Farewell, Good Shepherd of the Braddock Bells and Songbirds


The pews are filling thirty minutes before the start of 4:00 Mass on Saturday, August 15, 2015. Today’s Mass at Good Shepherd Catholic Parish, located across Braddock Avenue from the historic Edgar Thomson Steel Works, celebrates Herb Dillahunt’s final dance with the organ that he loves almost as much as the parish Chamber Choir he will conduct for one last time today. More parishioners are dressed in their finest than on most Saturdays. Faces are pensive and somber, but with resolve. They know that their parish faces a future without their beloved director of music ministry.

The late afternoon sun streams through two small arch-shaped, stained glass windows high on the west wall, projecting dusty pink and pearlescent green splashes across the textured wall behind Jesus, who is suspended from the ceiling on the heavy wooden cross high above the sanctuary. The altar table, adorned with yellow pompoms and salmon carnations, more suggestive of a funeral Mass, is framed by a 40-foot high bricked arch, characteristic of the Romanesque structure.

As the choir commences the celebration with a soft interlude at 3:55 p.m., one woman—a young looking 60-something with a sheen reflecting from her braided hair—rests her chin on an upraised left hand. Staring off to the right side of the sanctuary, tears brewing, the woman’s face seems to embody the emotion of the collected assembly, a congregation that faces another loss—their music man who many have considered to be the heart and soul of this church family for the past 30 years.

In the days when steel production muscled a thriving downtown business district in this poster community for America’s “rust belt,” this church was known as St. Michael’s Slovak Catholic Church, one of many thriving ethnic parishes. With the closing of six ethnic parishes, as “Steel Valley” morphed into “Rust Valley” through the 1970’s and 80’s, Good Shepherd Parish was born in 1985, amid the ashes, and housed in the former St. Michael’s worship site.

Mr. Dillahunt—“‘Herb”’ to the adults, “‘Mr. D”’ to the parish youth—has been a fixture at Good Shepherd Parish in Braddock, Pa., for 30 years and would have been happy to remain there for as long as he could play the organ and piano, and nurture his choirs, at the two worship sites—Sacred Heart Church in Braddock Hills and the site of today’s Mass, Good Shepherd Church, just a stone’s throw from the historic steel plant that refuses to die. Edgar Thompson still produces steel today with automation and a labor force of just 540 workers as of 2010, compared to the 5,000 who manned three shifts in its heyday.

With declining membership over the past 20 years and an aging demographic, reflective of not only the church, but the community at large, Herb was not surprised when Father Albert  J. Semler, broke the news to him last May that this parish could no longer support a music ministry. Herb likened the feeling to “. . . cleaning out your mother’s house after she dies. He added, “I was prepared to continue here until I retired. But God has other plans for all of us.”

The people of Braddock, like those of other rust-belt communities in the Monongahela Valley, are all too familiar with detachment. Over four-and-a-half decades they have seen businesses disappear, churches close their doors, and plummeting property values as abandoned homes and buildings have metastasized over the slopes and flats of the Braddock landscape.

This is not to say that nothing good has happened in this community in the last decade. Braddock is proud of a renovated library, a history museum, community center, vegetable gardens tended by youth groups, and civic and corporate partnerships spearheaded under the leadership of Mayor John Fetterman, who migrated to Braddock from York, Pa., in 200l to work for AmeriCorps. He has served as part-time mayor since 2005.

Fetterman, who earned a Master’s degree in community development from Harvard University, has invested his own resources into purchasing abandoned properties and renovating them. He has also welcomed artists—attracted by low rent spaces and a vibe of renewal, into the community. However, in spite of these efforts, Braddock, like other communities in the Monongahela Valley, just eight miles upriver from the gleaming skyscrapers of the Golden Triangle, has not reaped the benefits of the health care-education-technology driven economy that has revitalized metropolitan Pittsburgh and the more prosperous communities along the Allegheny River.

In fact, Braddock’s hospital was closed by UPMC five years ago to be replaced by a new medical center in more affluent Monroeville. However, former Allegheny County Executive, Dan Onorato, was instrumental in garnering federal dollars to build a flexible office and retail complex on the former hospital site, along with 24 rental units and 11 single family homes—all situated adjacent to a 20,000 square foot park. In this context, the people of Braddock remain survivors. Like the mill that continues on life support to produce American steel, the parishioners of Good Shepherd Parish are now challenged with maintaining a parish without their good shepherd of music ministry.

. . .

[Spring, 1985]

“Who wants to go to Braddock?” Herb Dillahunt mused, as he read the job listing for the music ministry position at Good Shepherd Parish in the Diocesan newsletter. It was during the spring of 1985, and Herb was in his office at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Midland, Pa. He had been organist there, part-time while a student at Duquesne University, then full-time from 1974-85. At age 18, Herb and his family had relocated to Pennsylvania from Springfield, Ohio, when Ohio-Edison transferred his father.

