Many students recognize the frequent presence of an older, bearded fellow at daily Mass at the University of Dallas and in the choir each Sunday.
A retired engineer, John O’Donnell has the beard, affection and approachability of Santa Claus.
O’Donnell started out in the choir at St. Ann Catholic Parish in Coppell, Texas, but gravitated toward UD because of the welcoming atmosphere of the liturgy at the Church of the Incarnation.
The warmth of the character of UD suits O’Donnell’s even warmer sense of friendliness.
“Historically, I’ve found that student centers and I got along well,” O’Donnell said. “I’ve served at student centers at Georgia Tech, UNC-Chapel Hill, TAMU-Corpus Christi, Case Western, Sacramento and UC-Davis, and I’ve found that student centers are more welcoming for weird folks like I am. I appreciate the sense of humor here. There is a lot of laughter in this choir.”
O’Donnell jokes that although he has sung in many choirs, he is remarkably ill equipped compared to many members of the UD choir.
“I can’t even read sheet music but I have a talent for blending in, and that’s what I depend on,” O’Donnell said. “I think the acoustics here are also excellent, and it has benefitted my spiritual life a whole lot.”
He made very clear his affection for his position in the choir at the Church of the Incarnation.
“I love it,” O’Donnell said. “I absolutely love it.”
Carol Norris, Music Minister, echoes O’Donnell’s sentiment.
“There is no substitute for being at prayer all the time,” Norris said. “Many hours a week are spent in worship and in preparation for worship. It’s made me a woman of faith.”
Her husband also serves as the music director of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Richardson, Texas.
Thomas Hogan, a freshman at UD, also approaches his singing as prayer in both the choir at the Church of the Incarnation and in the UD chorale.
“I think my experience with liturgical music has been that it is a way to lead the community in prayer,” Hogan said. “I have noticed especially that in the choir and chorale that our directors are very good at helping us to pray our music, rather than perform it.”
Hogan has served as a music minister elsewhere throughout elementary school and high school, from second grade to present-day.
“I started singing at the St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska,” Hogan said. “There was a lot of pressure singing in a cathedral devoted to the patron saint of music.”
Hogan planned on singing at Mass prior to coming to UD and eventually approached a choir member who invited him to participate.
The spiritual exercise of singing, he said, is a way to engage the whole human person in a singular act of worship.
Like Hogan, Norris has served in her role for a long time, starting when then-UD Chaplain Msgr. Don Fischer called her over 40 years ago in December of 1975, while she was a student at the University of North Texas.
Since then, much has changed.
“At the time there was no music director or formal programming,” Norris said. “Services were held in the Lynch auditorium and the small Thomas Aquinas chapel that has since been razed. There was no keyboard or materials or hymnals or music.”
Norris takes her role as a music minister very seriously, as her comments suggest.
“My vocation developed over the years,” Norris said. “I was in college singing in choirs. Sometimes you feel called in that way and you have to be available to answer that call.”
While most participants are volunteers, there are two pianists and two cantors who are part-time employees of the university, under the supervision of Denise Phillips, director of Campus Ministry.
In addition to singing, the cantors coordinate the student members of the choir.
According to Norris, it is very easy for a passionate part-time employee to devote as much time as, if not more than, a full-time employee, since there are more than 52 celebrations in each liturgical year.
Sources: Interview with Carol Norris, Interview with John O’Donnell, Interview with Thomas Hogan