerous articles on liturgical music. He was also a piano and organ tuner and an avid gardener, arborist and meteorologist, and liked to joke.
His musical talents began early. Born to William and Helen (Allingham) Phillips in Waterbury, Conn., Dec 3, 1927, he learned to play chords on the piano at about age 4, to accompany his father, a country violinist. At his school, Crosby High, he played the French horn.
He joined the Navy in 1945 and was discharged three years later, with the rank of Radarman 3rd class.
He studied music, getting his bachelor’s from the University of Montreal in coordination with the Gregorian Institute of America, in 1953, and his master’s from the University of Chicago in 1954. From 1955 to 1956 he studied at L’Institut Gregorien de Paris and the Sorbonne. During the summers he worked with the Trapp Family Singers at their music camp in Stowe, Vt.
His wife of 24 years, Ellen (Rock) Phillips, died in 1982; and their son, Joseph G. Phillips Jr., in 2006.
He is survived by three children: Rachel Sherman Phillips of Atherton, Calif.; William J. Phillips of Jaffrey, N.H., and Anna Rock Phillips and her husband, Anthony Wilcox, of Fitchburg; his sister, Elizabeth Brown and her husband, Ben, of Bend, Ore.; five grandchildren: Christopher J. Phillips, Geoffrey W. Phillips, Nicholas W. Phillips, Sarah K. Phillips, Myles R. Phillips-Wilcox; several nieces and nephews. He is pre-deceased by his brother, William Phillips.
Burial is to be in Evergreen Cemetery, Leominster.
In lieu of flowers, a memorial gift may be made to Trivium School, 471 Langen Road, Lancaster, MA 01523; St. Benedict’s Abbey, 264 Still River Road, Still River, MA 01467 or the Woodlawn Foundation, 56 Harrison St., Ste. 401, New Rochelle, NY 10801-6560.