NE OF THE greatest gifts that we have as Catholics is the assurance of the prayers of the saints, “on whose constant intercession in [God’s] presence we rely for unfailing help” (Eucharistic Prayer III). The saints in heaven are perfected in charity and united to us as fellow members of Christ’s mystical body, the Church. As a result, we can be sure that they love us, are aware of our needs, and rejoice to make intercession on our behalf with the Father.
In order that we might get to know them better, I thought I would offer some short biographical sketches of men and women who were church musicians themselves and who can empathize with the joys and struggles of our profession. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; some of these saints (and blesseds, venerables, and servants of God) are well-known, while many others are not. I hope that these brief sketches will inspire us all to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us,” confident that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1)!
Servant of God Antonio Cuipa (+1704): Apalachee chief Antonio Cuipa was born to a Christian family in present-day Florida and educated by the Franciscans. He traveled with Franciscan missionaries throughout the region, attracting the attention of his fellow Native Americans by his skillful flute and guitar playing, which he then followed up with powerful evangelical preaching. As he was being martyred by members of a warring tribe, he was comforted by a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary. His cause for his canonization alongside his companions (known collectively as the Martyrs of La Florida) is currently open.
Saint Beningus of Armagh (+467): Converted to Christianity by St. Patrick, Beningus’ beautiful voice earned him the title of “Patrick’s psalm-singer.” He was a choir director who later became coadjutor bishop of the Diocese of Armagh alongside St. Patrick around the year 450. His feast day is celebrated on November 9.
Blessed Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago (1918-1963): With only one year of piano lessons under his belt, Carlos taught himself organ so that he could play for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He was extraordinarily devoted to the sacred liturgy, even going so far as to translate the Latin prayers of the Mass into Spanish and publishing a newsletter so that his fellow laypeople could better understand the liturgy. He gave lectures on the prayers of the Mass and organized study groups to help people fall more in love with Jesus through the Church’s liturgy. He died from cancer at the age of 44, and his feast day is celebrated on July 13.
Saint Cecilia of Rome (early 3rd century): In spite of the fact that she herself does not seem to have been a musician, Saint Cecilia is said to have “sang in her heart” to the Lord (Lovewell, The Life of St. Cecilia) as the musicians played at her wedding. She has long been the patron saint of music and musicians, and many musical works have been dedicated to her, such as Benjamin Britten’s famous “Hymn to St. Cecilia.” Her feast day is celebrated on November 22.
Blessed Dina Bélanger (1897-1929): Born in Québec to devout parents, young Dina quickly became an accomplished pianist. Her mother and father sent her for conservatory studies at the Juilliard School in New York City, and after graduating she spent years concertizing throughout Canada. But throughout her accomplished musical career, Dina’s devotion to the Faith never left her. She became a Third Order Dominican and later professed vows in another order of women religious, taking the name Marie de Sainte-Cécile de Rome (after the aforementioned patron saint of musicians). She died of tuberculosis at the age of 32, and her feast day is celebrated on September 4.
Saint Ephrem the Syrian (c. 306-373): A deacon and Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem is remembered for the hundreds of poems, sermons, and (most especially) hymns that he wrote to combat the various heresies that were prevalent in his day, especially after the First Council of Nicaea was held in 325. He was a trusted and compassionate servant of the Church in modern-day Turkey, being charged with the distribution of food during a widespread famine and eventually succumbing to a plague he contracted while tending to the sick. His feast day is celebrated on June 9.
Blessed Ezequiel Huerta Gutiérrez (1876-1972): A husband, father of ten children, and gifted multi-instrumentalist, this Mexican tenor and choir director from the Archdiocese of Guadalajara was martyred during the Cristero War. He was beatified along with his brother and seven other lay martyrs by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2005.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great (c. 540-604): A Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory was one of the medieval Church’s great administrators and reformers. The music collectively referred to as “Gregorian chant” has Pope St. Gregory the Great for its namesake.
Blessed Hermann of Reichenau (1013-1054): A cleft palate, cerebral palsy, spinal muscular atrophy, and eventual blindness didn’t stop Blessed Hermann from composing influential works in fields as diverse as mathematics, history, astronomy, and music theory. Educated in a Benedictine monastery from the age of seven (when his parents could no longer care for him), this great composer is credited with melodies we still sing today, such as the Veni Sancte Spiritus, Salve Regina, and Alma Redemptoris Mater. He was beatified in 1863.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen (c. 1098-1179): One of the most famous saints of the Middle Ages, Saint Hildegard was a Benedictine abbess, mystic, botanist, historian, playwright, poet, musician, and more. In her day, she was one of the most prolific and well-regarded composers of liturgical music (hymns, antiphons, and other kinds of chant) the Church had ever known. While the history of her canonization is complex, Pope Benedict XVI officially extended her liturgical remembrance to the universal Church in 2012 through a process known as ”equivalent canonization.” A few months after that, she became one of only a handful of women (and of only about three dozen saints in total) to be named a Doctor of the Church on account of the originality of her teaching and her holiness of life.
Blessed Jarogniew Wojciechowski (1922-1942): Jarogniew was a Polish teenager who played the piano and sang in the parish choir. He aspired to study composition, but went to serve as a soldier instead and was sentenced to death by the Nazis when he was only 19. In a letter shortly before his execution, he wrote: “Entrust your feelings in every moment of your life only to Jesus and Mary, because in them you will find solace.” He was among a group of 108 Polish martyrs beatified by Pope St. John Paul II in June 1999.
Blessed Lucien Botovasoa (1908-1943): Lucien, a husband and father, had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and was a founding member of the third-order (secular) Franciscan community in his native Madagascar. As a schoolteacher, he made a habit of reading an excerpt from the lives of the saints to his students at the end of every lesson. Besides his day job in the school, he was also the parish choir director, a gifted singer, and harmonium player. When the local government turned against the Church, Lucien was martyred by some of his former students. He was beatified in April of 2018, and his feast day is celebrated on April 14.
Venerable Satoko Kitahara (1929-1958): Disillusioned by her job in a Japanese airplane warehouse during World War II, young Satoko Kitahara converted to Catholicism in 1949 after being instructed by Mercedarian missionaries. Inspired by St. Elizabeth of Hungary’s service to the poor, she took the baptismal name Elizabeth, to which she later added “Maria” on account of her singular devotion to the Mother of God. Once thinking she would become a concert pianist, she instead taught piano lessons to impoverished children. Although her family was quite wealthy, she spent the last decade of her life living in the slums of Tokyo so that she could better care for the children there. After a protracted battle with tuberculosis, she died at the age of 28. Having confirmed her life of heroic virtue, Pope Francis declared her Venerable in 2015.
For much of the above information I am indebted to my friend Meg Hunter-Kilmer, a self-professed “saint ninja” and research fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, whose evangelical zeal and tireless devotion to hagiography are a gift to the whole Church. She has recently released two books about the saints: “Pray for Us: 75 Saints Who Sinned, Suffered, and Struggled on Their Way to Holiness” (for adults) and “Saints Around the World” (for children and adults).