PHILADELPHIA — With the start of the new year, a seasoned Philadelphia musician is taking on a new challenge as director of the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass Choir.
Tonya Taylor-Dorsey was appointed to the post by the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholics, effective Jan. 1.
Established for the 2014 World Meeting of Families, the ensemble features voices from the archdiocese and neighboring dioceses. The choir has participated in parish revivals, the U.S. bishops’ listening sessions on racism and the annual “Soulful Christmas Concert” at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.
In addition, the choir regularly performs at archdiocesan observances such as the St. Martin de Porres Mass and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day prayer service.
For Taylor-Dorsey, who has more than three decades of experience in parish music, the role once seemed unlikely for someone who was raised Presbyterian — and who “didn’t sing in the church choir growing up.”
“I wanted to be a concert pianist,” she said, citing “Fanfarinette” from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Suite in A Minor” as her favorite piece to play.
Taylor-Dorsey’s musical ambitions led her to study at Michigan State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Diploma in hand, she returned to her native Philadelphia, and shortly thereafter landed a job as music director at St. Peter Claver in Center City until the parish was closed.
In 1993, she started a 13-year appointment as choir director at Our Lady of Hope parish in Philadelphia, during which time she staged annual concerts and produced a recording of the Hope Singers.
When she became the choir director at St. Martin de Porres Parish in 2006, Taylor-Dorsey decided to make her lifelong commitment to Catholicism official, joining the church under the guidance of then-pastor Father Edward Hallinan.
“During our first meeting, he asked me, ‘Why aren’t you Catholic?'” she recalled in an interview with CatholicPhilly.com, the archdiocese’s online news outlet. “Actually, I felt like I was Catholic even before I converted.”
In college, she had studied the Mass, finding beauty in the order of the liturgy. As her career developed in Catholic parishes, she realized that she felt increasingly at home.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’m playing at this church for two Masses each Sunday, but I wouldn’t be buried from here if I died,'” she said.
Father Hallinan also encouraged Taylor-Dorsey to attend the National Black Catholic Congress, which gathers participants from a number of African American Catholic organizations. Participating as a new Catholic in 2007, she was eager to connect with fellow believers, but lamented the lack of musical presentations at the conference. Eventually, she created her own, delivering workshops on sight reading and music ministry.
During the organization’s 12th conference in 2017, Taylor-Dorsey was the first woman to direct the congress’s liturgical music, conducting a 100-voice choir at its daily Masses while writing musical scores for the accompanying string orchestra.
In the process, she realized that although she enjoyed performing herself, her talents “really were in composition, in writing and arranging,” she said.
In fact, Taylor-Dorsey may be best known for her original piece “Everybody Needs Someone,” which was presented in concert at the Juilliard School by alumnus and pianist Peter Dugan.
Her composition “God’s Angel” was featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper after she dedicated a 2012 performance of the song — originally written after her mother’s death — to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. A number of Taylor-Dorsey’s vocal works have been sung throughout the United States.
Despite such musical prestige and prowess, though, she said she strives to “refresh and renew” her choirs, giving all participants a chance to grow musically and not simply “letting a few people do solos.”
Selections for the Sunday liturgies at St. Martin de Porres are carefully chosen by Taylor-Dorsey in close collaboration with the parish’s pastor, Father Stephen Thorne, who also is a consultant for the National Black Catholic Congress.
In addition to her preparations for Sunday Mass, she also is in the process of setting the Book of Psalms to music, while managing the Tonya Dorsey and New Vision foundation, which since 2008 has awarded more than 140 scholarships in the arts to school-age children.
Though practiced and prolific, Taylor-Dorsey remains focused on the true source of her artistic inspiration.
“I give 100% credit to God,” she said. “There are songs that I write where I truly could not tell you the process involved.”
Taylor-Dorsey’s joy in music is central to her ministry, which she says is a simple one: “I want to encourage people to sing and raise their voices in honor of God.”