Ursuline Sister Beth Dowd loves music. As a teacher many years ago, she brought it into her classroom at the former New Rochelle Catholic Elementary School; in 1977, she founded a choir there. But Sister Beth also wanted to bring music to children outside her classroom, especially to those whose families didn’t have the budget for private lessons. She wanted to put a song into every kid’s heart, and a musical instrument into every kid’s hands.
So in 1994 she founded Songcatchers Inc., a nonprofit organization offering music programs to the multicultural population of New Rochelle. Based there at the former St. Gabriel’s High School, Songcatchers has expanded its outreach to surrounding communities. The original, 30-member children’s choir Sister Beth founded has flowered into a program that has served several thousand and is now teaching its third generation. Some of its 300 students are the grandchildren of original members. And it’s not just for children and teens; the Songcatchers Concert Choir includes adults.
After 40 years of bringing music to kids and grown-ups, and inspiring three generations of students and volunteers, Sister Beth has stepped down as executive director of Songcatchers. She was the honoree at its biennial benefit brunch May 7 at the VIP Country Club in New Rochelle.
It was evident that day that Songcatchers has taught students a lot more than how to sing or play music. Songcatchers fosters respect for persons of all backgrounds and a spirit of community and cooperation. It builds self-respect, self-confidence and leadership. Its mission is “Reaching for Peace Through Music.”
The event was filled with joy, laughter, song and tributes to Sister Beth, who conducted the Concert Choir at the opening and closing of the celebration. The program included performances by youngsters: One boy played the cello, a boy and girl played xylophones, and an ensemble of five girls played the flute. About 40 children, teens and adults sang.
The youngsters were black and white and Hispanic. Together they seemed to find something more than just the joy of expression through musical arts. They were connected not only to the beauty of the music but also to each other.
Sister Beth told me later, “I was thinking, ‘This is what heaven must be like.’ They were all so excited and happy to see each other. They love each other. Their favorite times are when they’re together.”
I spoke with several teens who have been in Songcatchers from early childhood and are now volunteer teachers. Zaleik Walsh, 16, said, “It’s definitely developed my character, not only my musical ability, because Sister Beth is such a loving, compassionate person.” Lesley Torres, 17, said, “Songcatchers taught me how to be accepting to everyone…I look at it as my second family.” Ariana Cabrera, 15, said that Songcatchers made her “a more caring and loving person,” and Daniel Valencia, 17, remarked that being required to perform “builds courage.”
Kathleen McEntee, assistant director of Songcatchers, joined as a high school sophomore and teaches piano, as well as teaching music at two schools: Holy Name of Jesus in New Rochelle and Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx. In her tribute, she told Sister Beth, “You gave me a song to sing and helped me find my voice, and you taught me the meaning of love and community and service.”
Sister Beth’s successor as executive director is Zane Myers, a conductor and pianist whose extensive experience includes musical theater, opera and music education. He remarked to me that Sister Beth is a leader of “extraordinary vision.”
Though Sister Beth is no longer executive director of Songcatchers, it’s obvious that she is still its heart. She is jubilant about its success and grateful to everyone involved with it. She knows what she has accomplished, but she turns the spotlight away from herself.
“I was blessed to be in the right moment, at the right time, with the right dream in my heart,” she told me, “and the rest is God.”
Information: songcatchers.org or (914) 654-1178.