“My philosophy of life has always been to the service of all mankind. My call has been not to create but to draw the beauty and talent out of each individual I have touched.” – Sr. Francis Assisi Gorham
The opening notes of what would become a group of talented, young, black musicians known as the Ozanam Strings first rang out two decades earlier when a Sister of Charity began walking the streets of Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
It was 1942 and Sister Cyril Aaron had just heard a talk given by Father Norbert Georges, O.P., on ministry to people of color—an unfortunately still radical message in a time before desegregation of the armed services, before Brown v. the Board of Education, and before the Civil Rights Act.
When Mother Claudia Glenn asked for volunteers to start a new ministry in to people of color in Pittsburgh, Sister Cyril immediately resigned her role as Dean of Seton Hill College and set out.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” Sister Cyril later wrote, “but I knew something needed to be done, and I wanted to help do it.”
The Sisters’ mission was located in the Hill District, then home to the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Teenie Harris and the Pittsburgh Courier, and a lively jazz scene. Initially without a permanent place to stay, the Sisters were eventually gifted a house on Webster Avenue, bought by the St. Vincent De Paul Society. The Society helped the newly official organization—called the House of Mary—find its footing.
The Sisters of Charity then continued their work of providing food, fuel, and medical care to those in need whenever and however possible. This work expanded in 1962 with the opening of the Frederic Ozanam School and Cultural Center.
Shortly after the Ozanam Center opened, Sister Cecilia Ward received funding for a music program and managed to obtain six violins. The Ozanam Center only taught grades one and two at this time; one of the teachers was Sister Francis Assisi Gorham.
In an oral history interview, Sister Francis Assisi talks about the early beginnings of the Ozanam Strings. She herself was an accomplished violinist at this point, having studied music as part of her undergraduate degree. This music background made her the Sister of choice to implement the program. However, she had no experience in teaching music.
Nevertheless, she gave it her best effort. She read the books on teaching music that Sister Cecilia gifted her. She then selected six second graders to teach, and was given six violins, sheet music, and stands. As she describes it, each of those things would not stop falling over—stands, chairs, children and all. There had to be a better way.
So she referred back to the books Sister Cecilia Ward had given her. One was a book on the Suzuki method, complete with an accompanying 45 record. The music she listened to and the ideas she read made sense.
“You take away the music stands, you take away the chairs, you put them on the seats, you demonstrate, they listen, and they play,” she said. “That’s easy.”
The Suzuki method of teaching treats music as a language. Each of us learns to speak by listening to those around us speak; it’s only after years of speech that we learn to read. Thus, under the Suzuki method, musicians are encouraged to listen and play by ear and to memorize the pieces they’ve learned. For the very young this is a more natural way of learning music than dealing with written notes and complicated music theory. (Such stuff is eventually introduced but not until much later.)
From there, the program grew rapidly. More violins were obtained; students from nearby schools began to trickle in. Within a year and a half, forty students were learning how to play the violin after school at the Ozanam Center.
As students learned about this program, those who played other instruments wanted to join. By the late sixties, the Ozanam Strings (as the group was now known) had uniforms and were performing concerts for local groups. By the early seventies, they began to tour.
The Ozanam Strings visited New York, New Orleans, Canada, and Chicago. They recorded two albums and made regular appearances at Heinz Hall and Carnegie Music Hall, as well as at The Three Rivers Art Festival in Pittsburgh. In 1975, they appeared on episode 1401 of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. In 1979, they played at the Pittsburgh Man of the Year celebration for Willie Stargell of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
By this time the Sisters of Charity had left the Hill District. Sister Francis Assisi remained to work with her orchestra. She firmly believed that music education provided lifelong benefits and was a way to develop the whole person, a belief reflected in the introduction to ‘Ozanam Strings Live at Carnegie Music Hall,’ an album released in the mid-seventies:
“One of the primary goals of the Ozanam Strings is to develop a strong positive self-image within each member along with a spirit of support and cooperation among the entire group. Through their musical experiences, the members are seeking to grow and achieve their full potential both as individuals and as members of their communities.”
Elsewhere, Sister Francis Assisi said of her students that “[n]o matter what they do in school, be they fast or slow learners, here in this string program they have a sense of accomplishment, responsibility. And by finding they can accomplish something here, they can go on and accomplish things in other fields as well.”
A great many of her students have indeed gone on to accomplish great things. Several attended Julliard; many continued to play as professional musicians.
Sister Francis left the Ozanam Strings in the late seventies after a decade and a half of music. She continued to teach in a number of schools throughout the area; even so, her heart belonged to the work she’d done with the Strings.
She died in February of 2003 at 63 years old. Just two months earlier, the tiny musician had set aside her oxygen tank for a brief time to stand before an audience of her students, ready to conduct one last show.
(Though the Ozanam Cultural Center and the Ozanam Strings are no longer formally in existence, their influence is still felt. Pittsburgh local and Ozanam alum Darelle Porter directs Ozanam, Inc., which offers a number of youth programs including academic support programs, education in black history, and boy’s and girl’s basketball leagues. You can find more information about Ozanam, Inc. here.)
Written by Bridget Malley, archival intern for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill