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Everyone Can Sing at New York City Church

This is the 11th in a series of articles about the music ministries of Holy Name Province. The most recent installment featured the music ministry of St. Patrick-St. Anthony Parish in Hartford, Conn.

NEW YORK — If you can talk, you can sing. That’s the message of the music ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Midtown Manhattan.

Music director Meredith Augustin, who grew up singing in her house as a young child, strongly believes that anyone can sing, and has built her music program on this premise. The greeting on the music ministry landing page of the church website says “Come one, Come all.”

“It’s my job,” said Augustin, pictured above. “I have one purpose — that people leave the church feeling closer to God than when they came in, that they are closer to the Gospel, closer to Jesus. If I have not done that, I haven’t done my job.”

Pastor Andrew Reitz, OFM, sets the tone for Augustin’s work. “Music invites us to put our whole selves into our worship of God. It lifts our spirits and draws us even closer,” he said.

Encouraging Participation
It’s also important, Augustin added, that people feel welcomed. “Music can do that. It is important for the pastoral musician to understand what his or her job is — to aid the assembly in music, worship and singing. It’s not about listening. It is about participating.”

While she hasn’t been formally trained in music, it has been a big part of her life, especially as the daughter of a concert pianist. She led music programs in the church where she grew up and was also involved in the National Association of Pastoral Musicians while a student at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.V.

After graduation and launching a singing and recording career, Augustin took a job as music director at St. Joseph’s Church in Rutherford, N.J., where she worked for Richard Husted, OFM, and the late Francis Gunn, OFM, for 10 years.

She was recruited to St. Francis in 2007. The move from a suburban New Jersey ministry to an urban church in the heart of New York City has been a switch for Augustin, but music, she said, is a constant.

Because the West 31st Street church attracts a more diverse set of parishioners, Augustin offers a wide variety of music. “I try to broaden the music so that everyone is looked after,” she said. With approximately 2,000 worshippers on the weekend, the 5 p.m. Mass is often standing-room-only, largely, she said, because of the music. “It’s amazing how they sing.”

Being Flexible
St. Francis has two choirs, with approximately 20 to 30 members each. Augustin is flexible about practices, believing that it is more important that people come to sing than to feel pressure to commit to a schedule. “People have busy lives,” she said. “I want people to have the freedom to have their lives.”

The choirs sing at the 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Masses, but there are also three organists and three cantors, making sure that all eight weekend Masses are covered. African drums are often in use as are other instruments reminiscent of people’s backgrounds.

“Our liturgies have unique character and speak to people with varying tastes in music, from very traditional to very contemporary,” according to a flyer promoting the 2012 Viva Francesco, an annual cabaret held by the music ministry during Francis Week. “Providing the level of quality, varied and inspiring music on a consistent basis is a commitment of our community.”

The ministry works so well, Augustin added, because of the support of the friars, especially Andrew, who came to the Midtown Manhattan parish in June 2011. “They all have such a beautiful, gentle spirituality about them. Most of them take the concept of partnering in ministry very seriously. You don’t find that often. It is a privilege to be able to minister with them.”

The music program is also used as a fundraiser. For Francis Week, for example, the church held the Viva Francesco on the evenings of Sept. 28 and 29. Always a sell-out, this year’s cabaret featured a DJ and songs of the 20th century. The parish’s first cabaret in 2009 raised money for the historic St. Francis Breadline.

Advent and Christmas are also festive music times at the parish. The concert before Midnight Mass is described by Augustin as “always a big deal,” and Advent always has an antiphons concert.

As Augustin says, all are welcome to come and check out the music of St. Francis. Those who would like a preview of Augustin’s work may access her recordings of contemporary Gospel jazz on iTunes or World Library Publications.

— Wendy Healy is a Connecticut-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to HNP Today