Cathedral organist, music director retires after nearly 6 decades

Contributing writer

This summer marked the end of an era at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville, as Dennis York stepped down from a 59-year career as organist and music director.

For decades, his musicianship and his leadership of the church choirs created a sacred setting for Masses and other important events in the life of the Cathedral parish and the Diocese of Belleville.

“He served six bishops,” says the Cathedral’s rector, Msgr. John T. Myler. “He’s played at the installations of bishops, the funerals of bishops, at ordinations.”

By the time York joined the Cathedral staff in 1961, he was already an accomplished musician. While still in grade school, he was a full-time organist at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in East St. Louis.

Newspaper accounts from the 1950s noted that York had no formal music lessons – the then 13-year-old told reporters that his goal was to take lessons and “become a real good organist.”

Jack Weck was a member of the Cathedral Men’s Choir in 1961 when York joined the Cathedral staff.

“I thought he was very young, but very talented,” says Weck of York, who was 20 at the time.

York worked with the existing men’s choir, and then with a newly formed Ladies’ Cathedral Choir in 1989.

Weck notes that while York was serving the parish and the diocese with his music, he also served as the business manager for the Cathedral.

“It’s so amazing that he did both,” he says. “I was a trustee at the Cathedral for 10 years, and I could see all the stuff he did, over and above what might be expected of a business manager or an organist.

“I remember thinking one day, ‘How are we ever going to replace Dennis York?’”

Msgr. Myler first started working with York more than 30 years ago, when Msgr. Myler was serving as associate pastor at the Cathedral. He became reacquainted with the scope of York’s contribution upon returning to the Cathedral as its rector 12 years ago.

He notes that York has been present for many of the important events in the lives of the Cathedral’s parishioners.

“In 59 years, he’s probably played at well over 2,000 weddings, probably close to 3,000 funerals,” Msgr. Myler says. “When people celebrate these great events in their lives, and when they observe the days of sorrow, Dennis has been a part of those joys and sorrows.”

Msgr. William McGhee, now pastor at St. Augustine of Canterbury Parish in Belleville, has been friends with York since the 1980s. He says York’s music helped him “pray better.”

“The way he could spin a tune, even while you were waiting for something else in the Mass,” Msgr. McGhee says. “There was something very soothing, very peaceful about his music.

“The Cathedral is a busy place, and it just amazed me that he could go from the busyness of the Cathedral office to play something so soothing and peaceful. It would help me, if I were antsy – I would hear him and it would settle me down. He had that gift.”

Msgr. Myler says York was easygoing to work with, with a vast knowledge of how things have worked in the past, but willing to keep up with the times. York served for many years as treasurer and registrar of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

“He had decades of experience, and if something was suggested, he could say, ‘Oh yeah, we tried in the ‘60s, and it worked, or it didn’t work,’” he says.

York also has a great sense of humor, Msgr. McGhee says – one that sometimes played out in pranks between the two friends.

“I once opened the door to the confessional and it was all full of dead funeral flowers,” he says with a laugh. “It was always in fun. He has been and is a good friend.”

York began to step back from his duties – first as office manager, then as music director – earlier this year because of illness.

“If it weren’t for the effects of that illness, he’d still be here,” Msgr. Myler says.

The Cathedral celebrated York’s 50th anniversary in 2011, but friends say he’s reticent about such attention. Contacted for this story, he declined to be interviewed. His Cathedral family once again came together in September to thank him for his gifts of time and talent.

Msgr. McGhee says that modesty is an innate part of York’s personality.

“He is always willing to help out – it’s never focused on him,” he says.

“Anybody who’s involved in the life of the Cathedral parish knows and respects the gift he has been in so many ways.”