Musical spirit

Susan Olmos teaches all music classes at Holy Rosary School in Edmonds, including these first-graders. Screenshot of video by Anna Weaver Susan Olmos teaches all music classes at Holy Rosary School in Edmonds, including these first-graders. Screenshot of video by Anna Weaver

For Susan Olmos, music reveals a glimpse of heaven

Susan Olmos was more than busy: teaching music in public schools, directing a Methodist church choir and raising a toddler with another baby on the way. Somehow, she was inspired to compose a musical about the life of Jesus.

“I kind of wrote the music on the road,” commuting more than 25 miles from Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood to work in Federal Way, Olmos recalled. A tune would come to her, and she’d sing it into a recorder. “I would pick my child up from daycare and burn the candle at the piano and try to get these songs written.

“The only way I can explain it, is that I just let it come through me,” Olmos said. “I feel like I was just a vessel and that music came through me and I wrote it down.”

The result was In His Hands, an ecumenical musical produced by Olmos and her then-husband during Holy Week in 1985, and restaged for the first time on Pentecost weekend this year.

“My spirit is very much connected to heaven through music, and to my persona in this life,” said Olmos, who has been music director at Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonds since 1989, in addition to teaching music at the parish school.

She believes music is a big part of heaven, perhaps more important than we think.

“When you hear music on earth, it’s just a taste of heaven,” Olmos said. “Especially if it’s really inspiring music, it’s almost as if God is in the room, the angels are in the room.”

‘A very gentle giant’

Music and faith have been intertwined in Olmos’ life since she was a child, attending the little Mexican Baptist church in Wichita Falls, Texas, where her parents met in the choir.

When Olmos’ father was away on deployments with the Air Force, the family (Olmos, her mother, brother and later a sister) stayed in Texas with her maternal grandmother and two aunts. “My grandmother was the one who introduced me to Jesus,” Olmos said. “She would tell me stories until I fell asleep about Jesus and how he takes care of us and how he’s my best friend.”

It was at her grandmother’s church where a 10-year-old Olmos sang her first church solo, “O Holy Night.” (Her favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is a “diehard” for Baptists, Olmos said, singing a few notes.)

She can still picture “MaMá Toña” reading her Bible every night by lamplight, and hear the crisp pages being turned. “She was very devout and a very gentle giant in my life,” Olmos said.

Eventually, Olmos’ father was stationed in Oahu, Hawaii, where Olmos attended high school. During breaks, she sat in the hallway, playing her guitar and singing. “I would gather a crowd and they would all stand around and listen to me sing my original songs,” Olmos said. Sometimes the teen was asked to sing at school assemblies. “I was famous in high school with my guitar,” she said, laughing.

In her late teens, Olmos began feeling the drive to be part of a church ministry. In college, she changed her major from art to music, then joined the choir on base, where she was asked to direct the youth choir and became a youth leader.

Susan Olmos
Susan Olmos. Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘Taking it seriously’

By then, Olmos was “very spiritual” and involved in the evangelical movement. Despite childhood advice from her family to stay away from Catholics, she fell in love with a cradle Catholic and married him at the base chapel. The couple decided to move to Seattle for better opportunities in theater and the arts, and Olmos finished her degree at the University of Washington.

Although her two sons were baptized Catholic, Olmos didn’t feel the pull toward the faith until she started teaching in Catholic schools — at St. Luke in Shoreline from 1985–1992, and at Holy Rosary in Edmonds beginning in 1989. For three years, she taught music at both schools.

At Holy Rosary, the principal asked Olmos if she could play for school Masses. Olmos wasn’t familiar with the order of the Mass and a lot of the songs, but figured she could muddle her way through with some help.

At first, a colleague sat on the piano bench with Olmos, telling her, “Go,” when it was time for the music to begin. “Then I’d start playing the Holy, Holy and everybody would sing it,” she recalled.

“After four years of playing Masses and being around this wonderful priest [then-pastor Father Jarlath Heneghan] and all the wonderful people, I just wanted to become … part of the family,” Olmos said. “It was who they were that drew me.”

One of them was Linda Mooney, the school secretary who became Olmos’ sponsor when she joined the church in 1993. “She and I just connected,” Mooney said. “She’d ask me questions and I’d answer them to the best of my ability.”

Olmos said the faith and the beauty of the Mass resonated in a way that her experiences in other churches had not. “I felt like I was evolving into a higher state of worship,” she said. “I love the feeling of the sacred and deep devotion to the word, to the poor, to everything that Jesus wants us to be. I was really impressed that Catholics were taking it seriously.”

Connected to Mary

Olmos has never spoken openly to her family about her conversion to Catholicism. But she figures they have to know, “when they come to my house and they see the Pietà, they see my rosary by the bed, things like that,” she said, laughing. “I think there is an acceptance now. They know that I did not spontaneously combust or anything.”

Even before becoming Catholic, Olmos felt a connection to Mary, as more than just a Bible story.

“I just think she’s beautiful,” Olmos said. “I also relate to her as a mother. There’s no worse pain than to suffer for your children, and she certainly did.”

In Olmos’ musical, Mary sings about the pain of having to let her son go, because “there’s a bigger purpose here; it’s not all about her,” Olmos said. “When you look at the places she’s appeared, that is basically her message to the world: It’s not about me; I’m pointing the way to my son.”

Olmos continues composing and singing, both at church and with a jazz band, Ocean, formed a couple of summers ago with a teacher and musicians from Holy Rosary. At the parish, Olmos takes pride in the adult choirs — the traditional choir with its “epic” sound, and the smaller contemporary choir known for its cutting-edge Christian music (with Olmos joining in the vocals).

“She’s very exuberant about what she does,” said Paige McDonald, who has been a member of Holy Rosary’s traditional choir off and on for 15 years. “She really imparts that love of not just the music itself, but the music ministry. It’s all about giving glory to God, what we can do to bring that … extra dimension of spirituality to people.”

Olmos also sings at parish funerals, lending her voice in celebration, not sadness. “I really feel like heaven comes down and we’re surrounding that person and welcoming them into the kingdom, celebrating their life,” Olmos explained.

Music is a “powerful phenomenon,” she said, “and I’m privileged to be able to have that be part of my job in this life.”

Music to your ears

Listen to Susan Olmos’ jazz band at www.Ocean0.com.
Read more about In His Hands at www.inhishands.xyz and here.

Northwest Catholic - June 2016

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.

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