An interview with The Priests at St. John’s Food Pantry: International singing stars with the hearts of servants

Published in the April 3rd edition of The Catholic Free Press.


WORCESTER–March 27, 2015.

Father Eugene O'Hagan and younger brother Father Martin serve a hot breakfast to hungry patrons.
Father Eugene O’Hagan and younger brother Father Martin serve a hot breakfast to hungry patrons.

On a rainy Friday morning …

It was not your typical Friday at St. John’s Food Pantry in Worcester. As some five hundred of the city’s poor streamed in for a hot meal, three new faces greeted them. These men radiated warmth and kindness as they dished up generous portions of scrambled eggs with ham, Belgian waffles, and various meats and vegetables to grateful patrons.

Surprise guests

Most could not have guessed that they were being served by world famous singing stars The Priests. That very night the critically acclaimed group would give a concert at the Hanover Theater to a near capacity crowd.

Concrete results from the concert

Frank Carroll arranged for the performance to raise funds for the food pantry. He invited Fathers Eugene and Martin O’Hagan and David Delargy, all from Northern Ireland, to serve breakfast at the pantry to give them a full picture of the good their concert would bring to the poor of Worcester. “I wanted to show them exactly where the funds were going,” he said.

“An eye opener …”

from L to R: Father David Delargy, Frank Carroll, Father Eugene O'Hagan, Bill Riley, Father Martin O'Hagan
from L to R: Father David Delargy, Frank Carroll, Father Eugene O’Hagan, Bill Riley, Father Martin O’Hagan

Father Martin writes of his impressions in his tour blog at “The centre caters for so many people who are unemployed, homeless, suffering from mental problems and more besides. It is an oasis of peace and connection … We had the great invitation from Frank Carroll to visit the scheme and it was so humbling: the graciousness of all and the gratitude of those who came to be looked after … I will always carry this experience: We are not what we have! This was indeed an eye opener …”

A well-oiled machine serving the needy

The Priests were given a full tour of the facility by manager Bill Riley who explained that some 2000 people are serviced each week through the twice weekly hot meals and foodstuffs given to families. Father Eugene, Father Martin and Father David chatted with many of the volunteers including students from Holy Name High School. Some of the students were on exchange from China.

Persistence pays!

According to Father Martin, Mr. Carroll had worked for three years to arrange for The Priests to perform.

Winner Emily Suuberg
Winner Emily Suuberg

“The whole evening was electric …”

The concert that night was a rousing success. Soprano Emily Suuberg from St. Mary’s in Shrewsbury who had won the competition to sing with The Priests “sang very well indeed and with a wonderful stage presence” according to Father Martin.

He went on to write that “The concert was met with great enthusiasm and the audience connected with us immediately … The whole evening was electric … the evening finished with The Irish Blessing and the audience loved every moment of it …we left the stage very uplifted.”

A tribute to “The Sound of Music”

One of the hallmarks of their U.S. tour has been in paying tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the movie “The Sound of Music.” Each priest remarked how much the musical had meant to them during their childhood. Father David shared that “We are going to sing “Edelweiss” and we’re going to invite audience participation, get them to join in as well, have a ‘sing-a-long’ moment.” Father Martin had been most impressed with Lady Gaga’s tribute to the musical and commented that “she was amazing. We got to see Lady Gaga in a slightly different light.”

Juggling act

Just how do international singing stars who are also full-time parish priests balance everything? Father Martin grew thoughtful in his response: “It is a bit of a juggling act to be very honest, yes, but we are away for certain periods of time during the year; we’re away for two weeks at this particular point. We do have other concerts throughout the year but they’re in spikes. We’re able to go to the venues, sing and return fairly quickly. So we’re there in the parish most of the time to be very honest with you. So it’s about juggling three separate diaries from three very different parishes. Eugene is also under the radar of the bishop. It’s trying to put all that together; we strike the balance and it works pretty efficiently.”

Much to juggle!

Father Eugene among other things is a canon lawyer, judicial vicar and Chancellor of the Diocese of Down and Connor. He is also the parish administrator of three different churches.

Father Martin has been a Diocesan Advisor in Religious Education for thirteen years and is currently the parish priest at three various churches.

Father David has spent seven years as a teacher of Religious Education and German at Our Lady and St Patrick’s College, Belfast, and also was Chaplain to the University of Ulster at Jordanstown. He also is the parish priest for three churches.

Listen to the entire interview with tidbits not included in this post:

Remaining grounded

All fervently believe that parish life keeps them grounded. There is no time to be carried away by fame and glory when there are so many people who need their attention.

Thinking of parishioners as they sing

It is, in fact those very people that the singers reflect upon as they perform. “All our experiences as priests, whatever they may be, the pastoral experiences or the personal experiences with people can also be very much woven into the music,” said Father Martin. “So as you’re singing you’re actually thinking about people, you’re thinking about contacts, you’re thinking about a particular situation that you were involved with, or a time of vulnerability in someone’s life or a high point in their life. So that’s another aspect in terms of the music: you weave people and circumstances into it and it’s wonderful.”

Feeding on the music

Music feeds them spiritually. “I think with music, when you marry the music with the words of the psalms, when you sing songs like ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Panis Angelicus’, it takes the expression to another level; you end up expressing the core of yourself which you can’t do with the spoken word,” said Father David. “We’re fortunate with the gift of music and being able to sing; it brings it to another place and you can’t but be affected by that, singing the words. It’s a beautiful marriage of the words, our faith and the music and it certainly helps your spiritual life.”

Heart to heart

The Priests
The Priests

“We all had the same singing teacher, Frank Capper, and he used to say, ‘What comes from the heart goes to the heart,’ said Father David. “You really have to feel it yourself before you can communicate it to others and that’s what we really try to do.”

