It’s mid-December, just a few weeks before one of the busiest times in the church year for pastoral musicians. My short legs struggle to keep up as Dr. Jennifer Kerr Budziak and I walk briskly down Monroe Street in Chicago’s West Loop. Our goal: lunch and shoptalk. Over spicy Thai food Jennifer shares her history and experiences juggling life as a pastoral musician, conductor, composer, academic, presenter, author, educator, and most importantly, mother.

Celebrating her first year as director of music at Chicago’s historic Old St. Patrick’s Church, the recent Northwestern DMA graduate has achieved a great deal of recognition and success in the pastoral music world, and has done so with an authority and sincerity that is as rare as a perfectly executed Easter triduum.

Photography by Thomas J. Fulfer

Photography by Thomas J. Fulfer

On Growing Up


“I was baptized, but never confirmed” speaking of her upbringing in Maryland. “I grew up in a nonchurchgoing family. We were the typical ‘Chreasters’ going to church twice a year. I literally got into church because of the music.”

A trained classical pianist, she found her way into church music as a cellist first, playing for a Christmas Eve mass at her hometown parish, St. Patrick’s. Eventually she joined the folk group and learned a completely new style of playing. “At that time, most of the music we had lacked piano accompaniments, so I learned to read chord charts. I got started by playing with four guitars, so I could experiment and learn—and not get in anybody’s way,” she laughs.

Budziak combined her passion for performing and church music by attending the Catholic University of America as a piano major. At a time when the line between “traditional high church” music and “contemporary-folk” style music was firmly drawn, with not a lot of good will evident between the different factions, Budziak lived comfortably in both worlds while a student at CUA.

“At CUA, I was directing one of the campus ministry Masses. And then, my first professional job was singing for Leo Nestor at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I had both sides of the church music spectrum—from ‘folk’ music to ‘high church’—and it felt like I hadn’t done church unless I was at both places each weekend!”  To top it all off, Budziak was in the RCIA program through CUA campus ministry and was confirmed in the crypt church of the National Shrine.

She recalls hearing David Haas’s “Blest Are They” for the very first time at the funeral of a seminarian. “We were singing and all I could think was, ‘God, this is amazing—this is the music we need!’ I was just starting as a composer at the time, and we were all sort of looking for that new direction, the one that could carry us forward from the beginnings  early folk-style church music had given us. Nobody at that time knew who Haas and [Marty] Haugen were; they were the new young names in the field. It’s been amazing to see their own music and styles grow over all these years, not to mention the countless composers who came in their wake.”

Photography by Thomas J. Fulfer

Photography by Thomas J. Fulfer

Budziak’s continuing education took her to Indiana University for her master’s in choral conducting, and after realizing she wasn’t ready to get her DMA, she ended up at St. Agnes of Bohemia in Chicago’s Little Village, a predominantly Latino (Mexican) neighborhood through Chicago’s Amate House program. She was assigned to help with school liturgies and clerical work in the office, but a turn of events on the second day of teaching resulted in Budziak teaching K–8 music in the school.

“I never had a [music] education credit in my life,” she laughs, “but being in that position combined with everything else I was doing helped me fall in love with Chicago. I got into the CSC [Chicago Symphony Chorus] and just decided to stay in the area.”

Budziak’s resume boasts a remarkable career—former director of music and liturgies for the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Divine Worship and director of music at several local parishes, including one of Chicago’s most prominent, St. John of the Cross in Western Springs.

Through it all she has always put her family first. “When I was pregnant with my first child, I realized the ODW job couldn’t give us the flexibility we needed. I returned to parish work at St. John of the Cross because of that. I’m still with the Chicago Symphony Chorus, but with my schedule now some things don’t work out. I had to step back from singing the Messiah concerts this year, which breaks my heart, but it just wouldn’t work with my schedule at Old St. Pat’s. At home, I am really blessed to have a wonderful partner—we both drive the kids, we both take care of the house, I cook and he does laundry— we split responsibilities evenly.”


