WILMINGTON — Music — liturgical music in particular — has always been a integral part of Joe Louden’s life. He played at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish as a youth and St. Mary Magdalen Parish when he was home from college. As a student at Salesianum School, he was involved in all of the school Masses.
But after college, he decided to move to New York City to try something else. His college friends were all from north Jersey and became stockbrokers.
“So I tried my hand at that,” Louden said recently. “I moved to New York City. I lived in Brooklyn. And I was there only a month, and I witnessed a stabbing on my subway stop. That turned my whole life around. I came home the next day, and I got a call from Father Bill Melnyk.”
Father Melnyk, now retired, was the pastor at St. Helena Parish in Bellefonte, and he asked Louden to come aboard as the music director. He’s still there 26 years later.
Along the way, he became a music teacher, now in his 16th year at Ursuline Academy. He has worn many additional hats at the school, including Spanish and theology teacher, and he is currently also the campus minister. One of his duties at Ursuline is leading the school choir, which means practice before school three days a week. But he has a dedicated group of 23 girls and another 20 at Salesianum, where he works with the boys on Tuesday nights.
The choir performs an annual Christmas concert, and most years there is an Easter performance as well. They join forces with Louden’s group from St. Helena’s.
“The neat thing is you can take this group (Ursuline), you put it together with the gentlemen from Salesianum, and then you combine that with the choir at St. Helena’s and all of a sudden we have a choir of 80, and we can do bigger works,” he said.
“That’s been a very neat component for a school this small, that we can put all of our resources together with the church I work with as well and have larger concerts that you wouldn’t typically have in a small-school setting.”
Music has always been Louden’s first passion, and he enjoys passing that along to his students.
“What they give back to me is just priceless. It’s the culmination of your life’s work,” he said. “Music lifts me to a whole other spiritual realm, and when we’re in the middle of a performance — these are rare moments — they’re worth living for every day, in the drudgery of pounding notes at the piano. When you have that rare moment, and you see the kids’ expression, alongside the audience, it’s unlike anything else. We music educators live for those moments. That’s basically why we’re in it.”
Ursuline senior Brigid Morrissey has been part of the choir since middle school and has taken, by her estimation, every music class possible at the school. She’ll miss her teacher next year.
“He’s awesome. He’s definitely very supportive,” she said. “He puts a lot of time and effort into making sure we sound good every day. He works very hard to make sure Ursuline has a one-of-a-kind music program.”
Morrissey said she is usually at school early to get a parking spot on the streets surrounding Ursuline, but it is still a commitment for the students. Louden softens the impact by bringing doughnuts for the girls each Friday.
Louden knows he has made an impression on his students when they ask him to sing at their weddings or when he sees them around town. One thing that makes him feel especially good is when those former students feel comfortable enough to call him by his first name instead of “Mr. Louden.”
“That’s kind of nice because then you feel a little young again,” said Louden, who has four children with his wife, Ellen.
Getting through to students helps “when you come in here on a Monday at 7:30 in February, and it’s cold and dark, and your concert’s not until Easter time.
“It’s not until the last couple weeks that you can begin to do the real fine work of music making and you can actually start sculpting it all together. But the payoff is huge.”
This year, he has taken on a new role, that of campus minister, which involves coordinating all of the retreats and liturgies. He said his first thought was about what having to do another job would entail, but he has found it dovetails with what he had already been doing.
The students have had spiritual retreats and service retreats, and Louden has enjoyed taking each grade level into the community and put the school’s motto — “serviam,” (“I will serve”) — into action. The girls have helped in Wilmington and Camden, N.J., cleaning the streets, feeding the poor and listening to addicts.
“We’re giving them a real-life experience of St. Angela Merici, our patron. We’re giving them a real-life experience of what serviam means. That has been an incredible experience for me, and I hope for the kids,” he said.
“That’s been a neat challenge, and the payoff has been great for me.”
The call to serve is reflected in liturgical music, which makes it even more special for Louden.
“That brings it full circle. If you can live the life that you were meant to live, and you can experience that through the music, wow, now that’s really like a grand slam. I’m squeezing that out of the orange of life.”