There is no doubt that their beautiful messages of love, faith and service resonated with the audience at the Hanover, along with the patrons of St. John’s Food Pantry.

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Article and photos copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

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An exercise in conquering fear: auditioning to sing with The Priests

Recently I posted a “Thought for the Day” on my Facebook page about fear, citing the Book of Daniel and the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

A consuming fire

Shadrach, Meshach and AbednegoThe gist of the post was that fear, like fire, can consume if we try to run away from it. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego allowed themselves to be thrown into the furnace; they recognized God with them (“looking like a Son of Man) and danced with joy amid the flames.

Now that is how to deal with fear!

Major fears and even lesser ones can consume us but only if we allow it. By calling out our fear and walking straight into the fire with God at our side, we can slowly conquer our fear.

Developing fear

I used to have no fear when I sang in public but losing my voice changed all that. Several times when I cantored at mass, my voice failed me in a big way. I never knew when my voice would “show up for work” and that made cantoring a terrifying experience.

Those of you who follow this blog know that my voice was healed a year ago when my throat was blessed in honor of the Feast of St. Blaise. But I’ve yet to overcome my fear.

What to do? Look for opportunities and invitations from God to walk straight into the fire. Sony Music Sony Music

That’s how I viewed the auditions recently held at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester for a chance to sing with the internationally acclaimed trio, The Priests.

The challenge

My voice still has its weak spots and the cold and dry conditions of mid- winter don’t help. The day of the audition I was not at my best and it was tremendously tempting to bail out. But along with committing to write an article for the Catholic Free Press about the auditionsI had already accepted God’s latest invitation to deal with my fear. There was no backing out now.

A win-win

When the moment came to sing, I decided to enjoy it even though my fear made my vibrato wobbly. I gazed at the theatre and thought yet again of my healing. With gratitude I realized I never could have sung for this audition a year ago.

In the end, I did not win the privilege of singing with The Priests, but I did win yet another round against fear.

And here is the article I wrote for The Catholic Free Press:

Local soprano wins the chance of a lifetime

Imagine yourself on the stage at the Hanover Theater. Gazing out over the empty seats and focusing on the sparkling chandelier, you begin singing your audition piece, all the while imagining those seats filled with people applauding your beautiful voice.

Winner Emily Suuberg
Winner Emily Suuberg; photo by Monica Mansfield

That dream is now being realized by Emily Suuberg of St. Mary’s in Shrewsbury, the winning vocalist chosen from a group of forty-one sopranos from various parishes in the Worcester Diocese. Suubert will be singing on stage at the Hanover on March 27 with The Priests, the internationally acclaimed trio from Northern Ireland. The concert is being presented by Francis Carroll, chairman of The Friends of St. John’s Food the Poor Program as a fundraiser for the program..

“I am beyond thrilled to be singing with The Priests!” said Suuberg. “It’s a bit surreal, actually – they’re international stars and I’m lucky enough to be sharing the stage with them. It’s hard to believe.” She credits her grandmother with finding out about the audition and encouraging her to try. Suuberg sang “Saper Vorreste” Verdi Opera for her audition piece.

The Priests, made up of Father Eugene O’Hagan and his brother, Father Martin O’Hagan, and Father David Delargy, have been incorporating local non-professional sopranos into their concerts for the last couple of years, giving the lucky vocalists a chance of a lifetime to display their talent. Suuberg will be singing “Amazing Grace” with The Priests plus 2-3 solo pieces.

A member of St. Mary’s nearly all her life Suuberg sang for the choir and with other young musicians while in high school. She studied privately with Jenn Turner beginning at age thirteen and continued with Faith Esham while attending Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY.  Suuberg graduated in May of 2014.

Suuberg was not the only contestant encouraged by her grandmother to audition; Katie O’Neill from St. Luke the Evangelist in Westboro admitted that her grandmother too told her she “had to do it.” She sang “Let There Be Peace on Earth” for her audition piece.

Cantors and choir members from around the diocese flocked to the Hanover last Sunday for the auditions. Margaret Abboud from Christ the King in Worcester was there despite the fact she was expecting forty people at her home later in the afternoon for a Super Bowl party. “I love the idea of supporting the St. John’s Food for the Poor Program anyway I can,” she said.

The contestants
The contestants

Julie BuAbbud from St. Mary of the Hills in Boylston was encouraged by her priest, Father Manny, to audition. She sang “Rose of Bethlehem.” And Katrina McNamara tried out because she hails from the hometown of the O’Hagan brothers. She sang a haunting Irish folk song, “Only Our Rivers Run Free.”

Three distinguished judges were on hand: Thomas Nerbonne, a music educator for the last twenty years at Wachusett Regional High School has adjudicated vocal soloists, vocal ensembles and choirs in all of the New England states and the Vienna International Music Center in Vienna, Austria. Siobhan Petrella studied Vocal Performance at Anna Maria College. She is classically trained in Opera under Malama Robbins, and a past member of the Salisbury Singers. She taught music in the Worcester Public Schools and in the music magnet program at Burncoat Middle School. Currently she is an Assistant Principal at Worcester Technical High School. David MacArthur is the Assistant Operations Manager at The Hanover Theatre. He obtained his B.A. in Entertainment Management. An avid music lover he assists in booking events and coordinating production needs that come through the venue.

Kallin Johnson, Music Director at Notre Dame Academy. Worcester, and Board Member, The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts, was the accompanist for the auditions. Melanie Donegan, director of the Actor’s Loft and another Board Member, coordinated the auditions.

The concert takes place on March 27th at the Hanover Theatre. Tickets range from $25-45 and are available online at the website; you can also call the theatre at 877.571.SHOW (7469).

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