In August of 2022, Tiffin native and Heidelberg alum Stephen Smith ’16 took a leap of faith as he came to a turning point for his career. He had been offered a position as the Director of Liturgical Music for the Pontifical North American College, a seminary school in Rome. With only a month to prepare, he grabbed visas for himself and his wife, and finished the paperwork to get his 1-year-old daughter a passport. By September, the trio was moved into an apartment on the college’s campus, and Stephen had just three weeks to prepare the 40-voice Seminary Choir for an internationally televised ordination ceremony, while maintaining his other new duties at the college.
Although hectic, this leap of faith would prove to be well worth it.
Education & encouragement
The Director of Liturgical Music is in charge of all things musical at the Pontifical North American College: musical preparation and education. So while Stephen introduced himself to the 40-voice seminary choir that he now conducts, he was also playing the organ three times a day (for morning prayers, Mass and evening prayers.) He had already begun teaching voice, organ and piano lessons to students of the College, and leading seminars about the practical aspects of running a music program in the seminarians’ future churches.
But multitasking was something Stephen was used to. During his time at Heidelberg, he was dedicated to learning all he could: he graduated with a bachelors in music with a specialty in organ and an endless amount of experience and encouragement. Joan McConnell, retired organ instructor, provided the solid foundation he leans on today, and mentored him throughout his time.
“It was clear the faculty were not just there to help me complete my degree requirements, but more so to excel in my career,” Stephen says. “They consistently went above and beyond to ensure I had the support and resources necessary to succeed.” Stephen specifically recalled the encouragement and lessons he received as an accompanist for Dr. Greg Ramsdell’s Concert Choir, while studying composition with Professor Emeritus Dr. Doug McConnell, and as a piano pedagogist with former music professor Dr. Margarita Denenburg.
Prophecies of success
But Stephen was not only focused on his career during his time at Heidelberg. He was a standout kicker and punter for the Heidelberg football team.
“The football coaches were always very accommodating to my music class and rehearsal schedule, which often conflicted with football practice,” Stephen admires. “I do not think I would have found collaboration like this anywhere else.” Stephen’s efforts were noticed and admired throughout the Heidelberg and Tiffin community.
In 2014, when Stephen was a sophomore, a story was written about him for NCAA Division III Week and appeared on Heidelberg’s Athletics website. The story ends with this quote:
"For the next two years, Smith will continue to work on mastering the footwork necessary to play a Bach concerto and to hit a coffin-corner punt. When he graduates, he plans to become active with the music program at a Catholic parish and pursue a master's degree."
Matthew Somers, April 11, 2014
Prophetic? Perhaps, or maybe just a driven student who had clear goals and wasn’t afraid to chase them. Of course, when Stephen gave that interview, he probably didn’t know that the future “Catholic parish” would be located near the geographic heart of Catholicism. Stephen’s dedication to football earned him a spot on the Academic All-American Division III Football team as a placekicker in 2015. He is the 21st Academic All-American in school history.
During his time at Heidelberg, Stephen held positions as an organist and choir director for area churches. After he graduated, he earned his master’s degree in Organ Performance and Sacred Music from Indiana University. He went on to work as the Director of Sacred Music at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Powell, Ohio, until accepting this new position last August.
“Incredible thrill … stunning place”
For all his preparation at Calvert High School in Tiffin, Heidelberg, Indiana University and beyond, Stephen was highly successful as he tackled the first three weeks of his new position. While the pressure was surely there – as the Diaconate Ordinations are the biggest event of the year for the Pontifical North American College and take place in the beautiful St. Peter’s Basilica – Stephen found it to be “an incredible thrill to make music for such a joyous occasion in a stunning place.” He worked closely with his new choir and the organist and brass at St. Peter’s Basilica in order to make the event as illustrious as it always is. The results of his dedication and conducting can be watched online, as they were broadcasted internationally.
As Stephen’s gained his footing in his international position, new challenges and opportunities have come his way. While everyone at the college speaks English, Stephen has begun learning Italian – which he’s already found helpful whenever his family goes to buy groceries or is finding their way around Rome. His family has had the time to travel beyond Rome and see some new regions of Italy and Europe. Deeply immersed in the rich history of the continent, country and the city, Stephen has found himself admiring the culture, food and architecture while just walking around his new home.
The importance of Stephen’s job, for all the beauty and history that surrounds him, remains at the forefront of his mind and in his heart. His time in Catholic churches in the United States have taught him the importance of a strong musical foundation. As he teaches the next generation of Catholic priests for the United States, Stephen knows “it is a great responsibility to ensure they are taught and exposed to the great wealth of music that the Church has to offer.” As he conducts the largest choir he’s ever worked with, he’s sure to remember to teach these young seminarians the fun but lesser-known repertoire that is close to his heart. “It is the honor of a lifetime to have an active role in the musical formation of these seminarians in the heart of the Church.”
Recently, his new position earned him a new, special honor. In mid-January, Pope Francis hosted a private audience for the faculty and seminarians from the Pontifical North American College. Stephen brought along his wife, Elizabeth, and their little daughter, Briella, for the meeting. Pope Francis greeted Briella upon his entrance and exit, and interacted with her multiple times throughout their audience with him. The close interaction between the newest member of his family and the most revered person in his religion is not something to forget.
“It was definitely one of the highlights of being in Rome so far,” Stephen shares.