Year of Mercy


Anybody in the Chicago Catholic world will tell you that hospitality is a charism of Old St. Pat’s, and Budziak builds upon it for the Year of Mercy with her music ministry.

“When our staff met to talk about this year, we chose not just to think about ‘mercy’ as a single idea, but as a journey, a progression: First, in Advent we meditated on our own need for mercy and the knowledge that God is with us. In Lent we will draw on the idea of being moved to compassion for those around us and showing mercy in a wider vein. And our journey through Easter to Pentecost will be about going out into the world as a community to be mercy for each other—becoming disciples.”

“From a strictly musical standpoint, I haven’t tried to radically change things, but I’m asking the question, ‘What do we already do well? How is mercy reflected and highlighted in what is already happening?’ I spend a lot of my time going back through our musical repertoire and looking for music that helps us to look at this year of grace through the lens of mercy—it does not always need to be explicit; it’s just there.”

With 330,000 drivers each day on the Kennedy Expressway, chances are most of them notice Old St. Pat’s on their daily commute. Banners have been placed on the church so those commuters—along with those in the West Loop—can see imagery for the Year of Mercy.


The exterior of Old St. Pat’s with Year of Mercy imagery. Photography by Thomas J. Fulfer

“At Old St. Pat’s, we don’t have a literal holy door to open, but we’re trying to instill that we all have the door to mercy in ourselves. We have to be willing to open doors within us. For a lot of people, there’s a distance—a door—for the person not sure about religion and church. Everybody has a holy door! The hard part is finding it and, even more, daring to walk through it.”


On Pastoral Music as a Career


Being the Director of Music at Old St. Pat’s can seem like a daunting task. There are at least six Sunday Masses (many times with simultaneous overflow Masses) and twelve Christmas liturgies in two days. Nonetheless, Jennifer feels right at home after her first year. She credits the parish’s strong commitment to music and the amazing support the staff gives each other.

As a young pastoral musician myself, I asked Jennifer what advice would she give to new pastoral musicians or musicians discerning the path of pastoral work. Her joking reply is simple: “Run! Do something else!”

“Actually, quite the opposite,” she exclaims. “One of the things I have started at Old St. Pat’s—and I’m really excited about it—is an internship program for young musicians thinking about going into pastoral music work. So far, I have had three music interns who have worked in the office, and they experience all the administrative stuff and what the entire picture of the job is. There is so much more beneath the surface with this job, with any church music job, that people not on the front lines just don’t get to see.”

There is a great disconnect between the coursework many music directors take in college—often performance based degrees—and the demands of being a pastoral musician. In most university music programs students are not taught how to work with a budget, manage payroll, and handle administrative duties—all demands required of a pastoral musician. These are all facets of the job that Budziak is committed to imparting to young pastoral musicians.

“Let’s face it: this is a marketable skill. It is a ministry and vocation, but it is also a set of skills a musician can make a living from. Even if it’s 75 percent administrative and 25 percent music, you still get to do the music! You keep your conducting, your playing, and your singing going. Getting that message out there is very high on my mission list.”

Photography by Thomas J. Fulfer

Photography by Thomas J. Fulfer

We finish lunch and she apologizes for having to cut our interview short. “Honestly, it’s nothing glamorous. My daughter has a cello lesson as well, so I need to make sure I’m home to drive her. I’m re-learning cello right alongside her. I’m in Suzuki book two—it’s a blast. And my son is playing tuba in the junior high winter concert tonight. I do a lot of driving,” she mentions with exhaustion, and we both have a moment of understanding regarding Chicago’s horrendous traffic issues.

With all the commotion of parish life, home life, children, performing, and conducting, Budziak manages to make you feel like the only person in the room while talking to her. Many attribute this quality to successful politicians, but for Budziak it’s just a day in the life of her approach in being a pastoral musician. While many of us use this Year of Mercy to reexamine our spiritual lives, Budziak, in many ways, has been living those teachings her entire life.


Mentioned in this story:

Old St. Pat’s Church

Old St. Pat’s Music Ministry

Archdiocese of Chicago Office for Divine Worship

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