As far back as second grade, Herb stood and watched the Sunday school pianist at his boyhood Lutheran church in Springfield. Fascinated by church liturgy and hymns, he took piano lessons from the church pianist’s mother and progressed to become the church organist at 12 years of age.

Yet, in May of 1985 something moved Herb to meet with Father Robert J. Boyle, pastor of the newly created parish of Good Shepherd. He was hired within two days to assume the music ministry position in Braddock on May 15, 1985.

His first residence in Pittsburgh was on the South Side, but Herb found the commute difficult. Soon he rented an upstairs double from a parishioner for the next six years until, in 1991, he purchased—from another parishioner—the Franklin Street home on the slopes of Braddock where he has resided ever since. Choir member, Helen Skurcenski, from whom Herb bought his Braddock home, had allowed Herb to live in the house rent-free for five months prior to closing. Herb’s voice softens as he reflects on Skurcenski’s kindness as one instance of what life has been like in his parish family for the past three decades.

In those early days Herb recalls the challenge of taking 80 people coming together from six ethnic parishes and working hard to teach “vocal production” and “how to make a good choral sound.” But “make a good choral sound” they have for three decades—the adult choir that has sung for the 9:00 a.m. Mass on Sunday mornings and the more specialized Chamber Choir, who have sung for special Masses and celebratory programs such as 20th, 25th, and 30th anniversary concerts. On May 3, 2015, the parish celebrated its 30th anniversary with an afternoon concert in the sanctuary of the Good Shepherd Church. Herb’s Chamber Choir delivered a breathtaking performance of an Easter-themed Bach Cantata #4 and a melodic rendering of six Robert Frost poems from a work titled Frostiana, accompanied by string ensemble and piano, respectively.

In 1988, a request for hand bell music at the 25th jubilee for Good Shepherd School’s principal, Sister Eileen, led to the growth of three hand bell choirs for elementary, middle, and high school youngsters. Herb’s bell ringers were open to all youth who were willing to learn to count bell music and faithfully attend rehearsals, often drawing ringers from other local parishes and the community at large.

The white-gloved ringers performed Christmas favorites at area malls as well as at the Winter Garden at PPG Place in downtown Pittsburgh. With 11 ringers in each group by the mid or later 1990’s, ranging through five octaves, the hand bell ringers performed not only sacred music for special Masses but a variety of genres of secular music too. During programs for women’s guilds, senior citizens groups, corporate parties, and nursing homes, the hand bell ringers delighted audiences with Broadway show tunes, movie music, and classics—selections as diverse as “Resounding Joy,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Herb’s eyes sparkle as he recalls overnight trips where the hand bell ringers performed on two occasions at the state capitol in Harrisburg. Summer conferences at college campuses broadened the horizons of his Braddock charges and exposed them to new styles of hand bell ringing with guest conductors sponsored by the American Guild of English Hand Bell Ringers (AGEHR). The interaction with students from other areas benefitted the Braddock youths, but those trips became too expensive in recent years and had to be suspended.

Mr. D’s hand bell ringers loved playing so much that, about five years ago, some of the high school graduates lobbied to start an alumni group of 12 ringers. A few of these are in their early thirties now and have been ringing for Herb and Good Shepherd Parish for over 20 years.  Mr. D’s departure has resulted in an uncertain future for the hand bell program.

. . .

The relationships forged between Herb and his cadre of cantors have been mutually rewarding. Herb credits the rich folk traditions of Braddock’s ethnic families, whose homespun musical heritage transferred seamlessly into sacred music, providing his music ministry with talented songbirds. Melissa Kaczmarski began cantoring as an 8th grader, not only at weekend Mass but also for weddings and funerals. Melissa recalls how Herb made her feel productive for the several summers that she assisted him, keeping her busy organizing and filing sheet music.

Melissa will miss teaming with her mentor on special projects completed in more recent times. Several years ago she and Herb developed a You Tube instructional video on Gelineau style cantoring, designed to prepare candidates for national certification.

Ms. Kaczmarski also remembers how Herb’s ministry reached beyond music. She will never forget the emails that she exchanged with Herb from a campus computer lab during her undergraduate years at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. Though, in her college years, Melissa was only available for cantoring at the Braddock church once a month, Herb wanted to make sure that her bent toward perfectionism was not getting the best of the dedicated student. Melissa will always cherish the card she received from her mentor, money for pizza enclosed along with words to lighten the moment, on the eve of her final exam in cognitive psychology.

