Music is the prayer the heart sings

Kirk Phillips, trumpet; John Maxwell, clarinet; and members of their volunteer band play ragtime, jazz and big band music for health care workers and others in front of Mercy Hospital in Iowa City.

By Patti McTaggart
For The Catholic Messenger

Praise the Lord! … Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe!” — Psalm 150:1-6

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, parishioners Charles Brungardt, John Maxwell and Kirk Phillips of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City have created a joyful sound, sharing their musical talents while observing the safety restrictions required at all diocesan liturgical celebrations.

“I thought it would be fun to play my clarinet outside with friends, and Father Steve (Witt, the pastor) graciously let us play in front of St. Mary’s rectory,” said John. “So Kirk and I played a couple of times there for a small crowd of friends and passersby.”


John played the clarinet through college, but family and dentistry took precedence in his life for 40 years.  While preparing for retirement from his dental practice five years ago, John also began preparing to play the clarinet again. He practices approximately six hours a week. “I have been receiving so much joy, since I returned to music.  I can’t think of life without it!”

John exclaimed. “And anything good I do, of course, comes from God. I am so grateful to him.”

Kirk has played the trumpet for about 60 years, starting with summer lessons before entering third grade. His parents and all four siblings played music, which was an inspiration. Kirk is a trumpeter and cantor at St. Mary. “A Holy Cross Sister, Joelle Maurer, taught me that playing music in church is a form of prayer. I have never forgotten that,” Kirk said.

In May, Kirk came up with the idea to have his and John’s jazz band entertain the frontline healthcare workers on the outside patio of Mercy Hospital in Iowa City. “Our band is called Brickstreet Jazz Band, which is a bunch of friends with regular day jobs in business and work at the university,” Kirk said.  “We enjoyed rehearsing weekly before the COVID-19 pandemic, and we played the Iowa City Summer of the Arts program, Jazz Festival, and other gigs.  We wanted to thank and celebrate the work of the frontline healthcare workers. The nurses, social workers, housekeeping (staff), physicians and so many other professions are working intensely to maintain the health of our community. Also, we had been cooped up too long with the pandemic shutting down most live music around town and the world!”

Charles Brungardt plays the harp on a front porch.

Charles is a member of the parish choir, a harpist and the “parish programmer” for the St. Mary carillon bells. “I’ve played the harp for a little more than 10 years,” Charles said. “When I was in elementary school, I loved watching Harpo Marx play in various Marx Brothers movies. I also got to meet harpist Mary Bickford when the Wichita Symphony Or­chestra came to play in my hometown and she was so kind to talk with a young fan after the concert. She showed me how to pluck out ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on her instrument. From that point on, I wanted to play the harp. For the next 40 years, however, there really wasn’t any practical opportunity to learn. Then came the time for a mid-life crisis.  Some guys go out and buy a sports car. I bought a harp, and the rest is history!”

During this pandemic, Charles missed singing with the St. Mary choir. He also missed going to concerts, theater shows and interacting with neighbors who lived on his street. He thought the best way to stay connected would be to play for friends and neighbors.

“I would like to think that the Holy Spirit instilled my soul with the gift of music. But I’m sure the Holy Spirit worked through my mother Angela, who often kept classical music records and radio going in the house; my older sister Catherine, who first started me on the piano; and my childhood piano teacher, Ailene Atwood. I would also especially like to credit St. Mary’s Choir directors Glenn Jablonski, Jim Berry and Nathan Gibbs, who each helped nurture my love of church music.”

During these trying days of COVID-19, Charles, John and Kirk have brought joy and smiles to many people through their gifts of music. Smiles of appreciation likely pervade on the faces of Saints Gregory and Cecilia (patron saints of music) in heaven as well.  Deo Gratias, gentlemen, Deo Gratias!


Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on