Director of Communication and Marketing Central Province, USA
In 1968, Fr. Jim Marchionda, O.P. left home for the Dominican novitiate (at that time, located in Winona, MN). Although he packed everything needed, he left his clarinet at home in a heroic, quasi-saintly gesture, signifying his old life was all behind him and he would start this Dominican life anew. It was a mistake. It was all wrong.
Born in Ohio, Fr. Marchionda was raised in New York City, Kansas City, New Jersey, and Minnesota. His father, an Italian immigrant, tailor and clothing designer, passed on his love of music as well as his own e-flat clarinet. Early on, Fr. Marchionda switched to the b-flat clarinet and began private lessons. He excelled quickly, winning contests throughout the East Coast, marching annually in the Atlantic City Miss America Pageant, and serving as student director of a 150-piece high school marching band and 17-piece stage band.
Though he had been accepted at a School of Music outside Boston as a clarinet major, Fr. Marchionda followed his parents to St. Paul, Minnesota, to attend the College of St. Thomas planning to return to Boston after one year. During that year, he played with the St. Paul Civic Orchestra and the St. Thomas clarinet quartet, performing in several concerts and large scale events.
St. Thomas required freshmen to take courses in Theology and it was there that Fr. Marchionda met the Dominicans for the first time. His freshman teacher, Fr. Jerome Langford, O.P., as well as his sophomore teacher, Fr. Tim McCarthy, O.P., significantly influenced him, but he still felt compelled towards a career in music instead of pursuing the priesthood.
Because he was so committed to a music career, Fr. Marchionda wouldn’t even have the conversation about a vocation. It took Fr. Dan Davis, O.P. playing a trick on him, in order to get Fr. Marchionda into the same room with the vocation director, Fr. Bob Perry, O.P. After Fr. Davis left the two alone, Fr. Marchionda finally agreed to talk. He spoke to Fr. Perry for an hour and received regular letters from Fr. Perry for the next six months.
Still, it wasn’t until Fr. Marchionda went on a retreat to the Dominican novitiate, that he seriously considered choosing the priesthood over music.
“Meeting the novices turned everything around,” Fr. Marchionda said. “It was because of their example. I fell in love with the common life, the fact that so many people could be so happy. I realized it was the lifestyle that was making them this happy.
“Previous to that, my religious practice was pretty private, me and Jesus, me and God, going to church, sitting in a pew by myself, and loving it,” Fr. Marchionda continued. “What I saw at the novitiate was a whole different world, one that wasn’t singular. I experienced the beauty of common prayer that I had never known before.”
The following year, Fr. Marchionda joined the novitiate. A year later in Philosophy studies, he witnessed the happiness of the brothers in the Order of Preachers, but didn’t feel it as completely himself. It felt like something was missing. He realized, in leaving behind his clarinet and his own musical identity, he wasn’t living his life fully enough. He felt incomplete.
With the permission and encouragement of the Formation Team, he worked toward a degree in music theory and composition at Chicago’s DePaul University while completing his philosophy studies. After recapturing the missing piece of himself, Fr. Marchionda began to fully realize the happiness he saw in his Dominican brothers.
“If you totally abandon who you are to become a Dominican, then you’re not bringing what you know to be your best self to Dominican life,” Fr. Marchionda said. “I don’t think God wants us to abandon what He has already given us. Instead, God intends us to discover new ways in which all the gifts given can become integrated in the same life.
“Music is so much a part of the beauty of the prayer. I had never experienced music and prayer coming together so powerfully,” Fr. Marchionda added. “All of the sudden, my worlds merged. They came together in a way that I never would have expected.”
His deep love of music and itinerant preaching made Fr. Marchionda one of the best-traveled friars in the Central Province. For over 20 years, he has preached throughout the United States. During some months, he locks himself away to compose music to present to World Library Publications, who publishes his work. Then, he records a CD and shares it with people throughout the year wherever he preaches.
Although brothers in the Central Province had asked him to consider the role of Provincial leadership, he has not been so inclined because the combined career of preaching and music has been so rewarding. He feared accepting a leadership role would require his leaving the music behind once again.
