An interview with Matt Gray, music and liturgy director at Immaculate Parish
BY WKC STAFF
What brought you to Immaculate Parish?
My mother, Bonnie Gray, was very instrumental in getting me to play music from a young age. (I started playing keyboard at five years old, self-taught). She also sang in choirs my entire childhood and I was always there at choir practice!
Fr. Richard Powers called me around September 1995 in desperate need of a new music director at Immaculate Parish in Owensboro. Especially with Advent and Christmas approaching. I wasn’t even finished with school yet (Western Kentucky University) and was due to graduate in December with a broadcasting degree in television and a music minor. I was studying to write music for television and movies. I was 23 years old and had zero experience as a director, but Fr. Powers knew of my abilities in Church ministry from the many years I was already working part-time in that capacity. (I’ve been playing music in church since I was seven years old). I had just quit my part-time job at Sts. Joseph and Paul Parish where I worked for seven years, with anticipating moving to Nashville to pursue television and music. But God had a different plan.
My wife and I were expecting our first child and when Fr. Powers was practically begging me to take the job, I figured I should stay here to raise our family. So I took the job and immediately began training the choir for Christmas when I came in on weekends. And here I am 25 years later.
What has been your greatest challenge in the past 25 years of leading music at Immaculate?
The biggest challenge is working in music ministry and balancing family life. Every weekend and most major “holidays” that are also holy days I’m in church for three to five (or more) Masses. Trying to schedule family time outside of church work is very challenging. Kids’ birthday parties, family holiday gatherings, (Christmas morning, making the kids stay in their bedrooms until Dad gets back) all have to be scheduled around the Church liturgical calendar. I realize that many other professions are the same, but it has been a challenge. It takes a very understanding and supportive spouse, which Nicole is! Another challenge is always being on call for funerals. Understandably, the family is in great need at the time of the passing of a loved one, and of course it’s not planned. So they can pop up at any time. Even if I have a day “off” and have made plans to be with my family, many, many times those plans were cancelled because of a funeral.
Personal spiritual and prayer life – it’s challenging for me to pray as I should when I’m constantly “working” in the spiritual world. I’m always a step ahead of everyone else during Mass or other prayer services in order to make sure all goes well. At the end of the day, it can be very difficult to pray on my own when I’ve been leading everyone else all day and all week. It takes extra effort. I know many priests experience this as well.
Now today, a new challenge is dealing with COVID-19. Years of training and experience teaches us music ministers that our number-one priority is to encourage the assembly to sing. We go to great lengths to make it as easy as possible to sing while praying. And now, with the COVID-19 restrictions, we are told to prevent the assembly from singing! It is a crazy thought and goes against every cell in our body! But I keep moving on trying to reinvent ways to keep the music going in some way. It seems at times that the “music has died.” It can be kind of depressing.
What has been your greatest blessing?
On the flipside of the same coin as the challenges I mentioned, the greatest blessing has been being connected to a second family – the parish family and my music ministry family. They have supported me all these years. Many of them have supported me on a personal level outside of parish ministry. Although it is a challenge to balance my family life with parish work, it is a blessing to have a support system outside of the home. My music ministry family not only supports me, but my wife and children as well. They “adopted” us from the first Mass I played at Immaculate. They are very dedicated both to the ministry and to me personally and give me reason to go to work every day.
I’ve done so many other things at Immaculate outside of music through the years. Too many to list, but a few interesting things are leading a church renovation project; leading the art and environment committee; training liturgical ministers; the newly-added video streaming ministry; and the parish strategic planning committee. I’ve even cleaned the restrooms and stocked the soda machines (before we had a maintenance person)!
Another blessing is being there for families at the most monumental events of their lives. Funerals, weddings, all the other sacraments, when they are sick or suffering – to know that I can be of some comfort or joy at those times fills my heart and although it took me some years to fully understand, I now know that feeling helps me get through life’s challenges. I know that other people may not have that fulfillment in their jobs, and so it is truly a blessing.
What’s some advice for your fellow church musicians/liturgy directors during these difficult times of pandemic?
Ah – well… not sure. Maybe just “hang in there” for a little while longer. Do what you can to bring music to your people via technology or in social-distanced environments. And pray. Pray that when the restrictions are finally lifted that we can all bring the music back with all the elation it deserves!
Matt Gray will have been married to Nicole for 25 years in July 2021 and they have three sons: Nicholas, Andrew and Daniel. His music ministry program at Immaculate consists of adult choir, cantors, instrumentalists, youth music group, and a children’s choir. He also runs his own business, Gray Sky Music, in which he writes music for TV/radio advertising and produces music for songwriters and artists (grayskymusic.com).
Originally printed in the October 2020 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.
Copyright © 2020 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic