By Susan Bailey
It was not your typical Friday at St. John’s soup kitchen in Worcester. As some 500 of the city’s poor streamed into the St. Francis Xavier Center on Temple Street for a hot meal, three new faces greeted them. These men radiated warmth and kindness as they dished up generous portions of scrambled eggs with ham, Belgian waffles, and various meats and vegetables to grateful patrons.
Most could not have guessed that they were being served by world famous singing stars The Priests. That very night the critically acclaimed group would give a concert at the Hanover Theater to a near capacity crowd.
St. John’s parishioner Frank Carroll arranged for the performance to raise funds for the food pantry. He invited Fathers Eugene and Martin O’Hagan and David Delargy, all from Northern Ireland, to serve breakfast at the pantry to give them a full picture of the good their concert would bring to the poor people of Worcester.
“I wanted to show them exactly where the funds were going,” Mr. Carroll said.
Father Martin writes of his impressions in his tour blog at thepriests.org: “The centre caters for so many people who are unemployed, homeless, suffering from mental problems and more besides. It is an oasis of peace and connection. … We had the great invitation from Frank Carroll to visit the scheme* and it was so humbling: the graciousness of all and the gratitude of those who came to be looked after. … I will always carry this experience: We are not what we have! This was indeed an eye opener …” *(a plan to provide a particular service for people)
The Priests were given a full tour of the facility by manager Bill Riley who explained that some 2,000 people are serviced each week through the twice weekly hot meals and foodstuffs given to families. Father Eugene, Father Martin and Father David chatted with many of the volunteers including students from Holy Name High School; some were exchange students from China.
According to Father Martin, Mr. Carroll had worked for three years to arrange for The Priests to perform.
The concert that night was a rousing success. Soprano Emily Suuberg from St. Mary Parish in Shrewsbury who had won the competition to sing with The Priests, “sang very well indeed and with a wonderful stage presence” according to Father Martin.
He went on to write that “the concert was met with great enthusiasm and the audience connected with us immediately … The whole evening was electric … the evening finished with The Irish Blessing and the audience loved every moment of it …we left the stage very uplifted.”
One of the hallmarks of their U.S. tour has been in paying tribute to the 50th anniversary of the movie “The Sound of Music.” Each priest remarked how much the musical had meant to them during their childhood.
Just how do international singing stars who are also full-time parish priests balance everything? Father Martin grew thoughtful in his response: “It is a bit of a juggling act to be very honest, yes, but we are away for certain periods of time during the year; we’re away for two weeks at this particular point. We do have other concerts throughout the year but they’re in spikes. We’re able to go to the venues, sing and return fairly quickly. So we’re there in the parish most of the time to be very honest with you. So it’s about juggling three separate diaries from three very different parishes. Eugene is also under the radar of the bishop. It’s trying to put all that together; we strike the balance and it works pretty efficiently.”
Father Eugene, among other things, is a canon lawyer, judicial vicar and chancellor of the Diocese of Down and Connor. He is also the parish administrator of three different churches.
Father Martin has been a diocesan adviser in religious education for 13 years and is currently the parish priest at three various churches.
Father David has spent seven years as a teacher of religious education and German at Our Lady and St. Patrick’s College, Belfast, and also was chaplain to the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. He also is the parish priest for three churches.
All fervently believe that parish life keeps them grounded. There is no time to be carried away by fame and glory when there are so many people who need their attention. It is, in fact those very people that the singers reflect upon as they perform.
“All our experiences as priests, whatever they may be, the pastoral experiences or the personal experiences with people can also be very much woven into the music,” Father Martin said. “So as you’re singing you’re actually thinking about people, you’re thinking about contacts, you’re thinking about a particular situation that you were involved with, or a time of vulnerability in someone’s life or a high point in their life. So that’s another aspect in terms of the music: you weave people and circumstances into it and it’s wonderful.”
Music feeds them spiritually.
“I think with music, when you marry the music with the words of the psalms, … it takes the expression to another level; you end up expressing the core of yourself which you can’t do with the spoken word,” Father David said. “We’re fortunate with the gift of music and being able to sing; it brings it to another place and you can’t but be affected by that, singing the words. ”
There is no doubt that their beautiful messages of love, faith and service resonated with the audience at the Hanover, along with the patrons of St. John’s soup kitchen.
– You can listen to the full interview with The Priests at beasone.org, Ms. Bailey’s blog.