Monday, 19 October 2009

The old ways endure

The devotion of a person of the cloth is a selfless vow to both parishioners and community. Preparing to lead a flock, bringing spirituality, faith and religious beliefs to individuals of a congregation is a huge pledge made when entering a seminary.

Throughout four decades until his retirement, Monsignor Charles Coen led churches in both the New York Archdiocese’s southernmost parish to the second most-northern parish. However, Father Charlie (as he is most commonly called) added much more to his ministry and to the surrounding communities.

Although Coen retired last year, one facet of his numerous talents is on display at The Rhinecliff, where he demonstrates the musical skills that conjure up images of his homeland.

Coen came to the United States in 1955 from his birthplace of Woodford, County Galway in Ireland to be in a climate more conducive to his asthmatic condition. He was in his 20s at the time.

“My first employment was at a hospital in Monticello as dishwasher, and, after a year, I got a job as (a) bellhop in Grossingers Hotel in the Catskills,” said Coen.

With a New York state of mind being a bit more hectic than Coen was used to, his inborn musical prowess took hold. As the sixth child from a musically inclined family of nine, Coen soothed the frantic days at the hotel with private nighttime performances in his room that echoed the hauntingly, traditional music that Coen says is “a way of life” in Ireland. The style of music Coen played and still plays is called “Sean-Nos” — Gaelic for “old ways” — melodically performed on his flute, tin whistle and concertina he transported when immigrating to the states.

His nighttime of romantic resonance emanating from his instruments was once overheard by a band leader at Grossingers resort, and Coen was asked to join the orchestra. However, Coen recalls feeling another calling.

His American cousin, a priest, was much admired by the young Coen and made him realize he had more of a desire to help people than music alone could provide. This intense admiration of his cousin led the young Irishman to attend the Holy Apostle Seminary in Connecticut.

After years of study, he became a graduate of Dunwoodie Seminary in New York. His dream was realized, and Coen was ordained a priest in 1968.

However, this calling didn’t curtail his love of music. Coen actually incorporated music into his priesthood for many years to come. In an earlier Freeman article, Coen said that traditional music was an antidote to the frenetic pace of modern living. But, more about that later.

Assigned to the Staten Island area, Coen served as associate pastor at two separate churches, St. Joseph’s and St. Thomas. He coached children to learn music of many cultures, including American folk songs. He received headline accolades for phonetically teaching Gaelic airs to groups of youngsters whose heritage was diverse and who went on to win esteemed prizes in leading Irish music competitions.

Old Gaelic “airs” are best described as hauntingly lonesome, with most songs being set to the movement of waves, a pony’s trot, the melody of birds or, as he has stated in an article by a friend and writer, Patricia Preston, “Just the stillness of the long twilight, ornamented by a mother’s lullaby.” The music carries a sensation of peace and relaxation, which Coen tried to instill in both his priesthood work and his musical endeavors.

Coen has said he chose to be a priest to make the world a better place. “Music helps me strive for that goal.” He added he believes that music is an uplifting experience and a reflection on what life has best to offer — “the values of truth, love, and joy.”

Not leaving competition entry to just members of his parishes, Coen has also entered and won many. One was a worldwide event in which the finals were in Ireland. This event was the All-Ireland “Fleadh” (festival), that since has come to mean the “Annual music competitions held by the Irish Music Association.” In 1976, he won on flute, concertina and whistle at the “Fleadh.”

“In 1978, I won the ‘sean nos’ singing competition”, he said, explaining this involved singing, old style — unaccompanied and without much ornamentation.

After 18 years in Staten Island, Coen began seeking a parish in the country. In 1986, an opening at St. Christopher’s Church in Red Hook became available. He applied for it and was chosen to fill the vacancy left by the Rev. Lewis J. Mazza, who was transferred to a parish in North Tarrytown.

At St. Christopher’s, Coen became the motivating energy setting parish and community activities injected with musical enhancement into motion. He began musical performances to enrich New York City schools. He organized concerts at his Red Hook parish. He played on network television, on the National Mall in Washington and at Carnegie Hall. At times, he was on the same musical agenda as the Chieftans, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy. And, having made two records of his own, he was nominated for a 1991 National Heritage Award sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Coen used the common ground of music to reach all ages, nationalities and faiths while at St. Christopher’s for the 22 years he led the parish until his retirement in 2008. The spirit of Irish festivities is so much a part of his upbringing that it was only natural to integrate faith and fun to reach a greater audience and enrich them with both passions.

