Jun 15, 2004

Philadelphia’s Historic Contributions to Catholic Liturgical Music

Online Edition

– June 2004

Vol. X No. 4

Hymns, Hymnals, Composers and Choir schools:

Philadelphia’s Historic Contributions to Catholic Liturgical Music

by Lucy E. Carroll

One of the earliest references to Catholic Music in colonial America is this statement by John Adams, who visited a Catholic Church in Philadelphia in 1774:

…went in the afternoon, to the Romish Chapel in Philadelphia…the scenery and the music are so calculated to take in mankind that I wonder the Reformation ever succeeded…the chanting is soft and sweet.1

A remarkable statement, indeed! Soon after, another historic event: the first Catholic hymnbook in America was published in Philadelphia in 1787, a compilation of the Litanies and Vesper Hymns and Anthems as they are Sung in the Catholic Church. Adapted to the Voice and Organ by John Aitken.

The music was scored for treble and bass; a later edition included a third vocal part. A "Holy Mass of the Blessed Trinity" was included, but, in the custom of the time, some text was omitted and replaced with instrumental sections. Plainchant themes appeared in the Mass and hymns, but were greatly ornamented. Aitken himself was not Catholic, but saw a need for this publication, and worked with local Catholic leaders in preparing it.

Official celebrations for the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence were held at Old St. Mary’s July 4, 1779. Participants included George Washington, the French ambassador Monsieur Gerard, Gerard’s chaplain, as well as several heads of state, members of Congress, and representatives of the French navy. The Gregorian chant setting of the Te Deum was sung.2

Early Efforts

The first Catholic American publisher was Matthew Carey (1769-1839), who organized a Sunday School Society in Philadelphia in 1790. He published a Catholic catechism in 1794; later editions contained hymns. The first German-American Catholic catechism was prepared by the pastor of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church, Reverend Adrian Breier, in 1810. It was the German parishioners of Holy Trinity who had helped underwrite the cost of Aitken’s 1787 hymnal.

Benjamin Carr (1768-1831) became music director of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church when it opened in 1801. In 1805 he published Masses, Vespers, Litanies: Composed, Selected, and Arranged for the Use of the Catholic Churches in the United States of America. It was dedicated to Bishop John Carroll and included Carr’s original setting for the Mass and Te Deum. It was another landmark publication, introducing Adeste Fideles and O Sanctissima to American Catholics. However, his Mass setting also omitted some phrases in the Gloria, a common practice on both sides of the Atlantic.

Many popular hymns came from the Sodality movement. Approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1684, the first American Sodality was begun in Philadelphia in 1841 by the Reverend Felix Barbelin (1808-1869). Pastor of Old St. Joseph’s for twenty years, he founded St. Joseph’s Hospital and was named President of St. Joseph’s College in 1852. He prepared the first American Sodality Manual in 1841, which contained prayers and hymns. Many Sodality hymnals appeared thereafter, such as Philadelphia’s 1887 Sodalist’s Manual prepared by E.F. McGonigle, which contained 120 hymns with music. So popular was this collection that it was reprinted in 1900, 1904 and 1905.

Catholic music grew in the Catholic schools. As early as 1804, Philadelphia’s Old St. Mary’s established a singing school and boys’ choir.3 The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur prepared The Wreath of Mary hymnal in 1883 and the Sunday School Hymn Book in 1887. While actually published by a Boston firm, the music was the work of Notre Dame sisters in Philadelphia. Some of the hymns later found their way into the St. Basil’s Hymnal. The Sisters of the Holy Child, also in Philadelphia, prepared a hymnal in 1877 with more than 100 English hymns and a few Latin motets, including the O Salutaris setting by Anthony Werner.

Philadelphia poet Eleanor C. Donnelly (1838-1917) published two volumes of original hymns to the Sacred Heart, in 1882 and 1912. Some of her texts included "Sacred Heart, in Accents Burning" and "Like a Strong and Raging Fire".

