As music director of St. Damien Parish, Debbie Roland believes in good planning. She will spend time reflecting on the upcoming mass readings, making sure to choose hymns that enhance the Liturgy of the Word. But every once in a while, as the mass unfolds, Debbie will hear a little voice that says: Do this song instead. “So we do it!” she exclaimed. “That’s the Holy Spirit.” And she is grateful for the input.
Debbie sings and plays the organ with the St. Damien Parish Choir at the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Augustine Church. She sings and plays alone at the Saturday afternoon Mass at St. Frances Cabrini, as well as the early morning summer Mass at St. Augustine. She is the cantor at these Masses as well, leading the congregation with what can only be called a holy and haunting voice. She credits the congregation with always knowing when to join in, even when she is leading from the back of the church. “If the key is right and they feel invited,” she observed, “people always sing.”
Debbie grew up in Margate and, as a member of Blessed Sacrament Church, began singing in the choir when she was in the seventh grade. “Somebody found out I also played the piano, so first they got me singing, then they got me playing,” she said, “and it has never stopped.” Debbie has a degree in classical piano performance from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where she focused on accompaniment and choir methods. She recently attended a workshop at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, where she was exposed to newly composed sacred music. “Highly inspirational,” she concluded.
Debbie was the music teacher at the former St. Augustine School before it closed. She is now the music teacher at a middle school in Margate, where she also is involved with the theater and instrumental programs. Debbie was pleased when one of her public-school students asked her to be his sponsor at Catholic confirmation. “We are friends to this day,” she said of her former student, “so I think God has a way of putting us in all kinds of places, even if we do not know why.” Indeed, Debbie met her husband of 25 years when they both taught at a local music studio. Robert Roland performs guitar for the parish. The couple has two sons, ages 17 and 21.
The St. Damien Parish Choir ranges in size from 16 to 29 members. “We try to do something special every Sunday,” Debbie said, “and we hope everyone will be touched by what we are doing.” Does performance pressure detract from Debbie’s own experience of the Mass? “I have many performances throughout the year, but church is not one of them,” Debbie clarified. “At Mass, I am singing to the Lord and feel it is what I am meant to do.”
The door to the choir loft is always open and Debbie loves when visitors come up to join in the singing or bring along their instruments. “If you show up at 8:30 in the morning, you can sing with us,” she explained. When the choir and congregation are deep in singing, Debbie will sometimes take a photograph. “To see so many people singing to the Lord at the same time, if that doesn’t feed your soul, then something is wrong,” she said.
People of all ages are welcome to join the choir, and members are needed. Debbie is putting together a teen contemporary group as well as a youth choir. Instrumentalists are also encouraged to get involved. Anyone of any age who wants to play any instrument or sing should get in touch with Debbie.