Roanoke music minister pens bicentennial hymn
Choirs and congregants will soon have a new song to learn, the official hymn marking the 200th anniversary of the Diocese of Richmond.
Composed by Dan Keeley, minister of music at Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke, “We Shine Like Stars in the World” was the winning submission in a contest seeking an original bilingual song for use at special events and in parish liturgies throughout 2020.
“I just felt called to do it,” said Keeley, a 59-year-old pianist, singer and composer with long and deep family ties to the parish and the diocese. “I’ve been a musician for most of my life, and I just think that wherever God puts me it’s been for a reason. To have the opportunity to be a part of this competition with so many other musicians who had great expressions and great ideas, I was just honored and proud.”
The competition attracted nearly 25 entries, according to Father Sean Prince, director of the diocesan Office of Worship. One was from a high school student. Some came from Keeley and the others who judged the competition, but the judges weren’t told the composers’ names, and no one reviewed his or her own work.
“I was extremely impressed with the caliber of talent and just the quality of the pieces that we received,” Father Prince said.
The judges narrowed the entries down to Keeley’s song and one other entry; the Bicentennial Task Force made the final choice.
“The melody was something that appealed,” Father Prince said. “We could hear this hymn played and sung in parishes from the far southwest that may not have the opportunity to have multiple instrumentation and large choirs, to a parish in Richmond that has several varieties of instrumentation as well as a full choir.”
On one of their regular Wednesday night rehearsals three weeks ago, the OLN choir and instrumentalists performed the hymn as video and audio recordings were produced in two arrangements — one for full orchestra and choir, one as a smaller ensemble of voices, piano and guitar.
The orchestra included strings, woodwinds, percussion and a brass section with OLN parochial vicar Father James O’Reilly on alto sax. It took several takes to get the balance between instruments and voices right, as well as the Spanish pronunciation. Keeley leaned on his nephew Matthew Sibley and choir member Natalia James for most of the translation.
When writing a new piece, some composers start with the lyrics; others find the melody first. Keeley said he has done it both ways, but this time he focused first on the text, which had to reflect the bicentennial motto: “Shine like stars in the world, as you hold fast to the word of life” (Phil 2:15–16). Thinking about stars led him to think about Christ as the light that guides the faithful, which led to the opening lines:
“We shine like stars in the world as we hold fast to the Word of Life.
“The light of Christ will guide us on our way in times of peace and strife.”
He said the rhythm of the refrain and four verses suggested that the melody needed a firm, steady beat, too.
“I just felt like it should be majestic, a martial kind of song that would exemplify us moving forward as a Church in the Diocese of Richmond,” Keeley said. “The verses talk about what we do as community. We gather, we listen to the word of God, we receive Jesus in the Eucharist and we’re sent forth to be disciples. And then we also have to remember all those other things that come with our faith: those who have gone before us, not only people from this Church, but the saints that go way back in our tradition that we lean on to give us strength to move forward, to carry on.”
“Keeley music has been with OLN for a long time,” choir member Elaine Landry noted.
As a boy, Keeley’s dad often had to work the organ bellows for his father, Carroll Francis Keeley — OLN’s first music minister. Robert L.A. Keeley, Dan’s father, became a renowned surgeon, practicing in Roanoke. He and his wife, Nina, had 15 children — eight boys and seven girls. Dan was the 10th.
“My dad really supported me, he sang and played the piano, raised us in a great Catholic tradition,” Keeley said. “All of us gathered around my parents’ bed to say prayers every night; that was a very unifying family time.”
Keeley said he has always had great support from his family and his wife, Donna. She has sung in the choir but so often had to take care of their three children on all of those nights and weekends he had to be at Nazareth.
Keeley’s children are witnesses to his dedication to music and even provided input while he composed the bicentennial hymn.
“With each new composition, I see a fire in his spirit,” said his daughter Laura Cuadrado. “For this competition of sorts, Dad put all of his energy into making a song that would celebrate our diocese. It was fun to sit down and hammer out lyrics together, asking, ‘Does this make sense?’ ‘Which word works best here?’ or, ‘How does this sound?’ He really put his heart and soul into it.”
Keeley has degrees in music with a voice concentration from Roanoke College and Radford University. During his 26 years as the OLN music minister, he has composed several pieces, including a hymn for the 100th anniversary of the parish, music for children’s dismissals and Gospel acclamations, baptismal and wedding songs. He has just finished his second complete Mass setting, “Blue Ridge Mass.”
The hymn contest offered a $1,000 prize, but Keeley declined it so he could retain the copyright and submit the song to music publishers after the bicentennial year.
Choir members say they are proud of their conductor and the hymn and the opportunity to record it for the diocese.
“The song Dan wrote is very easy to sing,” said alto Sharon Lemanski. “It has a great message. I hope most congregations will sing it.”
Added tenor and cantor Gene Post, “The hymn speaks about our own role as church in today’s world, and I think it gives the congregation an uplifting and energizing song to sing.”
Their video is posted on the bicentennial website for anyone who would like to start practicing a song that will soon be heard in churches, as one of its verses says, “from mountains to the sea.”