Romanticism and RoSewig

Albert RoSewig4 was born in Germany but came to Philadelphia at age 10 in 1856 and remained until his death there in 1929. He was director of music at St. Charles Borromeo Church for nearly thirty-five years. So great was his reputation as composer and conductor that he was selected as the conductor for America’s Centennial Chorus at the Centennial Exposition of 1876.

RoSewig devoted most of his attention to music for the Catholic Church, writing Masses, songs, motets. His style was greatly influenced by his time. However, it was not the popular song style of the day (at that time "Little Brown Jug" and "Listen to the Mockingbird" ranked among Philadelphia’s favorite songs), but rather the florid and sentimental style of the classical music of his day. He had his own publishing company, which enabled him to make his and other compositions more readily available.

About 1880, he published Concentus Sacri. This was later criticized severely by reformers, and with good reason: true to the nature of his time, RoSewig used romanticized harmony for Gregorian chants, and even harmonized the priest’s altar chants, something Pius X later condemned. Despite this, Concentus Sacri was a very important collection in its day, for it provided Catholic choirs with the works of such composers as Geibel, Rossini, Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Gounod, and, of course, RoSewig. While the music was overly florid, it was in the best classical traditions of its time and prompted the formation of capable choirs.

RoSewig lived to hear his music roundly condemned by Nicola Montani and the members of Philadelphia’s St. Gregory Guild. When Pope Pius X banned "overly operatic" styles, RoSewig must have been shattered to see his compositions dismissed as inappropriate for the very sphere for which they were written. He completely withdrew from public view for the last decade of his life. Nevertheless, it was time for reform.

Motu Proprio, Montani and the St. Gregory Hymnal

In 1903 Pope Saint Pius X issued his Motu Proprio, which restored pure Gregorian chant, encouraged polyphony, re-affirmed the use of Latin and restricted musical style and instrumental usage for the next sixty years. In Philadelphia, Nicola Montani led the nation in reform.

Montani (1880-1948) was conductor, composer, editor, and publisher. He founded the St. Gregory Guild in Rittenhouse Square to spread the message of the Motu Proprio and to furnish suitable musical publications. Although a native New Yorker, he spent forty-two of his sixty-seven years in Philadelphia, and his name is irrevocably tied to that city. He studied in Rome’s Conservatory of St. Cecilia in 1903, and in 1904 attended a school organized by the then-exiled monks of Solesmes on the Isle of Wight.

From 1906 to 1923 he served at St. John the Evangelist in Philadelphia, with terms as music director at Hallahan High School, West Philadelphia Catholic Girls High School, and St. Mary’s Academy. He served as editor-in-chief for liturgical music for both G. Schirmer and Boston Music Company publishers. In 1914 he founded the Society of St. Gregory and began the Catholic Choirmaster magazine. In 1920 he published the St. Gregory Hymnal and Catholic Choir Book, renewed in 1947. Since the Society did not have the needed funds, Montani funded the hymnal himself. He truly took the reform to heart.

He published a "White List" of recommended music in 1919, as well as the infamous "Black List" in 1922 of music that did not meet — in his estimation, at least — the high standards of the Motu Proprio. The pope had stated that modern music had to have "sanctity and goodness of form contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in theatres and not be fashioned after the manner of profane pieces".5

Montani perhaps went a bit overboard in delineating a "liturgical style". He banned works by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Rossini, von Weber, and RoSewig. He did, however, include works of some masters, but pruned them of all superfluous aspects — rather like diluted root beer.

The St. Gregory Hymnal had a wide acceptance. Even today copies appear on eBay, for the hymnal was a mainstay in many parishes in many states. A severely abridged version is still available from GIA Publications, and the full hymnal itself is available in reprint. It can still be found in many parishes in Philadelphia for the choir, as it contains many accessible choral pieces in both Latin and English, practically arranged for two, three and four voices. As an editor, Montani was very heavy-handed, and his chant accompaniments must take a back seat to the excellent work of Achille Bragers, but there remains much of value within the pages.