“Above and beyond that there is a great connection between music and religion,” he said. “They both give a lift to the soul and can lift one out and away from the problems of the day.”

Why does he feel Irish culture sparks a festive spirit and togetherness?

“I don’t know,” he replied. Perhaps the fact that (the Irish) suffered so much depression and suppression, that joyful music and humor was a necessity for survival. Humor, music and dance were certainly cultivated. Children could sing songs from the age of 3. Gathering in houses in the long winter nights, they would sing and dance and tell yarns.”

Coen said he thinks they danced to keep themselves warm as the houses were cold and damp with poor heating. “Humor was always a great part of the gathering. These gatherings were known as ‘ceilis,’ pronounced Kay lee, adding an ‘ës’ for plural.”

Coen previously performed at what was once known as the Rhinecliff Hotel. He recently was invited back to the newly renovated venue, now called The Rhinecliff, by its current proprietor, James Chapman, to “resurrect” his popular music sessions.

“We (used to) play at the old Rhinecliff hotel for about 19 years on the first and third Sundays until it closed, and then The American Legion let us use their hall in Rhinebeck for a small rent,” Coen said. “I think we played there for three years.”

In addition, at St. Christopher’s School Hall, Coen said, “We ran about four concerts each year. These concerts were with cabaret and music hall shows direct from Ireland. Comedians such as Hal Roach and Noel V. Ginnity, singers Frank Patterson, Tony Kenny, as well as groups such as The Dubliners, De Danaan and many others. One could say 80 per cent of the top entertainers in Ireland appeared in St Christopher’s.”

When asked what inspired a priest to put on concerts and sessions, he replied, “I don’t know. Like so many other things in life one kind of backs into it.

“I had a great interest in music, and, once one presents a few successful concerts, word spreads among the artists, and they would call me.”

Many of the artists were on tour in the United State looking for places to perform, Coen added.

“The fact that we continually got audiences of 500 and 600 showed that I wasn’t the only one with such an interest,” he said. “Besides, a priest has a great advantage — the hall is free, the parishioners were most generous in volunteering (there is a lot of work in preparation) and, not least, it did prove a source of income for the parish. If one is to be a good pastor, community building is most important, and what better way to bring people together than with a top-class show.

Coen has been back at The Rhinecliff since the summer.

Said Chapman, “We have been very, very fortunate to reconnect with Father Coen and have scheduled a ‘Father Coen Celtic Session’ once a month since June.”

Chapman also said he hopes to continue offering these popular sessions. “They are a very integral part of the ongoing special events at The Rhinecliff.” According to Chapman, Coen’s sessions, “attract a large, appreciative audience and excellent musicians, including all Ireland Fiddle Champion Dylan Foley along with between five and 15 other musicians.”

Now retired, Coen is a resident of Greenville in Greene County. He still enjoys being a spectator for the sport of hurling and tries to be back for the finals in Ireland each year.

He’s also involved with The Irish Cultural Center in East Durham, which he describes as “a work in progress.”

“The hope is to build a cultural village with replicas of houses in Ireland at different stages in history. Only one thatched cottage has been erected so far,” Coen said..

He cited there’s a map of Ireland about one-eighth of an acre in size that is constructed in bricks with each Irish county represented with a high flagpole.

“Bricks may be purchased with names inscribed and placed in the donor’s particular county.” he said. “The Cultural Center sponsors a school of Irish music for one week each July. Some 600 students attend.”

He teaches concertina and flute at the center with approximately 60 other teachers, many of whom are from Ireland.

“Dancing and singing and storytelling are also taught. There is a concert each night and music sessions in all of the pubs. It’s a fun week. Students come from Japan, Germany, England, California, Texas and all over.”

A statement, Coen made in the past still sums up his present-day sentiments: “Music is a way to reach out to people of all faiths— a reflection of God’s goodness in the world. If we could get more people singing, there would probably be more harmony around the globe.”

The next “Father Coen Celtic Music Session” at The Rhinecliff will be on Oct. 25 from 4 to 7 p.m. For a schedule of future Celtic sessions, go online to

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