Late 19th-early 20th-century French organist and composer, Charles-Marie Widor, is said to have declared that “Organ playing is the manifestation of a will filled with the vision of eternity.” Mastering this imposing instrument and channeling a music calling into serving the calling of faith is an arduous and exalting lifelong commitment. Add to that, choral conducting, radio show hosting, and intricate organizational responsibilities, and you’ve got the multi-talented wonder dynamo Jennifer Pascual who has made history as the first woman Music Director of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. She tells us about the many facets of her complex role.
In 2003 you became the first woman to be appointed Music Director at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, an extraordinary milestone for you as well as for the Cathedral. How does it feel to be a trailblazer?
I am honored to be the first woman and first Asian (Filipino)-American serving in this role as Director of Music and Organist. I continue to do what I have been doing for decades by serving the Catholic Church, to the best of my ability, but at a more high-profile/visible level.
What has this professional role meant for you?
St. Patrick’s Cathedral has always been a special place for me. When I first visited New York City, one of the first things I wanted to do was visit the cathedral. Cathedrals are special places, and this one even more so, as it is in the capital of the world. This is now the third cathedral in which I have served as a musician. I was raised Catholic, went to K-12 in Catholic schools, and have served in Catholic churches since I was in high school. I could not imagine working outside of this denomination as a full-time career, and being Music Director at St. Patrick’s Cathedral is one of those positions you hang on to for as long as you can because it is such a prestigious position and it doesn’t come by easily. At times it is hard to pray when you are so focused on the music, but it is my form of prayer as well.
Would you share with us some of your responsibilities as Music Director of St. Patrick’s Cathedral?
I direct the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, which under non-pandemic circumstances, sings every Sunday at the 10:15 a.m. Mass from just after Labor Day through the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, during June. I rehearse with them every Wednesday during this time, and conduct them for special liturgies such as the televised Midnight Mass, several liturgies during Holy Week, St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, etc., as well as in a handful of choral concerts each year. I select all of the music for our regular Sunday and weekday Masses – 365 days a year. Because the cathedral is the seat of the Archbishop of New York, there are dozens of extra services outside of our regular schedule, each of which I plan and execute or host guests, and variations in between. Musical correspondence often crosses my desk from the Archdiocese and I tend to these as they happen. I oversee a music staff of two full-time Associate Directors of Music, a Music Administrator, a part-time organist, professional cantors and choristers. I also direct the New York Archdiocesan Festival Chorale, which sings for important liturgies such as Priesthood Ordination, Chrism Mass, Bishops’ Ordinations, Papal visits and other large-scale events. They generally combine with the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir for such events. Rehearsals for this group take place at St. Joseph’s Seminary, where I had the honor of teaching music for a number of years.
You oversaw all the liturgical music for two Papal visits to New York City. How was that experience?
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in 2008 as well as Pope Francis’ visit in 2015 were extremely busy times. It took six months to prepare for Benedict’s visit and seven months to prepare for Francis’ visit. I selected and conducted the music for all of the liturgical events for both Papal visits. Pope Benedict celebrated Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral as well as (old) Yankee Stadium and presided at an Ecumenical service at St. Joseph’s Parish in Manhattan, formerly a German parish. It was quite an honor, and I heard from someone that Pope Benedict said: “The music is very good in New York!” In 2015, Pope Francis presided over Evening Prayer (Vespers) at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden. The reason it takes months to prepare is because of the planning, the meetings, obtaining copyrights, commissioning arrangers, obtaining security credentials for each chorister and orchestra member, creating the program booklets, collaborating with the liturgical team in order to create these booklets, rehearsals, but in the end, the months of preparation are worth it when the Papal visits finally happen and you know that your hard work helped to make them succeed. I have a good professional and friendly relationship with the musicians and Master of Ceremonies at the Vatican as a result of these visits, and always make it a point to stop and say hello whenever I am in Rome.
Besides the shared sense of spiritual responsibility, how have you kept Cathedral Choir motivated during these months of isolation?
