'On Eagles' Wings' Composer Michael Joncas Brings New Music to SHU

News Story: April 1, 2010
Fr. Michael Joncas

The world premiere of “A Time of Jubilee,” a liturgical hymn by Father Jan Michael Joncas, was performed Wednesday at Sacred Heart University’s new Chapel of the Holy Spirit, in the presence of the composer.

Fr. Joncas, a prolific composer of some of the most recognizable church hymns including “On Eagles’ Wings,” said he wrote the piece for Pentecost “but what better place (for its debut) than in a chapel of the Holy Spirit.”

“We were honored. It was incredibly exciting to premiere one of his pieces,” said John Michniewicz, director of SHU’s College of Arts and Sciences Academic Music Program.

Joncas, an associate professor of Catholic Studies and Theology at the University of St. Thomas, his alma mater, praised Michniewicz for his additional instrumentation of the hymn to include flute and brass, which Joncas called “absolutely glorious” and “spectacular.” He also praised the choir, and in particular the two cantors – soprano Rebecca Craig, 23, of Goshen, Conn., a second year graduate student in the Occupational Therapy program, and alto Allegra DeVita, a junior from Trumbull who is studying neuro-biology.

An audience of about 350 people, including members of the Sacred Heart community and the general public, gathered in the Chapel for Vespers, the musical debut, and to hear Fr. Joncas lecture about the history of Catholic music and its various incarnations and influences in the last four decades.

Graduate student and soprano cantor Rebecca Craig, right, led the crowd in song during Vespers.

A night prayer service, Compline, which included the singing of “On Eagles’ Wings,” followed his talk, titled “Sing a New Song: Composing for Roman Catholic Worship since Vatican II.”

“It was a tour de force history but rich in humor and reference and singing of songs with the congregation,” said University Provost Thomas Forget.

Joncas called it a stroll down Memory Lane that went from the heavy-handed organ music of the mid 1960s to the folk revolution of the 1970s to ritual music of the 1980s and 90s to English chant in recent years as people move to recover Catholic identity to contemporary influences. Joncas also addressed the impending changes in liturgical service responses and how those changes will affect the composing of church music.

“I’ve known his music from way back. I thought it would be great to hear him. I knew of the changes that are coming but I didn’t know how they’re going to be incorporated into the Mass,” said Tony Alusik, of Stratford, who sings bass in his choir at Our Lady of Grace Church and in the Bridgeport Diocesan Choir.

“He’s really engaging and the subject matter was interesting because I’m in the (University) choir. It’s interesting to learn where the songs we currently sing come from,” said Alex Gatten, 19, of New Milford, Conn. She is a sophomore English major and sings tenor in the choir.

Shannon Figueroa, 19, of Bethel, Conn., a sophomore biology major, said she enjoyed learning about the progression of Catholic music and how it was influenced by many sources. “It’s nice to know it has changed,” said Figueroa, a soprano in the choir, who is not Catholic.

Earlier in the day, University President Anthony Cernera presented Fr. Joncas with an honorary doctorate at a special academic convocation.

To watch a photo slideshow from Convocation and Vespers, click here.  To watch video from Fr. Joncas' visit, click here.