On this blog, we almost never “repost” old articles. However, I believe this beautiful Tribute to Msgr. Schmitt by Mr. Andrew Baumert is a worthy exception to our rule.
N 1977, at the age of 61, Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt received the last assignment of his priestly career. His bishop named him pastor of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Aloys, a tiny parish near his birthplace in northeast Nebraska. By 1977, the rest of the world had already come to know Monsignor Schmitt as an intellectual, a scholar and a musician of great accomplishment. But over the next 17 years the parishioners of St. Aloysius were blessed to know him as not only a music master but as a simple, loving parish priest.
Monsignor Schmitt was assigned to St. Aloysius, “put out to pastor” as he called it, after 36 years directing the Boys Town Choir. [Put out to pastor is a twist on the farming phrase Put out to pasture.] Those intervening years, as the Choir performed at churches, on festival stages, on radio, television and in the recording studio made him and the Choir known around the world. His church and scholarly work in the field of liturgical and other sacred music, and his book Church Music Transgressed, made him both known and respected by church music scholars across the country. Among his new flock however, the name Schmitt would more likely have been familiar because of his brother’s clothing store, which bore the Schmitt name, in nearby West Point.
Aloys is an unincorporated village of four or five houses and the church about 70 miles northwest of Omaha. Three generations of my own family have been able to stand on the east porch of the family’s farmhouse, look across the Pebble Creek valley and see St. Aloysius Church less than a mile away.
THE AREA SURROUNDING ALOYS is farming country. Fields of corn, soybeans, alfalfa, oats and brome grass pasture cover the gently rolling hills of light brown soil. When the rains are sufficient, those fields provide an abundance of feed for the tens of thousands of cattle and hogs raised in the barns and lots on the farmsteads where most of the parishioners live and raise their families. The country is crisscrossed by mostly gravel roads into an almost perfect grid pattern of one-mile square sections. Monsignor could regularly be seen walking the gravel roads near Aloys, sometimes being dragged by his big, black dog Duke. He’d often be puffing on a cigar, a habit he said he picked up because of all the cigars he’d been offered by appreciative audience members during his world travels with the Choir.
The name Schmitt fit right in among parishioners whose ancestors came mostly from Catholic areas of Germany and Bohemia. In the 1880s and ‘90s these settlers established rural parishes so that they would not have to drive a horse and wagon more than 7 or 8 miles for Sunday Mass. From the front porch of my parents’ farm house, you can see the steeple of St. Aloysius about a mile away, St. Boniface about five miles away and, on a clear day, St. Mary in West Point 11 miles away.
THE PARISH’S FIRST CHURCH was dedicated in 1891 on five acres of land donated by a parishioner. Another founding parishioner remembered, according to an old clipping from a local newspaper, “When I first saw it, there was nothing but the blue sky and the green grass…I was about 13 years old and helped…break the ground with a team of oxen.” The current Romanesque-style church of tan brick and red roof tiles was built in 1930, just in time for the parish’s 50th anniversary in 1931. Fifty years later, the parish would celebrate its centennial with Monsignor Schmitt as its pastor.
The church itself is beautiful, designed by the late Leo Daly, Sr., founder and namesake of the architectural firm which now has offices all over the world. According to Monsignor, Daly once said the Aloys church was one of the first ones he designed. Fittingly, perhaps, the Daly firm was also involved in the early master planning for the Boys Town campus as well as the design for the Boys Town stadium, built the year Monsignor Schmitt first arrived at Boys Town.
The parish had a school from the beginning and when the final school building was built in 1913, the School Sisters of St. Francis assumed teaching duties and remained until the school closed in 1984, the last sister being Sr. Veronica Wolff, whose family ran the general store across the road from the church for nearly a century. Over the years, St. Aloysius was the home parish of several who entered the religious life including one bishop, four priests and seven sisters. It was in the three rooms of that school that my three brothers, two sisters and I learned math, science, spelling and the Catechism from teachers like Sister Dalene and Sister Charitosa.
EARLY ON IN HIS ASSIGNMENT, Monsignor provided his new parish with a demonstration of the musical standards he had established and was accustomed to when he arranged for the Boys Town Choir to perform at St. Aloysius. The little church was packed with parishioners and many others from nearby who’d heard about the performance. I was blessed to have been there that night to hear one of the country’s or perhaps one of the world’s great choirs. It was the first time I had ever heard applause in church, led by my mother’s eager clapping.