During the summers and during this pandemic since mid-March, it has only been myself and a cantor during the 10:15 a.m. Masses. It is very tough on the choir. Members sing for different reasons: some of them because it is their profession, some because they love to sing, some because of camaraderie, and some because it fulfills their Mass obligation while also being able to sing in a group. They haven’t been able to sing together, and unfortunately, they won’t be able to sing this fall because it is not yet safe. We’ve had a few Zoom meetings, just more social than anything else. We’ll pray together at the next one!
Tell us about your radio show “Sounds From the Spires.” What is its mission and what are your goals and hopes for it?
The Archdiocese of New York started a collaboration with Sirius Satellite Radio (now SiriusXM) in 2006. Since December of that year, I have been hosting a one-hour weekly program that focuses primarily on church musicians. I host one guest per program and the guests are from all different genres. I have hosted singers, organists, composers, instrumentalists, conductors, publishers, authors, and more, and their topics or genres range from expertise in Gregorian chant to contemporary praise music and everything in between. Most everyone I have had on the program are laypersons and a number of non-Catholics, but I have also hosted a few priests as well as the late Edward Cardinal Egan—it was he who hired me in 2003.
You have maintained an active schedule as an organ recitalist. How do you balance your work as Music Director with the demands of performance and practicing?
It’s tough to find time to practice. I find myself drawing on familiar repertoire often, but when motivation strikes or I perform in a particular country or church, I will try to find repertoire pertinent to that place to perform new works. I have two associates, who also are performers, and we help each other out by filling in for each other, so that we can have the flexibility to perform out of town.
Aside from being an organist, you are also an accomplished pianist. What inspired your choice to devote yourself to playing the organ? What drew you to liturgical music?
I knew I always wanted to work for the Catholic Church and I was fascinated by the organ at an early age. I joined choirs as a child so I had instilled in me a love for the liturgy while still in elementary school. My love for the liturgy has not diminished at all since. I grew up on contemporary Catholic music but then also learned about chant, polyphony, the classics, and Gospel music. I feel that my liturgical music experience is pretty well-rounded as a result, and I am not narrow-minded in my selection of music. The organ is an instrument that any church musician needs to be able to be able to play. It is the instrument of the church. It can serve as a tremendous solo instrument, capable of replicating an orchestra, in a way. However, it is an instrument that also serves to help people sing and pray.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral is a New York City landmark, in fact, a National Historic Landmark, visited by people from all over the world. Do you get to meet any tourists who attend Mass or concerts? Do you recall any special moments?
This is also what makes St. Patrick’s Cathedral special. I often see friends and acquaintances from around the world who visit New York and stop into the cathedral, whom I would not normally see if I were in another city in the United States. I’ve seen priest friends who have come in from around the U.S, the Philippines, and Russia. One of the more memorable moments was several years ago during “Fleet Week” when a Navy man I used to babysit for in Florida became the Captain of the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier. While he was only an acquaintance, he had grown children by then. I took him and his family for a tour/ sneak peek of the choir loft and then he gave me a tour of the USS John F Kennedy! When I (dressed in choir robes) stopped to talk to him in the pews before Mass started that Sunday during Fleet Week, he thought I was going to ask him to read, because he was asked to read on a previous USS John F. Kennedy visit. I said, ‘No, I used to babysit for you years ago!’ That was pretty cool.
Some memorable comments happen because of the SiriusXM Radio broadcast now. People pray as they listen to Mass during the early morning commute to work. We help people pray during this pandemic when they are unable to get to church. That’s when we know we are doing our job, and it’s not just about making music.
Do you have any message for your fellow New Yorkers?
Keep your faith and hopes up. Always find creativity, no matter how simple or complex it may be, to keep you motivated, even if you are unable to leave your homes or travel. Exercise! Pray to your God that our scientists and political leaders can come to a successful vaccine and system so that people will be well and that we can resume normalcy. Pray also for peace throughout the world. New Yorkers may be having an extremely difficult time, but we are a privileged people. There are people around the world who have nothing and we shouldn’t forget them. Keep singing – it will make you happy!
Top photo: Jennifer Pascual – Photo by Joseph Vitacco III
Learn more about Jennifer Pascual at www.jenniferpascual.com