Fr. Ralph March, one of the founding faculty at the University of Dallas, the oldest member of the Cistercians at Our Lady of Dallas and a second father to many UD students, died on Feb. 6, just shy of his 94th birthday. He was surrounded by other monks in the abbey at the time of his death.
His vigil was held Monday at 7:30 p.m. at the Cistercian Abbey, with his funeral Mass the next day at 2 p.m.
Fr. March was born Rudolph Maitz in 1922 in Körmend, Hungary. He had two older brothers, one of whom also became a priest.
He entered the novitiate of the Cistercian Order in Zirc, where he was ordained a priest on May 8, 1945 — the day World War II ended in Europe.
Fr. March then continued his studies at the University of Budapest, the Franz Liszt Conservatory of Music, the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique de Paris.
In 1952, his dissertation — the first musicological study of the 12th-century foundations of Cistercian chant — was published in Rome. It is still considered foundational for chant studies.
That same year, Fr. March and other Cistercians were exiled from Hungary following Communist suppression of the Abbey of Zirc.
Only four years later, after teaching at Marquette University and living with other exiled Cistercians in Spring Bank, Wis., Fr. March served as one of the first faculty members at UD and a founder of its neighboring Cistercian Abbey.
Throughout his time at the university, Fr. March continued to share his love and knowledge of music with students through conducting Gregorian chant with the Collegium Cantorum, a polyphony group that often sang at First Friday Masses at the Abbey.
His musicological wisdom led him to become the music director, or Domkapellmeister, of the cathedral of Cologne, Germany, at the request of the cardinal-archbishop of the city.
During his time in Cologne, he frequently met Fr. Georg Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s older brother, who was music director of St. Peter’s cathedral in Regensburg. Fr. March held this post from 1977-1987, until he left to serve as pastor of a parish in Germany and to teach music history at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
In 2000, Fr. March retired to Cistercian Abbey, though he continued to teach Gregorian chant at UD. Fr. Thomas Esposito reflected on Fr. March’s love for music and eagerness to pass on that love to others. “His great passion was sacred music,” Fr. Esposito said. “He shared that lifetime love with his students.”
“His whole life was dedicated to music: Gregorian chant and polyphony,” Fr. Stephen Gregg, choirmaster at Cistercian Abbey, said. “At the same time, he loved to listen to Wagner and Richard Strauss.”
Both Fr. Esposito and Fr. Gregg were eager to share humorous stories and funny memories of their fellow monk.
“Fr. Ralph possessed strong opinions about absolutely everything — from wine to the Republican presidential candidates to the quality of our community chant — but he dearly loved Gregorian chant and polyphony and wanted others to profit spiritually from the Mass by means of music,” Fr. Esposito said. “His sense of humor was legendary. I once heard him quip to a confrere, ‘Jesus loves you so that I don’t have to’ and followed that statement with a mischievous smile.”
Fr. Gregg shared a story from when Fr. March first came to Dallas.
“He arrived from a cool morning in Europe; he had dressed in sweater, coat, winter hat, gloves, etc. and arrived on one of the hottest days on record in Dallas,” Fr. Gregg said. “He commented to the flight attendant, ‘I think you accidentally landed us in hell!’”
Fr. Robert Maguire had his own special memories of Fr. March to share, writing in an email that Fr. March preached at his first Mass and he at Fr. March’s 60th ordination anniversary.
A Facebook page, “In memoriam: Fr. Ralph March, OCist” has been created for friends and former students to share their memories and pictures of Fr. March.
“Fr. Ralph touched many people by his love of chant, traditional liturgy, food and wine,” the page says. “Let’s use this space to share our many cherished memories of him.”
Alumni and confreres alike express regret at his passing.
Collegium Cantorum member Rachel Pauletti, ‘15, said she treasures her memories of Fr. March’s time as the director of the choir and his dedication to the unity of prayer and music.
“One thing that touched me deeply was a tradition that Fr. Ralph assiduously kept up with: blessing the choir before every Mass,” Pauletti said. “He would come back to us on the dot, five minutes before mass would start and he would smile understandingly, sometimes pleadingly (when he knew we were struggling); he would give us advice as to what we were doing, how to execute certain parts of the motets, but — most importantly — he taught us that our work was a prayer, an offering, almost a concelebrating. He did this when I was a freshman, walking back to us; sophomore and junior year it turned into a totter, but still a walk; by senior year there was a cane in the fall and a walker in the spring. By his jubilee it was hard for him to stand, but he kept coming back to give us a blessing. His faith and love for us was one of the most powerful memories I have of him.”
Campus Ministry Director Denise Phillips stressed the importance of Christian hope of eternal union with God in Heaven as she recalled Fr. March.
“People have been saying, ‘God have mercy on his soul,’ but I don’t know what they’re talking about: he’s clearly already with God,” Phillips said. “We should be asking Fr. Ralph to pray for us.”