Retiring cathedral music director helped many share musical gifts

  • Written by Jean Parietti
  • Published in NW Stories
Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

Growing up in Oregon as the son of a Baptist preacher, James Savage was always involved in music ministry. While he enjoyed church music, it was more of a hobby than a calling. “It wasn’t the center of my life,” Savage said.

That changed in 1981, when he met with Father William E. Gallagher (then pastor of St. James Cathedral) to discuss a part-time job as director of the cathedral’s languishing music program.

Savage wasn’t looking for a job; he was already busy with a variety of musical endeavors. But Brother Elias, a monk studying under Savage at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, thought “I needed the cathedral and the cathedral needed me,” Savage said.

To satisfy the “very determined” monk, Savage and Father Gallagher agreed to meet. “By the end of that meeting, I understood for the first time in my life what ‘call’ was,” Savage said.

He took the music director’s job, accepting the opportunity to share his gifts with God’s people — and helping hundreds of others be good stewards of their own God-given talents.

Now, after 33 years as the cathedral’s music director, Savage is retiring in January.

A vision for sung prayer

The music ministry at St. James today is vastly different than the program that Savage took over in 1981, when St. James had fewer than 600 parishioners, the cathedral’s big organ was in disrepair and only 17 people could be scraped up for Savage’s first choir audition.

“Father Gallagher believed that the way to build the parish was through a vigorous music program,” said Savage, who became Catholic in 1982.

With that vision and Savage’s leadership, the music program was soon flourishing. Just five years after arriving, Savage led the Cathedral Choir on a pilgrimage to Rome, where they sang at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Over the years, Savage’s job went from part time to full time and beyond.

Today, the cathedral parish has more than 2,200 families, whose worship is enriched by 11 vocal and instrumental groups, as well as four resident ensembles. Sacred concerts and special events are sprinkled through the year, drawing audiences from the wider community.

“I’ve been very blessed to have two pastors in a row [including current pastor Father Michael G. Ryan] who’ve had this vision for what sung prayer could be,” said Savage, 71, who has a doctorate in music.

Jim SavageJim Savage. Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘Wobbly voices and firm voices’

At St. James, the principal choir is the congregation, Savage said. “Every human being is made in the image of God, and therefore every human being is a singer,” he said. “I really do love certain things about music in a church,” he said. “I like that there are old voices and young voices and wobbly voices and firm voices.”

Glenda Voller, who joined the cathedral choir two years after Savage’s arrival, said he “has just exemplified what music can do for worship in liturgy.”

St. James now has a nationally recognized cathedral music program that is among the largest in the U.S., with 200 singers and musicians, plus some 110 volunteers. In 2002, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians named Savage its Pastoral Musician of the Year.

“I can only take credit for a little bit of it, then there’s this gulf,” Savage said. “That’s how I’ve learned what God’s grace is. I’m continually astounded at the gulf between what I’m able to accomplish and what happens.”

The high notes

As James Savage retires from St. James Cathedral, he notes some highlights of his 33 years as music director:

  • Converting a congregation that didn’t sing into one that actively participates in liturgical music. “That to me is the single biggest achievement we’ve had in this time,” Savage said.
  • Creating a vibrant music program for young people ages 5–20, with the mission of full, active participation in the liturgy through singing. “We want them to be great worshipping Catholics who happen to sing,” Savage said.
  • Going from two organs that didn’t work to two “magnificent” pipe organs, including the 1907 organ that was restored, and five smaller organs.
  • Developing a “really wonderful relationship” with the archdiocese’s Spanish-speaking communities, who in recent years invited Savage to participate in December’s Madre de las Americas Mass. “They so beautifully demonstrate what being one body is,” he said.

Northwest Catholic - January/February 2015