The more you talk with the parish family of Good Shepherd, the more you discover about the extent of Herb Dillahunt’s pastoral ministry. Father Al describes Herb as one of the best evangelizers he has ever witnessed. At the end of the 2013-2014 school term, five kids from East Catholic Elementary School mentioned to Herb that they had nothing to do for the summer. Asking them to try hand bell ringing, Herb proceeded to rewrite music, normally configured for 11 ringers per group, so that songs could be played by just five ringers. He worked with the small group throughout that summer.

All who speak of him agree on Herb’s ability to find a way. Herb organized fundraisers and utilized his power of persuasion to amass funding for needy kids who could not afford the cost of traveling to summer hand bell workshops. Others speak of Herb’s generosity in handing out his own money for groceries and school clothes to unemployed families of the parish. Herb himself admits to having cosigned on at least three houses and eight or nine car loans for members of his parish family.

Twenty-year-old Tony Davis, a hand bell ringer for the past 10 years, will miss the man who changed his life. In third grade, Herb selected Tony to play a lead role in a class musical titled Family Tree. Mr. D recognized that Tony was a hard worker and rewarded the lad with an important role.

During basketball season Mr. D never failed to pop in to a practice session at the Good Shepherd School gymnasium. Tony loved hearing Herb’s tenor rendition of “Going to Kansas City,” the song that was so identified with the frequent venue for NCAA Basketball Tournament games in those days. Tony will always be grateful for long hours Mr. D spent with him and his family in the funeral home when his beloved great-grandparents both passed way in a matter of months.

Mr. D’s ability to connect with people at every level has been a constant through his service. His contagious smile melted the hearts of many residents in nursing homes when Herb brought the bell ringers to perform. About three years ago, when the hand bell choirs performed at the Holiday Light Spectacular at Kennywood, Herb delighted Tony by turning to the crowd, between songs, because he had spotted Tony’s grandfather in the crowd. With an ear-to-ear grin Herb pointed him out to all in attendance, “Why, there’s Mr. Ed Ruane,” choreographing music performance and family connections with grace.

More than a father figure, Mr. D has become Tony’s mentor and lifetime friend. Although as of August 17th, 2015, Mr. D’s new position took him to a parish in suburban Cleveland, Tony knows that he can call on Mr. D when the need arises. He adds, “The people of North Olmsted, Ohio, have no idea what’s in store for them.”

. . .

“I can remember sitting in church the first time he played,” alto cantor Louise Chuha, muses, as she chuckles at the restlessness of her service dog, Preston, who is out of harness now and free to give generous licks to a visitor.

Louise’s thoughts turn to her own experience with the pastoral ministry of Herb Dillahunt. “Not everybody works easily with somebody who has . . . a disability. Blindness is a problem. And there’s some things that you need.” When Herb had first approached Louise to cantor for a wedding, she taught him how to dictate music to her so that she could transcribe it into Braille. He “never batted an eyelash” when Louise needed something to be changed to accommodate her disability.

She adds, “It was . . . extra special because I didn’t have to ask him. He would just know what to do.” Louise is indebted to Herb for his openness to her requests for music transcription—three full file cabinet drawers of Braille music.

Louise’s Chamber Choir sang these lines from the Frost poem, “Choose Something like a Star,” at the 30th anniversary concert last May:


O Star (the fairest one in sight),

We grant your loftiness the right

To some obscurity of cloud –

It will not do to say of night,

Since dark is what brings out your light.

. . .

“I didn’t have a dad. Herb was my dad. He was the only father I ever knew.” These are the words of 31-year-old Robert (Rob) Swope, a native of Braddock, who was raised by his grandmother. Rob remembers when he first arrived at Good Shepherd School as a third grader, how he used to walk by the music room to gaze at the shiny, golden bells, knowing that there was no chance to touch them until he made it to sixth grade. He got to know Mr. D. a little when serving as an altar boy, but he assumed that Herb Dillahunt was probably “mean” and partial to working with the other kids who were thinner than Rob.

Following a rocky start when he made the mistake of calling Mr. D. by his first name, ‘Herb,’ Rob remembers how the relationship changed after his grandmother convinced him to apologize. Herb began to ask Rob to help him move equipment, gradually easing Rob into the hand bell program. Herb found time to take Rob and some of his friends to breakfast. Rob, whose grandmother never owned a car, wonders if her grandson could ever have made rehearsals had it not been for transportation provided by Mr. D.

Rob and his fiancée, Kelly Thompson, are grateful for the time that Herb spent following weekly rehearsals and on other evenings throughout the school year. Monday evening was reserved for homework help, and essay writing and reading occurred on many Wednesdays. Rob credits Herb for dragging him “kicking and screaming” through 10th grade American history. After borrowing Rob’s history book, Herb began relentless drills—before and after rehearsals, at lunch. Rob ended that grading period with a 97%. That scenario was repeated with many hand bell ringers to follow.

