Generosity of Paterson Pastor and Teacher Draws Media Attention

Jocelyn Thomas In the Headlines

PATERSON, N.J. — The phenomenon of a teacher traveling more than an hour to this city for no pay to keep his former students interested in making music has attracted media attention. It also has given Daniel Grigassy, OFM, the opportunity to share his parish’s space and his views on the importance of education.

“The root word of education from the Latin means ‘to draw out of somebody.’ And that’s what a real educator does — not so much pump in information and put it inside of (a person), but draw out the giftedness that the person has and to help them focus that and define it and discipline it,” said Daniel in an interview about this music teacher.

Since October, a group of teenaged music students, called the Paterson Strings, has been practicing violin at St. Bonaventure Church, where Dan is pastor. The dedication of both the young people and their music teacher has drawn the attention of the media — first locally and, recently, on the national news.

On June 21, Nathan Thomas, the teacher, and the Paterson Strings were featured on NBC Nightly News. The network chose Thomas as “someone who ‘Makes a Difference,’” said Dan, in an email to the HNP Communications Office. “Their staff visited St. Bon’s several times the week before the broadcast, before, during and after the group’s recent summer concert.”

The segment featured the young people from varied cultural backgrounds and diverse faiths who have been practicing at St. Bonaventure since last fall. Several students contacted Thomas, who lives more than 40 miles away, expressing their interest in having him teach them outside of school.

When Thomas was laid off in the summer of 2010, from his position at Paterson Public School No. 7, the boys began texting him, said Dan, who knew Thomas because the Paterson Strings had held its concerts at the church for the previous three years. “They wondered why he did not return to school. They missed him and wanted to get together with him and their violins to practice.”

When Thomas asked Dan if they could meet one afternoon in the church, the pastor made the space available to him. “The initial meeting was so successful and the boys were so enthusiastic that I suggested they meet at St. Bonaventure on a more regular basis. Since October, ‘The Paterson Strings’ have come together at St. Bon’s every Saturday afternoon,” Dan said.

grigassyThomas believes music in any form helps young people “express that which they can’t put into words,” according to an article that appeared in the Star-Ledger on Jan. 30. “They are taking part of something that is rich in history and valuable on so many levels in the development of civilized adults. Part of a well-rounded education is understanding the fine arts.”

The members of the Paterson Strings are “boys from Latino, African American, Middle Eastern, and Asian families, a mix of Catholics, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus who live in the neighborhood of St. Bonaventure Church and enjoy making music together. They attend (or attended) Public School No. 7, two blocks from the church,” Dan said. Thomas drives from his home in Central Jersey to inspire the teenagers who live in a city known for crime and financially troubled schools.

For the past three Decembers, the Paterson Strings have held their Christmas concert at St. Bonaventure. Dan said he was happy to offer a place for the event. 

“This past Christmas, even though Thomas was no longer employed by the Paterson Public School District, the annual Christmas concert still happened, and drew quite a good crowd,” Dan said. “The local New Jersey papers, the Star-Ledger, Herald News and the Record, have done stories on the music makers and their teacher. Also,Comcast covered the story.”

On June 16, they drew a sizeable crowd to the church for their summer concert under the direction of their former teacher, Dan said.

With the generosity of time from an instructor and space from a pastor, classical music will continue to be played by the teenagers at this vibrant parish, just off Route 80, near shopping malls and less than half an hour from Midtown Manhattan. As Thomas said in one of his many interviews, “Classical music can take urban students through doors they never imagined.”

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.