Search This Blog

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

If I Forget You, Jerusalem

The media, and lately the internet and particularly social media, has made this a very small world. Facebook has helped me, and, I presume, you, to find people we knew 20, 30, 40 years ago, when we were different people, you know, the ones who heard the Beatles before they were on the oldies stations. Or I'll hear a story on the news like I did a few years ago, that a tornado had ripped through Perry County in southeast Missouri, the county seat of which is the little town of Perryville, and my ears will start burning. My wife, Terry Donohoo, is from St. Louis, and much of her family is still homesteaded in the area. Our lives are entwined with a St. Louis parish called St. Vincent de Paul, the wonderful people there, and the religious community that runs it, the Vincentians. The little town of Perryville sits about 90 miles south of St. Louis on Interstate 55. It was home for a century or so to St. Mary of the Barrens Seminary, the college (and former theologate) of those Vincentians, or Congregation of the Mission (C.M.), and from 1970-1973, my alma mater.

The dome over the main altar at
St. Mary of the Barrens, Perryville.
St. Mary's in the early 1970s was a good place to be in formation. The theological vision of the Second Vatican Council was beginning to seep into the thinking and planning of the Congregation of the Mission. Several of their brightest and best theologians had served as periti (experts in a particular theological discipline) to various bishops at the Council; Annibale Bugnini himself was member of the Vincentians. There was a keen interest in liturgy as formative, as essentially participatory, and as the center of seminary life. As seems to happen in some kind of unpredictable cycle, in a group of barely more than a hundred collegians there was a striking number of excellent musicians and a greater number of enthusiastic amateurs. We always had four or five organists, excellent guitar players, and a number of players who covered other woodwind and percussion instruments. There was a lot of music in the seminary in those days.

In a fairly regional, if not parochial, minor seminary system of the time, St. Mary's was also our first experience of a wider brotherhood of young men with similar interests from several parts of the country. Active minor seminaries for the Vincentians at the time were located in Montebello, California (which I had attended), Lemont, Illinois, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and Beaumont, Texas. All the guys in my class had spent a year in Santa Barbara, California, at the Vincentian novitiate, so we had met and lived with seminarians from all these places, but the college seminary was a four-year institution, and we now were thrown in with classes from the previous three years of novitiate and the traditions of a century-old institution. In short, it was like seeing more of the world for the first time, but without girls.

One of the many musicians I met there and admired was a second-year fellow named Bill Schutzman. Bill was from Colorado by way of Texas, at least, he had come to the VIncentians by way of the Beaumont minor sem. He had family roots in Estes Park, Colorado. Bill's guitar prowess was legendary; we had all heard about him before we got to St. Mary's, and we were amazed by him when we heard him in person. He had a singing voice that was extraordinarily rich and inviting, too, reminiscent of B.J. Thomas. It didn't really surprise us when Bill decided that the priesthood wasn't for him, and he decided to strike out into the musical world on his own.

I'm sure that his classmates kept track of him, but exactly what he did after leaving the seminary is a mystery to me. After I left in 1973, Bill contacted me again, and as I recall he was living in Tucson, Arizona, and working as the music director  at a church there. This could have been as late as 1978 or so, and he was preparing his first recording of songs for worship. He had made a demo, and Resource Publications was interested in distributing it (this is the company that produced "Modern Liturgy" magazine for so many years, and continues to produce resources for catechesis and worship.) 

Bill finally did make his album with a flute player and a bass player, though it was only produced on vinyl and I don't have a copy left to acknowledge his musicians by. He had changed his name to "Bill Foster," and the name of the record was "If I Forget You, Jerusalem," which was one of my songs. The recording included "Wings of Dawn," "Here I Am," "I Had a Dream," and another of my songs, along with five or six of his. Some of the songs were published on the pages of "Modern Liturgy" (Volume 10, 1983) as that was their practice when introducing new music. Bill also showcased his album at one of the St. Louis NPM conventions. 

After a few more years and another collection that didn't really ever get syndicated, Bill disappeared from our lives. Bill was homeless for a while, and was diagnosed in 1989 with schizophrenia. Occasionally we would get a bit of news about him, but nothing substantial. Then, along came Facebook, and there was Bill Fosterr as part of the group of St. Mary's Perryville alums, living and working as a recovery advocate with the Mental Health Association in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Bill is back playing music when he can, and recently made a new CD of some of his repertoire. 

I do know that a lot of people first got acquainted with my writing through Bill Fosterr's generous adopting of them into his repertoire. So today I'm saying "thank you" to him, and saying a prayer that he knows God's protection. He assures me that "what I'm doing is a Great Leap Forward and it goes to Society's Credit. We ARE Doing Better!!...I am Very Enthusiastic about my current Job and I feel that I am More Competent at the Job because of my previous difficulties. I'd like to focus on the job and the Principles that I am Happy to Spread to anyone undergoing the 'Participants' who visit 'Denver House', where I work here in Tulsa." Thanks, Bill. "If I forget you," and the beautiful music you've made and with which you have gladdened the hearts of so many,
"may my right hand be forgotten, too."

Side Bar: Both "If I Forget You, Jerusalem" and "Wings of Dawn," settings of Psalms 137 and 139 respectively, were written in the summer of 1973, after I left St. Mary's Seminary. (Both songs appear on the CD Safety Harbor.) It was becoming increasingly clear to me that the celibate aspect of priestly life, which was supposed to apply to formation as well, was not in my kit bag of charisms, so I decided that the most honest thing to do was leave, even though I was still a year away from the B.A. (I eventually got the degree from St. Mary's with a few hours credit for "life experience" in 1984 or 85.) I was reluctant to go back to Phoenix, family, and friends right away, feeling that I had never been out of the immediate surrounding of some kind of intense community. So I chose to spend the summer as a staff musician at a camp in upper peninsula Michigan for inner city children, run by the Dominican community. I knew no one at all there: it was a chance for me to see who I was and whether I could make it among people who didn't know me on mutual terms.

Generally, the summer was a tremendous experience, but after just a week or two I came down with a terrible infection (ironically, called "Vincent's infection"—another example of the cosmos's weird sense of humor) and was bedridden for a week. During that time, I was nursed back to health by a wonderful young woman who was the camp nurse. She and I got to be friends, and I eventually learned her story. She had been engaged to a basketball player on the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, who just two months before had been tragically killed in an automobile accident. "Wings of Dawn" originally bore the epigram "For Marie," and "If I Forget You" was subtitled "Peter's Song." Though those names have long disappeared from the manuscripts, I have not forgotten Marie's kindness nor her pain in those months. I have occasionally heard from her or about her, and know that she found new love and has raised a family in the years since then. Thanks be to God for carrying her, and all of us, through death to life.


  1. RC: Strange how your work/memories became part of my own formation half a generation later.
    The first songs that I learned to play when I took up the guitar at Cape were yours; and Doug Sparks was one of the 'philosophy guys' from P'ville singing them.

    1. Life is dang weird, no question about that! Thanks, Dennis.

  2. Two of my favorite songs (psalms) (from my favorite album). These are the standards by which I judge all psalms. They both capture the mood, meaning, and essence of the psalm. It is wonderful to hear the back story (sad as it is) and only adds to the beauty of these pieces.