Of course, the St. Aloysius parish choir was not the Boys Town choir but Monsignor Schmitt did not expect less effort. He didn’t think four-part harmony was beyond the little choir, nor Latin. He also thought it was appropriate that a parish of German-immigrant descendants should hear “Silent Night” sung in German as “Stille Nacht” at Christmas time.
Monsignor would often conduct practice for the adult choir or the children’s choir from behind his little pump organ, helping us find the notes by singing them in his deep bass voice. He didn’t like to hear notes being “smeared,” recall my parents. He wanted you to cleanly sing the note you meant to sing. My parents remain in the choir to this day and still remember his stern admonition, “Don’t practice your mistakes.” I didn’t think about it at the time, but in retrospect, I would like to have asked him about the differences between directing a choir of youngsters compared to directing a choir of farm men and women, some of whom had been singing the same hymns and propers the same way for 30, 40 or even 50 years.
MONSIGNOR SOMETIMES SHARED stories about his experiences and travels with the Boys Town Choir. He recalled, in an interview with the local West Point News newspaper, making several records with the Choir including “one that Warner Brothers cajoled us into making with the Everly Brothers. The kids almost cracked up when Phil and Don began to sing. But in fairness, it must be said they were out of shape that day. Warner finally decided to record our parts in the Boys Town Music Hall and the Everlys out in Hollywood where they could work things out at their leisure, superimposing voices, setting pitches, etc. mechanically. I don’t think the record was any great shakes and I doubt that it still exists. I hope not.”
Monsignor would also occasionally contribute to “The Pastor’s Column” in the local newspaper. His words were often beyond my comprehension at the time but seem prophetic when read many years later. He wrote once “We do well to hark back to our religious heritage, and take it seriously as we might. For some several hundred years a proctoring segment of the western world has feigned to march righteously apart from the religion which formed it. But the Enlightenment turns out to be fraught with clouds. The world bequeathed us by Aldous Huxley is neither brave nor new. Moral libertarians have let loose a lot more rabbits than they can shoot and B.F. Skinner’s radically secular vision of Walden II is clearly not working. We need to discover, at last, that humanity has never managed to be human on its own.”
Though the parish, over time, became more aware of Monsignor’s many accomplishments in the world, my family and many other parishioners remember him mostly as a trusted pastor and gentle shepherd.
That became clear to our family, about a year after he arrived at St. Aloysius, upon the death from leukemia of my teenage sister Ruth. It must be a near impossible task for a pastor to find words to match the weight of a family’s grief at the death of a young daughter, much less find words which can provide any comfort for the family who must watch their dear one be buried in the ground. It’s been 35 years, but I still recall Monsignor Schmitt delivering the funeral Mass homily. Knowing Ruth as a farm girl with a love of the natural world, Monsignor reminded us that “Ruth was not afraid of the earth.” Only a pastor who knew his flock well would have known the kind of solace and understanding those specific words could provide to a farm family whose daily lives are intertwined with God’s earth.
FOR MY OWN PART, I was a teenager when Monsignor first came to the parish. Over the years, Monsignor heard my confessions with compassion, provided wise marriage instruction to my fiancé and me, and baptized with joy both of our daughters in the little baptismal alcove at St. Aloysius.
Monsignor Schmitt turned out to be St. Aloysius’s last resident pastor. The parish afterward shared a priest with other local parishes and then became affiliated with St. Mary’s parish in nearby West Point and continues to have Mass each Sunday morning celebrated by a priest from St. Mary’s.
The speed with which the cancer claimed his life in 1994 surprised the parish. Over 17 years of service, Monsignor had become a trusted and beloved father to the parish, and his death was a terribly sad loss. Monsignor is remembered still and his memory, I think, is one of the reasons the parish remains a living anchor for the rural faithful of the tiny Aloys community. If you visit the cemetery today, flanked on two sides by corn and soybean fields, you will see an engraved stone beneath the cemetery crucifix and a plaque in front of the Rosary shrine that memorialize his kind and wise pastorship at St. Aloysius. The parish rectory, now used for parish gatherings, still contains many of Monsignor’s books and keepsakes, as well as his beautiful, old reed organ.
A signed copy of Monsignor Schmitt’s Church Music Transgressed remains a cherished memento of my parents. But that slim volume, much as it reflects his tremendous intellect, musical authority and scholarly weight, cannot outweigh his legacy as a beloved father and shepherd to the tiny parish of St. Aloysius.
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