On April 21, I will start my day in Joliet, Illinois, with the distinct sound of bluebirds in my ears. And should one of my neighbors in our “urban village” see me that day in the 10065 zip code, please banish all doubts about my veracity. I must explain that it will only be in mind and heart that I will awake in my childhood home in the company of quite magical bluebirds.
Since I’m being so accurate, it won’t actually be bluebirds in the plural, it will be the sound of one magical bluebird evoked, across the decades, by the sensitivity and musical genius of one very special man.
Edwin Vincent Hoover in Monsignor’s Robes
April 21 is the anniversary of the death of Monsignor Edwin Vincent Hoover, a musician, a priest, a pastor, the first rector of the Cathedral of St. Raymond Nonnatus in Joliet and from the time I was five years old, a treasured friend of our family.
The books of music history do not refer to his “Concerto on Here Comes a Bluebird,” and that may be my fault for not making whatever effort it took to capture the notes on tape or insist upon combing through his belongings after his death to find if he had committed them to a manuscript.
I will always know it as a masterpiece. And because of it, I can take my place with the women who have inspired great compositions.
It all began at 10:30 recess in the tennis court at St. Raymond’s when the first grade girls played a children’s game beneath Monsignor Hoover’s study window. Having managed to get my parents to let me take a permanent pass from kindergarten, and having now run out of any and all plausible excuses for avoiding formal schooling, I was among them.
We formed a line, snaked in and out beneath the “windows” formed by our joined hands and sang, “Here comes a bluebird through my window, hi, diddle, diddle, dey, dey, dey.” Supposedly unobserved.
When Monsignor came to our home to visit, I felt equal parts of fascination and fear. He might have been as awe-inspiring a figure as the great Oz to judge from the way I pressed into a place near the banister at the top of the second landing of the stairs and listened to the conversation of the grown-ups and occasionally dared a covert peek at our guest. Supposedly unobserved.
One evening he came in and sat down at the piano. He began to play something that sounded like Chopin…or Beethoven…except…except that in the middle of this serious music was a theme that sounded so familiar. “Here comes a bluebird….” With each repetition of the theme I came down one more stair, until I was sitting on the floor at this feet as he made our piano sing.
Monsignor Hoover with Music Director Joseph, “Joe” Lyons
There was music wherever he went. In the North American College in Rome, as a seminarian, he studied with the masters of contemporary church music. He directed the Cathedral Choristers at Holy Name in Chicago, he shook Joliet out of its limited expectations when he was assigned there and aided by Music Director Joseph Lyons, made musicians out of all but the confirmed “clinkers” as he humorously dubbed them. For them, he designed the dignified role transforming altar boys into “Knights of the Altar” and teaching them the roles and rubrics of service that came to St. Ray’s when it became the Cathedral and home parish to its first Bishop.t In our living room he accompanied my sister Peggy’s singing of operatic arias like Puccini’s Vissi d’Arte, musical comedy and Irish classics. In Eagle River, Wisconsin, the chill summer nights were warmed by his singing of Rodgers and Hart, and always the songs and airs of Ireland.
His mother, “Ellie” had come from Ireland and with his sensitive ear, he must, I think, have kept some of the cadences of her speech in his own. I can hear it even now in his singing of “The Low-Backed Car.” He was one of Aer Lingus’ earliest and most enthusiastic passengers and delighted in telling tales of the landings at Shannon. Ironically, his knowledge of Ireland was more current than my Northern Ireland-born Mother’s, for she was a “white knuckle flier” who never stopped thinking that the only conceivable access to Ireland from the United States would have been by sea.
Graduation Photo of Eighth Graders with Pastor Hoover
If you can know people by their heroes, I know something of him from his lifelong enthusiasm for Cardinal Merry del Val, who was in Rome when he was a student. When I read a biography of the urbane and aristocratic Cardinal, I was struck by a quote that focused on Merry del Val’s suggestion that a priest wear the red robes of the Cardinal if called to do so and never concern himself whether anyone knew he wore a hair shirt beneath.
Neither were the “hair shirts” of Monsignor Hoover’s life literal nor obvious. Except perhaps at the end of his life when his musical voice was stilled by cancer of the larynx. And he who had thrilled so many with the grace of his performances, never thrilled them more than when, with courage and humor, he taught himself to speak again, in unfamiliar tones, and preached as long as he was able.
Any creator who made the likes of him must surely be going to provide an afterlife in which I will once more hear him play “Concerto on Here Comes a Bluebird.”