How Cynthia Fruth Became One of the Few Female Music Directors in The Catholic Church
Dallas is home to one of the richest religious music scenes in the country. Over the summer, we'll be attending services, both big and small, of many denominations, as well talking to musicians, directors and pastors.
Raised Baptist and currently Lutheran, Cynthia Fruth has performed at many different houses of worship, including Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Catholic, and a Jewish synagogue in Charlotte, North Carolina. Over the years, music has taken Fruth to a wide variety of destinations, including to her current full-time position as the Music Director at St. Patrick Catholic Church, which she accepted in 1998.
St. Pat's offers a variety of services, including ones with children's choirs, services with contemporary music and a Spanish mass. About once a month, they have a mass that features the native music of some of the church's refugees, who mostly have come from Africa and Southeast Asia. On Sunday July 7th, we atttended the traditional service at 10 a.m.
Everything about the mass, which lasted almost exactly an hour had very soothing, relaxing vibes of unity. With no fancy lighting or overwhelming instrumentation, the congregation, accompanied only by an organ or a piano, sang along to the traditional hymns, which could be found in the hymnals in front of the pews.
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Fruth has a lot of control of which hymns are performed at mass, and she tries to make sure that the music helps emphasize the message of the mass, especially for holidays like Christmas and Easter. She's very proud of the church's hand-bells and children's choirs, which many churches don't have, and the fact that her choirs consist of all volunteers, which motivates her to work even harder to become a better teacher.
"I challenge them to offer the best offering to God. It is not just 'Oh, let's just get by,'" Fruth told me. "We have an especially good music program because it is of the people and I'm proud of that."
Before arriving where she is today, Fruth, who's one of four children, grew up in Camden, South Carolina. Fruth began playing the piano by ear at the age of five, after listening to her older sister play, and eventually started piano lessons in third grade.
Her next-door neighbor was friends with the organist at the local Episcopalian Church, which Fruth would sneak over and attend, eventually leading her to fall in love with the liturgy scene. One day when she was in ninth grade, the shy Fruth knocked on the organist's door and asked for lessons. Within three weeks of her first organ lesson, she was a substitute organist at her Baptist church. Then, at the age of 16, she had the opportunity to become the lead organist for her Baptist church, which had a congregation of about 2,000 members.
While she originally wanted to be a pharmacist, she ended up accepting a scholarship offer to continue to play and study the organ at Winthrop University, which, at the time, had the largest pipe organ in the Southeast. She earned both her Bachelor's and Master's degrees at Winthrop, before going on to teach and perform music, and she's since won many awards as both a teacher and an organist.
She eventually decided to pursue her Ph.D. in Music Education at the University of North Texas, which is what brought her to the DFW area in the first place. While at UNT, she was able to learn from Marie-Madeleine Durufle, an internationally respected organist and teacher who was visiting the university for a semester, which only added to Fruth's already impressive résumé.
In 1992, she began teaching at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School and directing the school's choirs, which she helped gain a great reputation. In fact, her choirs at St. Thomas Aquinas were featured in two separate episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger, filmed two years apart, during which she got to meet Chuck Norris.
Then, in 1998 at the request of Msgr. Richard Johnson, she joined St. Patrick Catholic Church, making her one of the very few women around the country working full-time in a church music position, she says.
Unlike many churches which require their musicians to be members of the church, Fruth and her husband, Jim, are both Lutherans, although they are considering converting to Catholicism.
And St. Pat's congregation appreciates her work. About once a month, Charles Flournoy, a middle-aged man from Lake Highlands, serves as a Eucharistic Minister, a layman that serves the Holy Communion. While it's not a rock concert or anything, Flournoy told me that the music grew on him. He's become very comfortable with it and likes that he always knows what to expect.
Erin Brennan, a sophomore at Georgia Tech, had a lot of the same feelings as Flournoy. She has grown up attending the church, and attended school there from first through eighth grade. While many of her peers attend churches that have much more contemporary music, Brennan prefers the traditional music at St. Patrick Catholic Church. She loves the consistency of music, as well as the high level of participation and sense of community that comes with it. Even when she attends Catholic Churches in Atlanta during the school year, she sings many of the same songs, which she finds very relaxing and, in a sense, "feels like home."
Fruth told me that even among the Church's members, people gravitate to different types of music. While some people go to whichever mass is at the most convenient time for them, others will only attend their preferred mass. "Some people can be disgruntled if there's guitar music at mass," Fruth said, "but some people might enjoy that very much."
Fruth understands that music plays a significant role in the church. "There are people that have joined the church because of the music," she laughed, "And I know the pastor doesn't like to hear that, but it's true."
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