This summer, during the 19th Provincial Chapter, the friars discussed the ongoing challenges of living Dominican common life in a world polluted by distractions and overburdened by demands of time. The Chapter delegates recognized the importance of their common life and once again thought Fr. Marchionda may be the ideal person to tap for its renewal.
“He has a heart for the brothers that is difficult to match,” said Central Province Promoter of Vocations, Fr. Andy McAlpin, O.P. “He is often one of the last men to leave the table at mealtime and his joyful spirit is infectious and inviting.”
So, on June 17th, his 68th birthday, Fr. Marchionda accepted the call from his brothers to lead them as the Central Province’s 12th Prior Provincial. He jokingly remarks that he is the oldest man elected to the position in the province’s 76-year history.
“Even though this is a change in direction from where I was headed, it’s exciting at the same time,” Fr. Marchionda said. “The brothers have been so incredibly supportive with emails, texts and phone calls. I think it is simply God’s way of directing me.”
It seems to work out for Fr. Marchionda when he backs into things. He backed into the College of St. Thomas when his parents asked him to move with them to the Twin Cities—and he met the Dominicans. He backed into a conversation with the Dominican Vocations Director when his best college pal tricked him into the meeting. He backed into a composition degree at DePaul University because it was the only one he could achieve in the amount of time the province had allotted him during Philosophy studies. And now he has composed and published well over 100 works.
Now, as he considers the many times he’s backed in to the circumstances of his life, guided by God’s grace, Fr. Marchionda looks at the tasks ahead and to the coming year with joy and enthusiasm as the Order of Preachers prepares for its 800th Jubilee in 2016.
“We seem to have a healthy tension in the Order, with many men in limited service, a good number of newly ordained and many young men still in formation,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves how we can live a common brotherhood, forming a depth of community rooted in sincere fraternal love.”
His early life growing up with three younger brothers living in four different states prepared him well for the Dominican common life and itinerancy to draw from. He has maintained strong relationships with the brothers of the province. He seems to have a gift for relating to the men in the Order and an artistry to finding creative solutions to issues facing the province.
“As different as we are, our differences cannot be the defining factor. Our brotherhood has to be the defining factor,” Fr. Marchionda said. “It’s up to us to be so creative and committed to being what we need to be to each other that our differences don’t harm us or interfere with our common life.”
This common life, he feels, is perhaps the best gift the Order can offer the Catholic Church and its people.
“The highest form of preaching we can offer is the witness of our lives. Secondarily, it’s what we say, how we say it and where we say it,” Fr. Marchionda said. “If people see Dominican brothers, as different as they are, dwelling together in unity, they are already being preached to.” Attributed to St. Francis and echoed more recently by Pope Francis, Fr. Marchionda recalled the quote, “Preach always, if necessary use words.”
The first preaching is not the preaching of words, but the witness of lives. It was the example of his first two Dominican teachers at the College of St. Thomas that attracted Fr. Marchionda’s attention. He strongly believes that same witness must be at the heart of each community in the Central Province and that it can make a real difference in the lives of families today.
“Families can see brothers as different as night and day making sacrifices to live together and spend time together no matter how busy schedules are,” Fr. Marchionda said. “Witnessing this, families learn that they too can have much more if they just stay connected, pray together, attend Mass together, share more meals together and do more together than society demands. There’s a way in which the nitty gritty of community life can rekindle what all family life should be.”
In the months and years to come, Fr. Marchionda plans to meet with the Dominican brothers throughout the Central Province in order to encourage and reinforce their community lives, both for their sakes, and as a witness to the people they serve. Regarding the laypeople who assist us in our mission, Fr. Marchionda says, “Be grateful for what they have to give, learn who they are, and do what you can to reinforce and align their gifts with our Dominican values.”
True to the servant-leadership model, Fr. Marchionda is already working hard to encourage people to be aware of their gifts and to use them to the best of their ability, instead of leaving their clarinets at home.