Music a big part of Fr. Robbie McDougall's ministry

  • April 23, 2010
Fr. Robbie McDougallWhile attending Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto nearly 40 years ago, a renowned concert pianist discovered how he could better use his musical talents for God.

Thirteen years later he would be ordained to the priesthood and for the past 21 years has been leading scores of people across Canada in retreats, parish missions, workshops and Christian concerts.

Fr. Robbie McDougall is a priest based in the Manitoba archdiocese of St. Boniface. He founded a ministry more than 20 years ago to combine his love for sacred music and evangelization.

Before becoming a priest, McDougall was a musician and composer. It wasn’t until 1972 when he heard a preacher at St. Michael’s Cathedral speak about talents that he was inspired to use his musical gift to compose a 10-part Mass.

“For some reason it touched me and I thought, ‘Well I have to give back so I’m going to write music,’ ” McDougall said.  

After completing the Mass in 1975, he founded a music and publishing company to separate his secular and religious works. Adoramus Ministries now encompasses his evangelization outreach through facilitating retreats and workshops.

Over the years, his passion for sacred music just grew.

“Very deeply it touched me and transformed me in many ways.”

McDougall became a composer in residence for the Jesuits at St. Paul’s College at the University of Manitoba, where he also directed the choir for special celebrations. While composing sacred music, he continued in the contemporary music field, performing with top acts such as Dionne Warwick, Jose Feliciano, Sonny and Cher, Ocean and Lighthouse.

McDougall later left Winnipeg to study liturgical music at St. Joseph’s College in Indiana. After obtaining his certificate in Liturgy and Sacred Music, he went to Laval University in Quebec City where he completed bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in theology and obtained certificates in management, facilitation and clinical pastoral education.

When asked what drew him to the priesthood, McDougall said it was a calling he did consider as a youth but ignored that in favour of a passion imprinted in his first memories.

“Dad had a band, an old time band — they did polkas, waltzes, practised twice a week in our home — I was about three years old and I can still remember sitting on the staircase watching them practise and then going to the piano and trying to play the keys. “

His parents encouraged each of their six children to learn an instrument from an early age. This was reinforced at the Catholic grade school they attended where the convent offered private music lessons. He was six when the piano lessons and ensuing school performances started.

“When it’s in you like that it’s got to come out so I just started to express it,” he said.

At age 11, he played piano in a family band his father formed to play at community events.

When he was 14, McDougall and his brother Donnie, who later joined The Guess Who, joined a rock band called The Gentry. By the time he turned 17, McDougall was performing as a solo artist.

The radio and TV performances, recording contracts, etc., made the priesthood seem far from realization.

“As a matter of fact, by the time I was writing the Mass, I was also dating seriously a young girl and was thinking more marriage,” he said.

But realizing that the reoccurring thoughts about the priesthood could only be an authentic call, he left the dating life behind to discern.

Despite his love for the sacred, McDougall hasn’t left the contemporary behind, sometimes breaking out into favourite pieces for fun at various events.

Since his ordination he has done parish ministry, taught sacred music, worked as full time chaplain for a hospital and halfway house for the mentally challenged, done vocational work for the archdiocese, directed various sacramental programs, led prayer groups and directed grief and loss workshops.

And the music is only a tool.

“The most important part for me is the Word of God and all is focused around that,” he said. “So using music, singing, really is like a healer. It assists the process. I use a lot of the instrumental music, which I find soothing, relaxing and very helpful for spirituality and prayer.”

And it proves a very useful tool in his ministry for the grieving, which he started doing in 1988. Though he had worked in hospital care, hearing about grief from patients and suffering relatives, the realization came while visiting the grave site of a brother who in 1987 was hit by a car.

“I would go out to pray there and visit by his tomb with my mom or a member of the family — sometimes all of us. It was through that I noticed people all over the cemetery grieving or crying together. So I approached the owner at that time, said we had to do something for these people that are grieving.”

Since then, he has hosted grieving workshops five times a year

“I promise you that chapel is full, probably about 250 people,” he said.

With all the experience as a musician, McDougall said he continues to find inspiration in swimming laps at a nearby pool. The sound of the water, its calming effect, helps shut out the noise of the world and provide a place for reflection.

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