All right, I realize that interest in my topic this evening might be limited to a certain demographic; but given the size of the boomer generation, I suspect that it’s a fairly large demographic. People, hands up if you can hum Joy is like the Rain! Or if the words “Medical Mission Sisters” mean anything to you! I am willing to bet that if you grew up in North America in a middle-class white anglo-saxon Protestant, or white anglo-saxon Roman Catholic, household in the 1960s and 1970s, and if your family darkened a church door at least once in a while, then you know what I’m talking about. So in this evening’s post I’m going to take you on a walk through post-Vatican-II-folk-mass-singing-nun territory. Ready?
Okay, so: the Medical Mission Sisters are, as you might imagine from their name, an order of Roman Catholic nuns who work in the health-care field. But in the mid-1960s, in the heady days after Vatican II, one of their members, Sister Miriam Therese Winter, started writing songs, and somehow or other the Medical Mission Sisters singing those songs got an album recorded. Sister Miriam Therese was a prolific songwriter with a knack for a catchy tune and a way of turning Bible stories into rhyme. The Sisters’ biggest hit was also the name of their first album, 1966’s Joy is like the Rain, and if you are, as I mentioned earlier, of a certain age and background, you surely will know or at least recognize it. But in case you don’t, here it is, a blast from the folk-mass past:
In the world that I grew up in, at the Manse in Queensborough, Ont., that song was huge. We sang it in Sunday School. We sang it in choirs. We sang it in school. Public school! (Those were the innocent days when songs with a Christian theme – and yes, I am of course including Christmas carols like Silent Night and Away in a Manger – were actually sung in public schools. Not that I am complaining for one second about the fact that schools are more multicultural now, though I wish that different religious traditions were talked about occasionally at school rather than the whole public-education experience being a big secular bloblike affair. But I digress.)
One thing I find interesting about Joy is like the Rain, listening to it again all these years later, is that it’s not till the final verse that there’s any mention of anything remotely religious – “I saw Christ in wind and thunder; joy is tried by storm.” Until that, it’s all about – well, the nature of joy. I wonder if the fact that it took a long while to get to its religious message (and even then the message was thoroughly painless, even for nonbelievers) was one reason the song was such a big hit.
In poking around the internet looking for information about the Medical Mission Sisters’ midcentury pop-music recording career and Sister Miriam Therese Winter, I discovered (a bit to my relief) that I am far from the only person who remembers them fondly. Here is a very interesting article from 2012 about plans (I don’t know if they came to fruition, but I hope they did) to record a series of CDs, with well-known singers participating, paying tribute to the songs of the Medical Mission Sisters. (The article also has lots of good background information about the Sisters and their songs.)
When I was growing up in the era of the Medical Mission Sisters, my own family’s house – that would of course be the Manse, where I now live once again with the ever-patient Raymond – we had quite a few, perhaps all, of the Medical Mission Sisters’ records. Joy is like the Rain was, obviously, one of them, but here is another that got played many hundreds of times:
The title song (which, sadly, I was unable to find a recording of on YouTube, but which I could sing for you at the drop of a hat – not that I actually would, of course) is based on the parable about knocking at the door of a neighbour at a late hour, bugging him because you need to borrow food to feed an unexpected visitor. (The moral of the parable is to be persistent with God.) It’s pretty darn catchy, I have to say. And what I also have to say is that I could sing probably any Medical Mission Sisters song for you at the drop of a hat. (Again, not that I would. I’m a terrible singer.) Those songs were such a great way of delivering good old yarns from the Bible. Sister Miriam Therese was kind of a genius.
Before leaving the subject, I want to give you a couple of examples. You can find a fair number of the Sisters’ songs on YouTube, but I have my own personal favourites. This first is one that we sang in school (yes, in public school) and also in Sunday School at St. Andrew’s United Church many and many a time. I fondly remember the late Jean Bailey of the hamlet of Cooper, a wonderful pianist, who often accompanied this one and played it fervently and brilliantly. It’s the parable of the wedding banquet, wherein we are all invited to come for an eternal whale of a time and most of us turn up our noses at it, leaving space for the poor and forgotten. (And let that be a lesson to you!) Here goes: “Pray hold me excused, I cannot come…”:
And here is the one that I think is my personal favourite, because it’s beautiful and uplifting and has a nice 1960s folk vibe to it and … well, all of that:
So yeah, thank you, Sister Miriam Therese and the Medical Mission Sisters, for reminding us musically that
When you walk in love with the wind on your wing
And cover the earth with the songs you sing
The miles fly by.