NEW HAVEN – When Nicholas Renouf was hired as organist and music director at St. Mary Parish in 1977, the Catholic Church was still adapting to the changes of Vatican II that many thought meant a departure from traditional Latin sacred music to vernacular music.
“I was fresh from graduate school and a new convert at the time,” said Mr. Renouf. “And I was shocked to think that the Catholic Church, the root of all Christianity, was abandoning” sacred music with roots that go back to apostolic times.
Thankfully, as time and papal documents affirmed, that wasn’t the case.
Four decades later, Mr. Renouf is recognized as one of the champions of sacred music, frequently sought out for his expertise after founding two choirs at St. Mary’s, including the 16-voice Schola Cantorum (literally, the “school for singing”) that performs Gregorian chant and choral polyphony at the noon Sunday Mass.
“Contrary to popular belief, the church did not abandon it, he said, but rather gave Gregorian chant ‘pride of place,’ or the highest position,” as other vernacular music styles and compositions evolved.
Providentially, he had been advised by a friend, a Dominican nun at the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace in North Guilford, to be patient. “She told me, ‘It will come back,’” he said. And she was right.
When he started at the parish, he was asked to play the organ for five Masses, as well as for holy hours and vigils. There was no formal choir, but he inherited two singers to help lead the congregation.
“There already was a guitar Mass at the 5 o’clock liturgy,” he recalled, but the late Dominican Father Eugene Bondi, who had hired him, “asked if we could have chant at the 11:30 Sunday Mass. (It was later moved to noon).
“It was a bold move for him in those days,” said Mr. Renouf.
“It was soon after the Council,” he said, “Everything was the people’s music and Latin was out.” But Father Bondi felt there was a place for chant. He was a visionary,” Mr. Renouf said.
“I thought I had strong ground to do what I was doing, and I quickly found it did have a place,” he said. “People at St. Mary’s were glad to have it.”
He said he received permission to provide music for an evening Latin Mass, and “we performed a Mozart Mass” in 1982, with cantors and singers invited from the Yale University capella corina. “We found some of the best singers in the area,” including soprano Julia Blue, who continues to periodically perform with the schola.
At about the same time, under Dominican Father John McGuire, “we started having polyphony [Latin chant sung in harmonic parts] at every Sunday Mass.”
“This provides the richness of the experience,” said Mr. Renouf about chant, which he explained dates back to the earliest days of the church and was later passed on by monks. The name Gregorian chant refers to St. Gregory the Great, who organized chants according to the feasts of the church when he served as pope from 540 to 604.
St. Mary was an outpost” in those days, said Mr. Renouf, with “only a handful” of pastors and directors in the country allowing sacred music to be performed, including the late Msgr. Richard J. Schuler at St. Agnes Parish in St. Paul, Minn., and William Mahrt at Stanford University in California. “They took pride in performing a Mozart Mass, and weren’t about to give up,” said Mr. Renouf. “That was an inspiration to me.”
Another stroke of luck for the parish and Mr. Renouf was the acquisition of an 1865 organ from the about-to-be-demolished St. Alphonsus Church in New York – home to an order of Austrian monks.
“I got a call from the technical director at the Metropolitan Opera who I knew at Yale, and he said he had heard of an organ that was going to be destroyed because the church was going to be razed,” said Mr. Renouf.
He noted that the Knights of Columbus was getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary at St. Mary’s with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli; and agreed to purchase the organ for $8,000.
The 3,600-pipe E. & G.G. Hook & Hastings organ was dismantled, put into storage and later reassembled over a period of eight months by four organ builders for the August 1982 centennial.
“Of course, an organ is never done, but it was in its present state of usability about a year later,” said Mr. Renouf.
“It was quite a coup for this to happen,” he said, “and I look at it as a minor miracle. It was ready about seven days before the church was ready for the centennial.
“It’s as important as the [12,617-pipe] organ in [Yale’s] Woolsey Hall,” he continued. “It is just a magnificent, romantic organ … a lovely acoustic … and down in the nave, it speaks very nicely.”
The tradition of sacred music at St. Mary’s is one that people continue to embrace at the 182-year-old parish, which houses the sarcophagus of the Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus.
“People come from all over the state to attend our liturgies, especially the noon Mass under the musical direction of Nicholas, who so passionately continues to promote the church patrimony of chant and polyphony,” said Dominican Father John Paul Walker, pastor of St. Mary Parish.
“As he points out, it was written to be used as prayer in the context of the liturgy,” said Father Walker. “So to be able to still use this music of the Catholic Church as it was written so many centuries ago is a beautiful contribution to the parish and to the church.”
Parishioner Muriel Maharidge, who directs the parish’s children’s choir, spoke along the same lines. “It’s music that works seamlessly with the liturgy and contributes to a general feeling of reverence,” elevating congregants to a “higher level that helps them pray, reflect, ponder and feel a connection with God,” she said.
“Some of the chants are so ancient that Saint Dominic would have sung them,” she noted. “So to maintain the continuity of this music keeps you connected to the early history of the church.”
In addition to directing at St. Mary’s, Mr. Renouf is also co-founding director of the St. Gregory Society’s Schola Cantorum, a choral ensemble that performs during the traditional Latin High Mass at St. Stanislaus Parish in New Haven. And he is curator at the Yale Collection of Musical Instruments, one of the foremost institutions of its kind, which preserves and exhibits musical instruments from antiquity to the present.
He started as an organist and pianist at age 11. He received his Bachelor of Music degree from the New England Conservatory and Master of Musical Arts degree from the Yale School of Music.
Mr. Renouf said some of his former students now are cantors or lead choral groups. “It has borne fruit. I’m proud and pleased,” he reflected, adding that the parish is even considering starting a children’s choir.
“We’re no longer an anomaly,” he said. “Many churches and cathedrals are welcoming the traditional sacred music choirs and are willing to fight for that,” such as Ezequiel Menéndez at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Hartford, “a student of one of my former directors,” and David Hughes, a former chanter in the schola, who now is director at St. Mary Parish in Norwalk, which has formed its own schola cantorum.
Mr. Renouf said it’s not difficult for parishes to start a schola, and referred newcomers to the 1,900-page Liber Usulais, a book of commonly used Gregorian chants, including most versions of the ordinary chants for the Mass.