Sister attributes her songs to listening to God and an encouraging convent

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Sr. Mary Gemma Harris of the Franciscan Sisters, Third Order Regular, of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother (Courtesy of Franciscan Sisters TOR/Caroline Fischer)

Sr. Mary Gemma Harris did not intend to write songs. She’s not even part of her community’s music team.

But in 2011, when she was a first-year postulant with the Franciscan Sisters, Third Order Regular, of the Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, she was walking in the woods when words started to come to mind.

“It was a poem, really, about Martha and Mary and choosing the better part,” Harris said. “Of course, I had neither paper nor pencil with me.”

When she returned to the convent in Toronto, Ohio, she wrote them down. Harris had been playing the piano since she was a child, so she knew music theory, but since she hadn’t played in a while, another sister helped her put chords to her lyrics. The result was a song she titled “Choosing the Better.”

Since then, she has continued to write songs as they come to her and set them to music, including “Take Nothing For Your Journey”, which is often played at sister professions, including that of Harris in 2019. Most of these songs were collected. in an album released in the fall of 2021, “Go Forward”.

Harris credits her songwriting to her willingness to listen to God as well as an environment at the convent that encourages the sisters to foster their creative gifts.

“These are my own words, but I know they were the Lord’s words to me,” she said. “Most of my songs end up being the Lord trying to tell me something. … I think when you’re writing you have to talk to yourself first, and if that’s compelling to you, can maybe it will be compelling to others, as well.”

Songwriting and recording is far from Harris’ main focus — she’s a trainer working with newbies — so she’s not worried about writer’s block or having trouble getting things done. a song. She just writes them when they come to her.

“I don’t sit down with a piece of paper to write. It happens when I’m out for a walk or in the kitchen. It happens at the most random times,” she said. “Often it’s during prayer. The words jump out at me, then the melody comes. Much of it is just my prayers. Much of it is scripture; much of it is the writings of St. Francis and St. Clair.”

Franciscan Sr. Mary Gemma Harris plays the piano during a musical performance with other Franciscan Sisters.  (Courtesy of Franciscan Sisters TOR/Caroline Fischer)

Franciscan Sr. Mary Gemma Harris plays the piano during a musical performance with other Franciscan Sisters. (Courtesy of Franciscan Sisters TOR/Caroline Fischer)

So how did scribbled words after a walk become a 12-song CD?

In the fall of 2020, the community hosted a virtual performance which was streamed live by Aardvark Productions, an audio and video production company located near Steubenville, Ohio.

As the sisters rehearsed for their musical performance at the benefit, Aardvark producer and sound engineer Dan Bozek was impressed.

Too often, Christian music suffers because people are willing to look past the inferior quality in favor of spirituality or expressed sentiment, Bozek said. But Harris’ songs were so good, “I talked to my partner and said we should give them some studio time.”

Harris expected none of this.

“They were like, ‘Wait a second, did you write that?’ ” she says. “Time in the studio is so expensive, it was like, when are we going to be able to do this? We live a life of poverty, so for this to land in my lap, it was clearly the Lord saying do this . “

Harris and her community accepted the gift, and the week after Christmas 2020, Harris and two other sisters were in the studio, recording her songs.

“It was a really good experience for everyone,” Bozek said. “I know Sister Mary Gemma and the others had fun doing it.”

Sr. Mary Gemma Harris of the Franciscan Sisters, Third Order Regular, of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother (Courtesy of Franciscan Sisters TOR/Caroline Fischer)

Sr. Mary Gemma Harris of the Franciscan Sisters, Third Order Regular, of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother (Courtesy of Franciscan Sisters TOR/Caroline Fischer)

There is no recording contract, so the Franciscan sisters used a service to submit the album to streaming platforms such as Spotify and Pandora and to create physical CDs to sell. There’s hardly any marketing for the album, but Harris said she got letters from all over the country from people who liked her, and Bozek said he, too, continues to do so. hear talking.

“We know they’re an amazing group of sisters who have friends everywhere. That kinda helps,” Bozek said. “They live and act so humble, it ends up being a surprise when they get this attention.”

Harris said she had no desire to tour or become famous.

“Who am I to do this?” she says. “I know so many talented musicians who should be recorded. But what has helped me to accept this is that it can help my sisters. It’s a way to spread awareness of our community or to help people know the Lord.”

How does it feel to have his songs played at mass or at events like perpetual professions?

“It’s hard to articulate. It’s such a privilege and an honor that the Lord could have used me in this way,” Harris said. “Even if it’s just to bless our benefactors and friends, it’s enough and more than enough.”

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