Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Guitars, Flutes and Sr.Miriam Thomas I.H.M.

Usually when I write about my Gray’s Ferry experiences my focus is on events that centered on the neighborhoods ethnic background and proud Irish traditions. However, a point I have not spent too much time on is the uniquely Catholic aspect of the neighborhood as well. Of course, being from Gray’s Ferry you were either from Saint Anthony, Saint Gabriel , St. Aloysius or (living on the Italian side) King of Peace. Well 40 years later 3 of the 4 parishes that represented our unique and ethnically insulated community are just memories of the past. In the past few days the media has been recalling the 40th anniversary of the Apollo lunar landing. Another memory of the 1960’s that comes to mind is the revolutionary manner we as Catholics embraced the Spirit of Vatican II and the sometimes unfortunate pain of the racial unrest of the 1960s.
Most vividly, the emergence of the guitar at our Catholic liturgies gave rise to the “guitar Mass,” and countless high school guys and girls came to pray while enjoying the new musical settings for Catholics after Vatican II. It was not even unusual to see one or two of our usually stoic I.H.M Sisters strumming on a guitar, singing from the St. Joseph altar and making worship “relevant,” for the 1960s and 70s.
The guitar group was usually comprised of high school girls that provided the singing and the musical accompaniment via guitar, sometimes flutes and even a tambourine appeared on Sundays of Ordinary Time. Regardless of what your thoughts or persuasion about musical tastes and traditions, the Folk Masses of the 1960s era were a pleasant welcome to the usually rigid and chanted Roman ritual prior to the revolutions of the 1960s.
There were often periods of time that songs we consider now as secular were included in the liturgy. I guess we didn’t know better, because everyone seemed to think that Vatican II was a license to experiment with the music of the sacred liturgy. It was no different in Gray’s Ferry. After the proclamation of Humanae Vitae reinforced the traditional Catholic teachings on contraception, the spirit of the times quite literally exploded with songs of inspiration, based upon African American roots or other suppressed cultures around the world. Daily, the news with filled with stories of the Vietnam war, the American excursions into Laos or Cambodia or some other military tragedy that kept up riveted to the television sets.
The music of the period also provided a chance for Gray’s Ferry Catholics to express their generational differences with a choice of either a High Mass or a Guitar Mass. Young people distinctly were drawn to the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI, while parents and grandparents lamented the loss of Latin and the length of teenagers’ hair. These times were not only exciting for me as a preteenager, but also a great barometer of the climate of the nation’s political and social unrest as well as its cultural development. During this time, Gray’s Ferry was not immune from social and racial unrest. Often parish high school graduates from Bishop Neumann were called by the Selective Services (aka The Draft) for service in Vietnam. People from Gray’s Ferry fought, were wounded and even died in the Vietnam conflict. Racial and social unrest made all of us realize for the first time in our lives that we lived in the, “inner city,” and the racial anger made its way to all regions of the parish community.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s the respite from all of this turmoil was in the local parish church, in the hymns of the time and in our common faith in God’s providence. Quite honestly, while growing up in Gray’s Ferry , I was unaware of the larger global conflicts, just aware of the urban conflicts at Lanier playground, the shooting deaths at 29th and Tasker and the pervasive and haunting music of the 60s and 70’s. One of the most memorable songs that brought all of us together was the popular Kumbya which ironically enough for a racially divided neighborhood was an African folk song. I fondly remember the song being sung in our Catholic parish of Saint Gabriel loudly and proudly…you would have thought it was written by an Irishman.
Many remarkable years have passed between today and those remarkable and world changing days. Music and our faith have allowed all of us to experience the revolution in words, songs and society since Joan Baez introduced the multigenerational ethnically insulated peoples of Gray’s Ferry to the African spiritual song.
I hope when listening to the song, you will remember all of the events of the past that were significant in our Gray’s Ferry lives, including the joys and the sorrows that war, poverty, racism and social ignorance that afflicted all of us in the tumultuous…age of Aquarius.

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