Greenwich Village, mid-1960s: A short young man with unkempt hair, a guitar slung over his shoulder and a harmonica tucked into his back pocket was making a name for himself playing bars, speakeasies and impromptu apartment hootenannies. The world began to take notice of the up-and-coming singer, songwriter, poet and prophet. The folk craze was in high gear, and Bob Dylan its unwitting spokesperson.
A few miles to the north, just across the Harlem River in the Bronx, another young singer, songwriter, poet and prophet was at work. With guitar and harmonica in hand, he also spearheaded a musical revolution of sorts—not in the watering holes of Manhattan, but in the pews of the Catholic Church. His name: Father T. Shawn Tracy of the Augustinian Order. His venue: Saint Nicholas of Tolentine Church, an enormous gothic structure known as the “Cathedral of the Bronx.”
Tracy, who has lived and worked in Villanova since 1975 and has just released his ninth album—a double-CD dubbed Sacred Earth—began his days as a spiritual troubadour in the midst of the 1960s New York folk scene. And like Dylan, he was ahead of his time.
Born in Washington, D.C., in 1940, Tracy first came to the Main Line as a student in the Augustinian seminary at Villanova University. By the age of 19, he’d already made his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Order of Saint Augustine. In 1963, he graduated from Villanova with a B.A. in English. He went on to earn a Master of Divinity at Augustinian College in D.C., and was ordained to the priesthood in 1966. His first assignment: the Bronx.
In 1967, while Dylan was recording his highly acclaimed country album John Wesley Harding (which, interestingly enough, included the song “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”), Tracy’s first album began to take shape—a spiritual folk effort called The 10:15. It was released in 1968.
The 10:15 took its name from Saint Nicholas of Tolentine’s Sunday morning folk Mass, where Tracy and a group of parishioners provided the music. In the days following the 1965 closing of Vatican II (the 21st Ecumenical Council), the Roman Catholic Church was in desperate need of contemporary music, and Tracy was more than happy to fill the void.
“There was no contemporary music after Vatican II,” explains Tracy. “The liturgy was being transformed, but all we had were poor translations of old European tunes and some spirituals. There was a need to create scripture-based music that was consonant with the liturgy.”
And so Tracy and his friends, known as The 10:15, went to work creating that music. Each Sunday, Tracy or another musician in the group would compose music to fit with the readings at Mass, and very quickly an enormous collection of hymns unfolded. While Dylan packed houses on Bleecker Street, more than 1,000 parishioners began to pour through Tolentine’s doors at 10:15 a.m. each Sunday. From those Sunday sessions came three lively albums of spiritual folk music: The 10:15 (1968), Making Tracks (1972) and Songs of the Father (1974), recordings that helped bring Tracy’s music to churches and people across the country and beyond.
In the early 1970s, Shawn Tracy found himself filling other musical voids, too. The same day he earned a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from the New York Theological Seminary in 1972, he received a letter in the mail about the new youth ministry Teens Encounter Christ (TEC). He jumped on-board, and a year later, TEC spurred its own offshoot, an outreach ministry called Handicapped Encounter Christ (HEC), established to offer a Christian retreat program to people with physical disabilities. “It’s evidence of the synchronicity of life,” Tracy says of receiving the letter about TEC on the day of graduation. “TEC led to HEC, and I began to write songs with people with disabilities in mind.”
When he was transferred to Villanova University in 1975, Tracy brought HEC—and his music—with him. Assigned to Campus Ministry at Villanova, Tracy continued his music with the group He Shall Be Peace, a mix of musicians from his days in the Bronx and new friends at Villanova. Together, they released three recordings: He Shall Be Peace (1978), Seed (1982) and Sanctuary (1986).
After a 10-year hiatus, during which Tracy remained busy with campus ministry and HEC, a third reincarnation of the Augustinian’s musical ensemble took form. Taking as its name Sanctuary, the group moved away from liturgical song and developed a new sound: ritual music for prayer and contemplation.
“Our intent was to move into deeper spiritual circles of music,” notes Tracy of the fresh direction, which led to the release of four studio albums.
The first, Magnificat, was released in 1996, followed by the double-album Passion in 2000 and Ancient Light in 2002. The latest recording, Sacred Earth, was released last November, and in it one discovers a culmination of Tracy’s many years of songwriting. Folk songs mix with spirited HEC-inspired anthems while melodic meditations on Earth—and one’s journey to and from it—dovetail with song-prayers from Scripture, all making for an eclectic yet masterfully balanced work of art.
Much of the success in bringing 28 diverse songs together on a single recording can be credited to the talents of Sanctuary’s Dan Mason, a musician who’s worked alongside Tracy since 1974.
“I am a songwriter and a poet,” says Tracy, “not a musician. Danny is a musician. I’ve always been surrounded by excellent musicians.”
Mason met Tracy as a student at Villanova University. Chief arranger, vocalist and guitarist on Sacred Earth, he’s played, written and arranged music with his friend for 33 years. Director of information technology at Rosemont College, Mason first joined Tracy on He Shall Be Peace, and he’s played a prominent role in each succeeding album.
“We’d travel together to New York for rehearsals and recording sessions in Greenwich Village—heady times for a college freshman,” Mason recalls. “Over the years, Shawn’s passion and respect for Sacred Scripture, people and music have inspired and amazed me.”
Like all Augustinians, Tracy tries to balance a spiritual life of prayer with an outward ministry to people. When the latter becomes a bit overwhelming, he heads to the mountains of northern Pennsylvania’s Sullivan County to reflect and re-energize. Often at World’s End State Park or in the small town of Eagles Mere, Tracy spends his time walking, reading, praying and strumming his guitar. His music exudes that intimacy with nature, and Sacred Earth is full of songs celebrating the synergetic relationship between humans, nature and God.
This synergy is something that Tracy is clearly passionate about. An unassuming man who utters only kind words, his voice strengthens when he laments the disconnect between humankind and the natural world. “We are called to be stewards of the world, but we don’t own it,” he says. “Governments think they do. If we don’t come to grips with our responsibility, our children will lose out. Modern technology cannot dominate our spirituality.”
For Tracy, such thinking is nothing new or trendy. Citing Psalms and Scripture, he notes that “ecology was always there. All of creation is assumed into the divine realm.”
He recalls bird watching with some Villanova classmates in the early 1960s by a pond that has long since been replaced by dormitories. They were looking for warblers; at the time, there were 50-60 species that could be spotted along the East Coast. Looking up, Tracy saw one soaring through the sky. Just as quickly, he saw a jet flying past. It was clear to him. “I knew they were doomed,” he admits.
Today, Tracy hopes his music will reconnect listeners with both the natural and spiritual worlds. He retired from his full-time position at Villanova University last summer, giving him the freedom to more fully pursue his musical ministry. Of late, the focus has been on Sacred Earth.
So if you happen to be in the Poconos and come upon a short-bearded man equal parts Dylan, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Merton and Obi-Wan Kenobi, try not to disturb him. He might just be busy composing his next album.
To learn more about Shawn Tracy, visit augustinianpress.org.