By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
ST. JOSEPH — What do you call someone who has served his parish and its school for 38 years— dedicated, devoted? How about simply, Tom Smith?
Since 1978, Smith has served Cathedral Parish in St. Joseph as organist, liturgist, music teacher, music director and hand bell choir director, for a while all at the same time.
Tom plans to retire from full-time work at the Cathedral early this summer. A Mass and reception honoring him and the years he devoted to the parish and the school was held May 22.
Tom Smith, the second of four children, grew up in Kansas City, attending St. Francis Xavier Church and School. Growing up in a family of musicians, he had begun piano lessons as a child. In the fifth grade, the school music teacher, Sister Mary Franceline, BVM, discovered and encouraged his interest in the organ and began teaching him to play. More than 50 years later, he called her one of his heroes.
Tom attended De LaSalle High School and then Rockhurst College (University), graduating in 1969.
He began playing for Sunday liturgies at St. Augustine Church (now Church of the Holy Martyrs) in 1962 and continued playing through high school and college, serving as parish Music Director during his last three years in college.
He became active in the American Guild of Organists in college and has kept up his membership ever since. He is a past dean of the Guild. Tom has served on the boards of the St. Joseph Symphony and the regional Allied Arts Council.
Shortly after graduating from Rockhurst with a B.A. in Philosophy, he learned that Cathedral School in St. Joseph had a music job open. A college friend from St. Joseph had invited him to visit several times; he liked the city and knew something about Cathedral Parish. He was hired to teach music at Cathedral School; then joined the Army in 1970. He served one year at Fort Leavenworth and two years in Germany. While working in ordnance, Tom also enjoyed playing in service bands. After his discharge in 1973 he returned to St. Joseph, playing the organ at Immaculate Conception/Queen of the Apostles Church until it closed in 1977; now it is known as Twin Spires, a museum of St. Joseph’s multi-faith history. He later retired from the Army Reserves.
He also commuted twice a week to Kansas City to study at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music — earning a Master of Music in Organ Performance degree in 1978.
That same year the position of music director at Cathedral parish opened, and Tom took the job. He wasn’t figuring to stay in St. Joseph forever, but it became home. He commented, “I really settled in when I took this job.”
The organ is housed in the choir loft high above the Cathedral floor; peering over the railing is dizzying. That organ, an American pipe organ built for the Cathedral of St. Joseph in 1930 by Kilgen and Son Organ Company of St. Louis, has 24 ranks of pipes, two keyboards and a majestic voice. When a building houses a large organ, it becomes part of it. The walls and ceiling should provide a reverberating echo, but not too much of one. In the Cathedral’s capacious interior, home to Mass and other Catholic religious rites since 1871, the organ’s voice can roll around and blossom, Tom said. When he plays a hymn, you can almost see the sound expand and flower.
He became one of the Cathedral parish family, supported by all eight pastors he has worked under, and thrilled by the vocal gifts of both the adult and school choirs.
Tom remained single, “married to my job.” He has a brother in Brazil, one sister in Kansas City and another in Albuquerque.
He taught music at the school four days each week, and in 1990 organized and taught hand bell choirs for the fifth through eighth graders. Some of his students continued in the hand bell choir at Bishop LeBlond High School.
As time passed, the school hired another music teacher, and Tom became responsible for the church Liturgies and music. He also served almost four decades as Leader of Boy Scout Troop 47, chartered at the Cathedral in 1928. Over those years, he has counseled and directed hundreds of young men working toward the Ad Altare Dei Medal and other religious scouting awards. The Catholic Committee on Scouting awarded Tom the St. George Emblem for his work.
His favorite piece of liturgical music is “Alleluia,” composed in 1940 by American composer Randall Thompson. It is a sad piece, influenced by France’s fall during World War II; the text consists of one word: Alleluia, repeated over and over. “It’s a great choral work,” Tom said, while playing part of the work on the piano.
His favorite hymn is “O God, Beyond All Praising,” with music by Gustav Holst and words by Michael Perry.
Several things stand out over the past 38 years. “The variety of people I’ve worked with – I’ve worked with two generations of families here! The ways music can touch people’s lives. The power of music, both in and of itself and the power of church music. Those things stick with me.”
Tom continued, “I am compelled to be at my best when playing for Mass, weddings, funerals or other services. My reputation is only as good as the last service I played for. Last year, last week, they don’t count. If I’m not doing my best, an opportunity for grace is lost. Maybe somebody in the back of church is feeling lonely and needs to hear just the right song. You never know when that’ll happen. Of course, at Mass the priest is absolutely indispensable, but the organist has a role also.”
He said he’ll miss the kids the most. They’ll miss him also. Out on the playground, a group of boys broke off playing ball to surround him and pepper him with questions about lunch, hand bells and summer vacation. “I told Mary Burgess (Cathedral School principal) that I’d still volunteer with the bell choir, scaling it back in size,” Tom said.
In his years at Cathedral Parish and School, he has made connections through music and those connections will remain important.
Surprises came fast and delightfully the weekend of May 22. Tom’s sister drove up for the reception. During Mass a combined choir of former students of his appeared after Communion and sang one of Tom’s compositions in his honor, as well as other pieces. They joined the parish choir, making “a huge joint choir” singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Mary Burgess said the rafters rose, the music was so powerful.
Bishop LeBlond graduating seniors who had played in bell choirs for Tom, came back to give a concert at the reception after Mass. Cathedral School secretly raised funds for and purchased in Tom’s honor color coded bells for a junior hand bell choir (for kids as young as kindergarten and first grade).
A flag, bearing the emblems of the Boy Scouts and the U.S. Army, was presented to him.
And the 5th – 8th grade bell-choir raised the money to give him a $1,000 travel voucher so he can realize some of his travel dreams. He wants to see New England in the fall; he’d like to visit his sister in Albuquerque and his brother in Brazil.
But most of all he wants to continue to play the organ at Cathedral and at home, in St. Joseph.