For the five years that the alumni hand bell choir has been in existence, Rob and Kelly took notice of how their roles had transformed. Herb sought input from them on music selection and problem solving. Kelly and Rob became liaisons to help Mr. D relate more effectively with the younger bell ringers. Some kids responded better to the approach of a “big sister” or “brother” to work out kinks in their technique or to deal with issues of behavior and responsibility.

In a real way, the carefully crafted music ministry has evolved into a team approach that may hold sufficient human resources to survive Herb’s departure. The task is daunting, but Kelly and Rob are willing to step forward.

The two are realistic about the challenges ahead. Herb’s minivan will no longer be available to transport tables, bells, and other equipment to performance venues outside of the church. Money is required to purchase new music—about $100 to supply one new piece of music to all ringers. The white gloves worn by bell ringers must be replaced periodically, along with mallets and other equipment. In light of those challenges, Kelly and Rob envision a scaled-back version of the hand bell program that can be supported with parish bake sales and spaghetti dinners. By the end of 2015, the two have raised sufficient funds from two bake sales and a highly successful spaghetti dinner to purchase required supplies to maintain the high school and the adult hand bell groups.

. . .

[Back to Mass, August 15, 2015]

After a homily to garner support for world missions by a visiting priest, Father Al asks the parents of the George family and godparents to step forward to the sanctuary for the baptism of the newest member of Good Shepherd Parish, Isabella Rose George. The infant reacts to the tincture of oil and cool water applied to her milky forehead with a brief cry of affirmation. It must be transformational for those in attendance to welcome new birth into this parish, so weighted to an aging demographic. Handkerchiefs are as visible as “terrible towels” at a Steeler playoff game.

. . .

Though shaken to the core by the loss of their good shepherd of song, as the leaves turn color and swirl to the pavement and the bitter winds of winter breathe upon the landscape in the weeks ahead, Kelly and Rob, along with Father Al—and at least a dozen others like them—will be working behind the scenes to help save a parish for the likes of little Isabella Rose and children of Braddock yet to be born. These daughters and sons—born of the stock of “Joe Magarac”—have suffered a dispiriting loss, but through clouded eyes, they see pathways for continuing a legacy. It won’t be the music ministry of Herb Dillahunt, yet Herb’s greatest gift of all may have been the cultivation of a family of “can do” disciples.

. . .

[Final return to Mass, August 15, 2015]

Just before the beginning of Mass, soprano choir member, Melissa Kaczmarski, marches from her position in the choir loft to the microphone in the sanctuary to pay a heartfelt tribute to the departing “shepherd” whom she adores. Eyes lifted toward Herb in the choir loft, laboring through her prepared remarks, Melissa cites a few highlights of Herb’s legacy at the Braddock parish. Concluding her remarks by acknowledging Herb’s imminent departure to assume a new music ministry in North Olmsted, Ohio, she adds, “St. Clarence can borrow you, Herb, but you will always be ours.”

. . .

After watching Herb’s final organ flourish, as he concludes the recessional high in the choir loft—his face wagging to and fro, arms outstretched, fingers bouncing like ten tiny ballerinas off the organ keys—a woman named Theresa and this writer spy Louise Chuha and Preston, in harness, making their way across the gathering space toward the Maple Avenue exit. They approach her, and the writer gently touches Louise’s arm. Louise smiles and turns to them. With urgency she asks, “Are we going somewhere?”

By “going somewhere” Louise needed to know quickly if the two friends were taking her someplace to celebrate, or perhaps to commiserate. Otherwise, she and Preston must have continued their trek to board the parish mini-bus for the ride to her home in the Braddock flats. While an outing with Louise was not in the offing for that day, Louise’s question begs further consideration.

There are voices among the parish flock who have expressed a belief that Herb’s departure—the loss of an amazing communion of music and pastoral ministry—may represent the beginning of the end for Good Shepherd Parish. The precedent of loss and separation for this church and for the community does lend some credence to that view.

However, Louise’s query—“Are we going somewhere?”—has jostled this writer’s memory back to the haunting refrain of a hymn that Herb Dillahunt sang many times with the children of Braddock, “How Can I Keep from Singing?” One can imagine that “Joe Magarac” —molded of steel, looming tall over the entrance to the Edgar Thomson Works—may have wiped away a tear as white-gloved hands grasped dormant bells, and the bell ringers of Braddock, stricken silent for a time, have sounded out that refrain yet again, echoing off the soot-singed hillsides of the Monongahela. Their song—not quite in the key of “Herb”— resounds, ripe as autumn’s harvest, with chords of thanksgiving and awe.


© Dave Knoepfle, January 15, 2016




By | 2017-05-17T15:51:21+00:00 May 16th, 2017|Creative Nonfiction|Comments Off on Farewell, Good Shepherd of the Braddock Bells and Songbirds