Enriching Faith and Community Through Music
By Anne Sterling Beall, Emily Hansen, Maggie Mulder, and Libby Criswell
Saint Paul’s Cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama. The parish’s first church was built in 1872, directly across from the present church on 3rd Avenue North in Downtown Birmingham. This red-brick church was erected in 1890 to designs by Chicago-based architect Adolphus Druiding. Constructed in a neo-Gothic style with Italian-style detail, it features stained glass by Cincinnati firm G. C. Riordan & Company. The church is about as wide as it is tall. This makes the acoustics of the sanctuary phenomenal, particularly for voices–this is beneficial because music and worship is central to the life of The Cathedral of Saint Paul.
The church building has experienced several renovations: air conditioning was added in 1955, structural repairs were completed in 1972, and most recently, there was a complete renovation of the exterior in 2015. Just as the physical structure of the building has changed over the 131 years of the building’s existence, other aspects of Saint Paul’s Cathedral have changed as well. It has shifted from operating as a parish church of the Archdiocese of Mobile to being designated as the cathedral of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama when it was separated from Mobile in 1969. The first bishop of the diocese was Joseph Vath. He served up until his death in 1987. The diocese’s fifth bishop Steven John Raica was appointed in 2020.
Worship is central to the life of the cathedral. Music has a special power to connect people to God, as it is one of the most sacred and important ways that humans praise him. Bruce Ludwick, the director of music and organist at the Cathedral of Saint Paul, emphasized this. He described the cathedral to us as a sort of tabernacle that connects individuals to God. The musical aspect of worship at the cathedral creates a worship experience that enriches the relationships that the congregants have with God and with each other, even through adverse times.
In our interview with Ludwick, he shared with us what makes Roman Catholic worship different from the worship of other denominations. One is that some of the same things are being experienced and celebrated each week in Catholic churches all over the world. Although the musical settings, clothes, and vestments differ from church to church, the texts read and prayed are all the same. Ludwick believes that it is incredibly beautiful that worship at Saint Paul’s Cathedral uses tunes and lyrics from hundreds and hundreds of years of tradition. He said that it feels comforting and reassuring to know that his church is in community with the pope and with Christians around the world, as well as those from past generations.
Music at the cathedral is led by a choir and organ, with occasional use of some wind or stringed instruments. A brand-new organ built by the Noack Organ Company was just installed a few months ago. The choir numbers anywhere between fifteen and twenty-five people. Some are as young as nineteen and others are in their mid-seventies. The more advanced, auditioned, choir sings at the 11 a.m. mass. Anyone is welcome to join the choir for the earlier mass at 8:30 a.m. To prepare for the services, there are choir rehearsals every Wednesday. This helps with familiarizing the choir with the music and making sure that all of the parts are properly learned and fit together well.
Congregational Worship Participation and its Connection with Sermons
Ludwick also shared that there are unique aspects of Catholic worship in the south. There is a strong hymn-singing tradition in southern states. This typically means that congregations are more willing to participate in singing and worship. Because of this, Ludwick seeks to preserve this congregational singing style in the way he prepares music for each Sunday. He does this by including popular songs from previous services with which the congregation is familiar. This sort of participation helps to foster community and helps members feel as if they are truly a part of the Cathedral of Saint Paul.
On any given Sunday, music is matched with the sermon topic through advanced, structural preparation. “We plan months ahead,” Ludwick explained. He works hard to prepare his choir each week so that their performance can convey a clear message that relates to the sermon. This sort of preparedness and inclusion creates a unique connection between the choir, sermon, and congregation. They are connected by this enrichment of the worship experience. Since the sermon and the choir are in harmony with one another, the congregation can easily follow along and understand the message given at each service.
Music in Adverse Times
Our interview with Bruce Ludwick also brought to light an unfortunate situation which challenged Saint Paul’s Cathedral. In the 1920s, the parish’s pastor was Father James Coyle. At that time the congregation was very diverse economically. It included many people of both higher and lower incomes. During this time period, the daughter of Edwin Stephenson, local Methodist minister and justice of the peace, converted to Catholicism after she fell in love with a Puerto Rican day laborer who attended Coyle’s church. Fr. Coyle married the two without the approval of her father.
To retaliate against the priest, the enraged minister came to the church while Fr. Coyle was sitting on the swing on the front porch of the rectory and the father of the girl shot Father Coyle. There was a large-scale trial due to the fact that Fr. Coyle was obviously murdered, but unfortunately, due to the racist tendencies of many people during this time period in American history, some individuals tried to manipulate every aspect of this situation to make the Puerto Rican man (the husband of the woman whose father had murdered Father Coyle) appear guilty. They even darkened the courtroom so that his skin would appear darker. Future U.S. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black helped defend Stephenson and he was acquitted.
Two people who loved each other very much were able to come together and be married, thanks to Father Coyle’s beliefs in equality and humanity. Though he paid the ultimate price for those beliefs, this incident is still a vital part of the cathedral’s history. Bruce Ludwick explained that “it shows that the church has always been a champion for people’s rights.”
Through hard times such as the one mentioned above, it became more important than ever for the congregation of the Cathedral of Saint Paul to join together in unity. Music and worship is one way that they were able to do that, and it is one of the things that helped to keep the congregation alive through an extremely challenging time in its history. While this specific story of Father Coyle does not pertain directly to worship it does show the foundation of acceptance that the church has initiated from the very beginning. Similarly, just as Father Coyle has set out to build the church on a basis of community, through St. Paul’s Cathedral’s tradition of music as exemplified by Bruce Ludwick, we see the involvement and engagement they empower as a congregation. The power of music and worship was evident at this church during that time, and it still is today.
Cathedral of Saint Paul
Location: 2120 3rd Ave N, Birmingham, AL 35203
Parish established: 1872
Building erected: 1890-93
Affiliation: Roman Catholic
“The Cathedral of Saint Paul.” 2021. The Cathedral of Saint Paul. Accessed October 1, 2021. https://stpaulsbhm.org/.
Carmody, Denise Lardner, and John Carmody. 1990. Roman Catholicism: An Introduction. New York: MacMillan,.
“Life & Legacy: The Father James E. Coyle Documentary.” The Father Coyle Memorial Project, October 29, 2021. https://fathercoyle.org/.
Ludwick, Bruce. 2021. Personal Interview. October 28, 2021.
Emily Hansen ‘23, Maggie Mulder ‘23, Libby Criswell ‘24, and Anne Sterling Beall ‘25 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2021.