And you cherubim had better buck it up, too



Sister Mary Matthew Cunningham is conducting rehearsal with the choir of seraphim about now, and if they want to know fire they should sing that minor third interval just a titch off pitch while serenading “holy, holy, holy” in three parts.

Sister Matthew died Saturday at the motherhouse of Mount Loretto in Dubuque at 98. Generations of St. Mary’s students remember her banging on the upright piano in that little room just off the wooden stairway that led to the cafeteria in the basement. She taught many who showed up for free, and 25 cents to the rest, even the Presbyterians.

Anyone who attended St. Mary’s from the 1950s to the 1970s remembers her phrase, “I am going to make mince meat out of you.”

And they remember her turning them on to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, the forerunner to Aretha, when they were in the fifth grade. She was not afraid to say that rarely anyone else could sing like that, and probably none of us ever would until we got soul. It was something to aspire to.

She had eyes that saw through walls and knew who put the desk bell inside the piano before she ever stroked middle C. He was called up to chant for the entire class. And he had better keep that “r” soft.

Sister Matthew loved the Cullens because she was from Clare St. Matthew’s, where Father John Cullen held forth for near on an eternity. She adored Brother John. You could tell her that you just beat Simon Estes in a baritone bash and she would wonder if John had entered. He took piano lessons from her. By the time he was done there was no point in teaching me piano. Her work had been perfected.

She also adored Bill Hott, John’s classmate who went on to study under Bob Pfaltzgraff at Buena Vista and put up choirs of his own from Lake View that were the rave at state contests. And, Hott had a big influence on Jeff Tollefson, who also studied under Pfaltzgraff and set the bar high as choir director at Storm Lake High School. When Tollefson pounded on the music stand with a drumstick you could hear Sister Matthew.

So a lot of people from Storm Lake, Wall Lake and Lake View (among other places) were influenced directly or indirectly by the Presentation sister who earned her chops at the American Conservatory in Chicago.

She inspired a love for music in me that led to a college choir stint led by a nun cut from Sister Matthew’s cloth, Sister Catherine Kessler of the College of St. Catherine. She keeled over on stage after directing us with the Minnesota Orchestra, so overcome she was by the sound. Those types of women can make even rugby players from St. Thomas sing well if they would just listen.

Sister Matthew started us on Gregorian chants at a young age. She said it was the highest form of prayer because it forced you to listen to someone else — few things are more painful in life than two people off pitch trying to sing in unison — and the words meant nothing to you in Latin. If you can listen, you can do about anything in life. Certainly you will get along better with people. She forced us to listen.

So you seraphim had better straighten up and fly right, and don’t hit that third “holy” so hard.