One of Montani’s lasting contributions is a small Guild booklet: The Correct Pronunciation of Latin According to the Roman Usage. Still available from GIA publications, in reprint, this manual was recommended to all choral directors by no less a personage than the great Robert Shaw, who referred to it constantly. Prepared for Catholic choir directors, it is ironic that today so many copies are in the hands of directors of concert choirs only!

Montani made other contributions as well. In 1915 his Palestrina Choir gave concerts of Renaissance polyphony in Philadelphia and New York. The group also recorded these works for Victor Records at a time when polyphony was not yet in the repertoire of American choirs, thus bringing this music to the attention of the American public. Montani organized the Choral Festival of Catholic Choirs and directed it for the United States Sesqui-Centennial Celebration in 1926. He had his hymnal put into Braille notation, the first hymnal of any kind to be so prepared. For all his efforts, he was named a Knight Commander of Saint Sylvester by Pope Pius XI in 1926.

Sister M. Immaculée (1885-1965) of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (Immaculata, Pennsylvania) served as music director at Immaculata College for twenty years. She was affiliated with the Society of St. Gregory and became noted as a composer of sacred words for SSA (women’s voices) and SATB. She was influential in urging good liturgical music in the Philadelphia area, and in furthering the cause of women composers.

The Decline — and the Hope

The St. Gregory Hymnal was still the primary music source in Philadelphia until after the Second Vatican Council and the implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy. It disappeared quickly thereafter, however. Philadelphia’s best classically-trained musicians (Carr, RoSewig, Montani) once led strong Catholic music programs in the archdiocese; but these programs were not maintained.

What would John Adams find if he visited one of these parishes today? Or Nicola Montani?

Many parishes in the archdiocese have replaced pipe and electronic organs with keyboard, electric guitars, drums, even saxophones and marimba. Pop-style hymns proliferate; theologically questionable texts are sung with abandon. Many Philadelphians have grown up never hearing a word of Latin or a note of Gregorian chant in their churches.

Like much of the nation, too many of Philadelphia’s Catholic parishes put music selection either in the hands of music publishers or parishioners who have negligible training in music, music history or Liturgy.

In 1976 the International Eucharistic Congress was held in Philadelphia, and the archdiocese commissioned a new hymn: "Gift of Finest Wheat". This hymn is found in many collections today, including the new Presbyterian Hymnal. (To the credit of the archdiocese, it has refused to allow its hymn to be printed with any altering of the text: no "inclusive" language changes, no tampering of any kind.)

Despite the "shadows", there are some bright spots. Some music directors refuse to program poor quality music. There is a large and excellent archdiocesan boy choir (directed by Tom Winfelder) with a very fine repertoire. There are a few choir directors who still teach Latin and English motets and anthems. In some parishes the choir and congregation use the Adoremus Hymnal.

At our monastery, our small but faithful congregation, aided by the choir, sings Gregorian chant and traditional hymnody, as well as the best of the new music.

While Nicola Montani might not approve of all our choices (we love Mozart, Gounod, and Schubert in their original forms, and the best of the Victorian hymns), we are in compliance with Vatican directives. Because we have great need of additional Marian and Carmelite hymns, and use a great deal of chant, we have our own Monastery Hymnal in preparation. In the city that produced so many early hymnals, and which was once led by the reforming Montani, we now boldly set out on our own.

The Catholic Church in Philadelphia has a long and distinguished history in liturgical music. One hopes it soon ceases to follow the pop-and-secular-music-style crowd and once again leads its people — and the nation — in renewal of music for the Liturgy, music that is truly sacred in nature, excellent in quality, and fitting for God’s house.


1 Quoted in Gilbert Chase, America’s Music, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955), 58.

2 J. Vincent Higginson, Survey of American Catholic Hymnals: Survey and Background. (The Hymn Society of America, 1982), 10.

3 Higginson, 75.

4 RoSewig insisted the "s" be capitalized so his name would be correctly pronounced with three syllables, not two.

5 Tra le sollecitudini, Pope Pius X, November 22, 1903.


Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the Carmelite Monastery in Philadelphia, and adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. She is also the creator of Churchmouse Squeaks in AB.



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA