On Fridays of Lent, Pray Tell will highlight stories of individuals and organizations which inspire and challenge us by their self-giving service to others.
Dr. James Savage was at St. James Cathedral in Seattle for 33 years of “great and wonderful and grand moments” directing the choir and building up an impressive music program. Savage studied in Stuttgart, Germany as a Fullbright scholar, and earned his doctorate in music in the U.S.
When Savage arrived at St. James Cathedral in the 1980s, the pipe organ was in disrepair and 17 people showed up for the first choir session. By the time of his retirement, the cathedral music program boasted over 200 participants involved in 11 vocal and instrumental groups, as well as four resident ensembles, and a sacred concert series. A 48-rank Rosales organ was installed in 2000. And the cathedral parish, where Fr. Michael Ryan is pastor, had been transformed into a singing congregation – something which was and is the highest priority of the music program.
After a third of a century of all that, what do you do in retirement?
Savage ended up serving another very different type of parish in Seattle. Christ Our Hope Parish includes members from millennial tech workers to low-income residents of the Josephinum housing facility. Christ Our Hope church is in a recently restored former grand ball room of a large and elegant hotel built downtown in 1908. It is now called the Josephinum. There are 240 extreme low-income residents of the 14 floors of former hotel rooms above the church – some are semi-permanent, others are very temporary. The new parish was opened in 2010 to serve any and all people in the downtown area.
Knowing that Savage was free in retirement, the pastor of Christ Our Hope asked Savage to observe the music and give advice. He ended up volunteering to lead the choir which otherwise was about to come to an end. And then the temporary position became permanent. “After two Sundays and two Tuesdays, I was hooked,” he said. “I had fallen in love with the handful of singers God sent.”
Savage started with a choir of 3 people – a recent homeless gentleman, a millennial and a woman who is an extreme low-income resident of the Josephinum. After less than two years, the choir grew to “to between twenty and thirty, depending on lots of stuff, I am finding,” Savage said.
About 60% of the Choir of Hope have very challenged living circumstances: homeless, recently homeless, extended shelter stays, extreme subsidized housing, … and one fellow in a tent under the freeway. Most of the remainder are young, very successful downtown millennials “who love being with the special folks,” Savage said.
Not long into his new position, Savage lost three basses. One had to return to his tribal lands for several months to qualify for his full stipend from the tribe. One has fallen back into drugs and his whereabouts were not known. One was picked up for a very minor traffic infraction and was spending time in a Deportation Detention Center. He deals with it. And then another bass was committed to suicide watch.
A tenor was seeking temporary housing. When he asked Savage for a reference, he first learned that the man had been living in a car with his 5-year-old daughter for several months. A woman went back to heavy drinking but still came to rehearsals – “late, drunk, and oh so happy.” Another woman went absent, though – she had a mental breakdown and is in a facility.
Some members have come into the Catholic Church through the choir program. Jerome Smith, a Josephinum resident who was received into the Catholic Church at this year’s Easter Vigil, said the choir is “a way of the Holy Spirit to actually come and reach us.” Smith joined the choir after hearing a psalmist at Christ Our Hope. “I saw her singing up there and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, she’s smiling as she’s singing at the same time? Whatever she has, I want some of that,’” he said.
“Please pray for Choir of Hope,” Savage wrote to Pray Tell. “Those folks are among God’s most blessed, but so in need of daily prayers. It would mean so much if they knew the great souls of St. John’s had prayed for them.” And in what I think is a reference to “St. James the Greater,” he signed the note “James, the very least.”
James, you have our prayers and, I’m sure, those of the entire Pray Tell community.
P.S.: Here is a video from Northwest Catholic about the choir.