Mass. pastor leaves the pulpit to learn music
SHELBURNE FALLS, Mass.—A lifelong singer, the Rev. Paul Bombardier was driving to a music recital rehearsal about two years ago, "when I decided it was my turn," he says, of a revelation that would change his life. "All these years, I've told people to follow their dreams," he said, in explaining why he'll be leaving St. Joseph's Parish this summer to earn a master's degree in music. "I decided it was my turn to give it a try." Last month, Bombardier was among 220 students from at least 31 countries who were accepted to the conservatory program of the Longy School of Music of Bard College in Cambridge.
Bombardier, 58, has been pastor of St. Joseph's in Shelburne Falls, St. John's in Colrain and St. Christopher's in Charlemont, for almost four years. He will be leaving in August, taking a two-year leave of absence as a priest, while he lives as a college student and studies music.
Parish members of St. Joseph's have often heard "Father Paul" sing hymns during Mass. But his new venture will include singing opera and secular "art songs" from the early 19th century.
Bombardier says he's been singing for "well over 40 years" and has been playing recorder and a viola da gamba (a bowed, string instrument related to the guitar) since 1980.
But for most of his life, music has taken a back seat to other realities. Bombardier, who grew up in Holyoke, and who "hated talking in public" as a young teenager, according to one of his sermons, sang in both church and civic choirs.
When he went to college, he studied biology, then returned to school to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees in religious study from Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium.
"It was always a dream of mine to study music," he said, "but my voice didn't really settle in, until I was in my mid 20s, and got my proper singing register."
"Even as a senior in high school, I wanted to minor in (vocal) music. I've always kept my finger in music, but life intervened," he said.
Since 1999, he has been a student of the Five College Early Music Collegium, which performs early music concerts. The musicians include college students and faculty from the Five Colleges as well as community members.
He also started taking voice lessons about six years ago, he said.
To gain admission to the Longy school requires an audition, and Bombardier began learning his musical pieces last June, with the help of his voice teacher: One song was in Latin, one in German and one in Italian.
But the audition was "a cross between a nightmare and a train wreck," Bombardier says, because his accompanist didn't show up; so Bombardier had to sing with a harpsichordist he had never rehearsed with. But the student's harpsichord was in an unfamiliar pitch -- so the first song was shaky, as Bombardier remembers it.
"It felt like I was accepted despite my worst efforts," he said. But he was able to adjust to the difference in later songs.
"Unlike an instrument, your singing voice is part biology, part human anatomy and part technique," he said. "What you got is what you got."
"Most of what I do is sacred music -- a good chunk of early music songs are sacred music," he added.
The difference between singing hymns and singing ballads is "a difference of mindset, that ends up showing up in your voice," he said. Within the context of a Psalm, he said, "a respect for the text is going to inspire a reverent attitude, which is going to show up in your voice."
In contrast, when singing a song of lost love, "there's a longing that's going to be there," he said.
Bombardier said that learning early 19th century love songs by Franz Liszt, Francis Poulenc and Robert Schumann gave him "another area of my voice that I never explored. It allowed my voice to bloom out."
Bombardier is looking forward to learning opera music -- something he's never done before -- and "art songs," which are vocal compositions, that can include folk songs, poetry set to music or "song cycles" that tell a story.
"The biggest challenge -- that really scares me -- is just being a college student again, because I've been out of the classroom for 30 years," he said.
Bombardier said it's unlikely he'll return to the Shelburne Falls parish after college, because he will probably be reassigned somewhere else after such a long absence.
He is hoping to organize a farewell concert before he leaves. Also, Bombardier is happy he'll still be here when the new labyrinth, built on St. Joseph's grounds, is completed and dedicated this spring.
He said he is also pleased with a "prayer shawl ministry" he started in the church, in which parishioners have knitted and given away at least 70 shawls to people who are ill or who are unable to leave their homes. Besides music, Bombardier is a weaver and knitter, who also spins his own wool from fleece.
He said he'll miss the people and the natural beauty of Shelburne Falls. When asked what he's accomplished in his four years here, he said, "I think my biggest accomplishment is to just keep encouraging the generosity of spirit these people have."
When asked if the new degree will help him when he returns to ministry, the bearded priest shrugs.
"I'm really doing this just for me -- because I've really wanted to do it. I figure, whatever happens, happens. I'm leaving it up to God, to either point or push me in the right direction."