36 years at the keyboard for this church organist
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY JAN 13 - In this photo taken Jan. 6, 2013, Patricia McDonough sits at a piano inside St. Mary's Church in Rowley, Mass. McDonough recently retired after serving as the music director at St. Mary's Church for more than 35 years. (AP Photo/Newburyport Daily News, Jim Vaiknoras)
NEWBURYPORT — Patricia McDonough and her late husband, John, were among the early active members of St. Mary’s Parish in Rowley.
Eager to get away from city life in Somerville, the couple moved to Rowley about 55 years ago. Shortly after purchasing their house on Fenno Drive, they donated a piano to the Roman Catholic church — a move that helped launch the church’s liturgical music program.
And as the church continued to grow and flourish, the music program did as well. In 1976, as the church added more Masses and the number of parishioners increased, McDonough was approached by her close friend, Alice MacDonald, who was the organist at St. Mary’s. She was in need of some help.
“She could only do so much,” McDonough said. Another set of hands was needed to help play the organ for Masses, weddings and funerals. So McDonough, who first began studying piano at age 7, found herself taking lessons on how to play the organ.
“I became very interested in learning more about the Liturgy and the parts of the Mass,” McDonough added. “(Alice) was my mentor.”
Within a matter of time, the music director retired, and McDonough was asked to assume the role. Her responsibilities included directing the choir and choosing the hymns that would be sung at each Mass, playing the organ for weddings and funerals, and also continuing to play the organ at two of the weekend Masses: Saturday evening at 5 p.m. and Sunday morning at 11.
Earlier this summer, McDonough finally concluded her 36-year career as the church’s music director. She just celebrated her 80th birthday on Dec. 15.
“They were all very enthusiastic,” McDonough said of the choir that she led for decades. In addition to performing together at Mass, the group would gather each year for a Christmas party, meet for lunch or take outings to museums. She would joke with them about her “horrible” singing voice, while still joining them on hymns and praising their talents and beautiful sound.
By providing the liturgical music for a Mass, the organist, choir and cantors gain a much different perspective on Mass, she added. “You’re so close to the ritual of the complete Mass,” she said. Time comes to a standstill, she added, as you focus on only giving “the best that you could possibly give.”
As she chose the music each week, McDonough said, she abided by one rule: She wanted the congregation to take away a message from the words — “I never called them lyrics,” she said — as she knew that the choir always did.
“Most of what I would select were Scripture-based,” she added. Over the years, she acquired a collection of letters and cards from parishioners thanking her for her service at a wedding or funeral.
“They were very meaningful to me,” she said of the notes.
Despite her busy schedule at St. Mary’s, McDonough also worked full time. After she stayed at home to raise her five sons, she graduated with a teaching degree from Salem State College in 1974. In 1991, she earned her master’s degree from Cambridge College. Her teaching career took her to Ipswich, Rowley and Salisbury. And for 11 years, she also taught English at Timberlane Regional High School in Plaistow, N.H., before retiring.
Of course, that doesn’t mean she entered retirement. In 1995, she helped start a family-operated staffing firm in New Hampshire. She recently cut back to working there four days a week, tending to banking, payroll and financial matters, while also working one day a week at her home office where she’s savvy on email and operating computer programs.
While she credits the fact that she raised five sons for her high energy level, her sons aren’t surprised at all to still see their mother heading to work each day. Her own parents worked into their early 80s, said her oldest son, John McDonough, 58, an attorney in New York City.
“She’s given us a very, very strong work ethic,” he said.
While he and his brothers didn’t inherit their mother’s musical abilities, John McDonough said they have always loved watching her play the piano. During their childhood, she would often bring her sons and their friends to a nursing home in their neighborhood to sing Christmas carols for the residents, he added.
“She gave us an appreciation for music,” he said.