'Unsung' no more: longtime Church musicians to get St. Cecilia Awards
By Jean Torkelson
Church musicians deepen the beauty of liturgies and holidays, yet they often remain the “unsung heroes” of the parish – always there, but rarely recognized.
The annual St. Cecilia Award seeks to correct that oversight by giving special recognition to pastoral musicians of the Archdiocese of Denver who have “tirelessly labored in the vineyard as the unsung heroes of the Church … selflessly giving of their time away from family and friends on holidays, Sundays and other days in order to serve the needs of the Church.”
This year, the St. Cecilia Mass and award ceremony will be held at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at Most Precious Blood Church, 2200 S. Harrison St., Denver.
Nominees are made each year by pastors and pastoral musicians of the archdiocese. There have been 15 winners since the award was instituted in 2004.
This year’s winners are Rita Vigil of Denver and Stacie May of Byers, each of whom was swept away by the piano at a young age and went on to become beloved musicians in their communities and home parishes.
“I was born playing the piano,” said Stacie May. “I don’t ever remember not playing the piano.”
In fact, her mother liked to tell her that by the time she was 2 years old she was playing “Five foot two, eyes of blue,” on the family’s scuffed up, honkytonk upright.
“Music was just in me,” May said.
May was born 55 years ago as Stacie Linnebur, part of a hardworking Byers farm family. By the time she was 12, she was playing in churches and teaching piano. As a teenager, she even worked as a rehearsal pianist for opera companies. In fact, piano was everything.
“In high school, the other girls were cheerleaders or in pep club, learning to do cartwheels,” she recalled. “Instead, I came home and practiced the piano. One day when I was 13 or 14 my mother said to me, ‘When you’re 80 years old you’ll still be playing the piano, but they won’t still be doing cartwheels.’
“That made me feel better, because I felt I was missing out on things.”
In 1972, when she was in her mid-teens, Our Lady of the Plains Church was founded and May’s mother made her move:
“My mother said, ‘You’re playing there,’ and threw me to the wolves!” May said with a laugh.
Except for several life detours—including a five-year stint living in Queens, N.Y.—May has been playing at Our Lady of the Plains ever since. But that’s just a portion of her musical career. In the 1980s she co-directed a teen singing group, Kingdom Singers. She’s played everywhere—in bands and for schools, at weddings, funerals, and in nursing homes.
“Whenever anybody needs a piano player—that would be me!” she said.
May feels a special calling to play funeral music, in order to touch the hearts of griefstricken people. On her own, she especially likes playing meditative classical music.
When Father Jeff Wilborn arrived as pastor, May was already widely known as a musician around the community and had been an integral part of the parish’s music ministry team for years.
Father Wilborn said when the parish put in new stained glass windows, he asked why one of the old windows was made of plexiglas. The answer?
“Stacie said when she was a kid she kept blowing out the window, practicing,” the priest relayed.
Father Wilborn will attend the St. Cecilia’s ceremony to cheer May on as she gets her award. As for May herself, when she heard she was nominated: “I was just shocked; I never dreamed I’d get something like this … even if no one sees me playing, just to know I tugged at someone’s emotional heartstrings, is enough. All I can say is, it’s a gift I was given, and I gladly use it."
Photo by James Baca/DCR
“I gave my life to God and to music,” says 80-year-old Rita Vigil. “I love it. It brings me closer to God.”
For 50 years, Vigil has played music at St. Anthony of Padua parish. But she didn’t start there – the Denver native was born into the Methodist Church and that’s where she played the piano, from the time she was 8 years old.
By the time she was 16 she was teaching piano, too.
But everything changed after she married her beloved husband, Celedon Vigil. One day, early in their marriage, she decided to forgo her regular Methodist service and went with her husband to Mass at St. Anthony of Padua, the church where they had married.
“I looked up at Jesus on the cross,” she said, “and that’s when I gave my music to God. I told my husband, ‘I want to be a Catholic.’ He couldn’t believe it. He was so happy.”
So, Anthony’s became her parish and she became a familiar and much loved parish musician. Additionally, “I was playing with a girls’ orchestra and with some bands once in a while,” but she stopped because it required too much travel away from her husband and family.
When her husband died in 1989, she gave her baby grand piano to St. Anthony’s, in her husband’s name. She was heartbroken to lose her husband, but she kept playing.
“She’s a wonderful pianist and a very good teacher, too,” said fellow parishioner Marion McLaughlin. “I took lessons from her myself, not long ago. She knows her music very well and she can play in any style there is.”
St. Cecilia Mass
What: Mass and award ceremony
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16
Where: Most Precious Blood Church, 2200 S. Harrison St., Denver
Who: All are invited, especially Church vocalists and musicians
“We’re very proud of her,” said the pastor, Father Mark Kovacik. “We think she’s very deserving of this award as a player of both the piano and the organ, and as a piano teacher and a leader of the choir.”
Vigil recently retired from her parish music ministry, and when she heard that her parish had nominated her for the St. Cecilia’s Award, she was a little startled.
“I said, ‘Why?’ But I praise God for it.”
Her favorite kind of music? “Church music,” Vigil said, firmly.
“I can play popular songs too, but they don’t do too much for me.”
Above all, she makes no mistake about where her love of music came from.
“God gave me the talent and I gave it back to him.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister