How a Church Organist Finds Harmony in an Interfaith Marriage

By Teresa McMahon


“But you were always so Catholic! You were a church organist for goodness sake!” I laughed as these words came tumbling out of my old high school friend’s mouth in response to finding out I was happily married to a nice Jewish boy. Marian Schmier and I had been close friends in high school, but had lost touch after college. Our impending twentieth high-school reunion had prompted me to track her down.

Yes, I, Teresa Ann McMahon, was noticeably Catholic when I was growing up. Youngest of seven children, I had attended Mass every Sunday since birth. (Truly, I can not recall a Sunday while growing up that we did not attend church, even when away on vacation.) I also attended CCD (Catholic religious classes) every Wednesday. By the time I was in middle school I had become the organist for St. Lucy’s, where my family attended church. I played organ for six Masses a weekend. I’m sure it didn’t help my “reputation” when I dressed up as a nun from The Sound of Music for sophomore spirit week dress-up day. (I thought the choice of costume was funny, but looking back it might help explain why I didn’t have a lot of dates in high school.)

Little did Marian and my other high-school friends know that I had played organ not because I was ultra religious, but because I loved music and it was incredibly lucrative. (I branched out from St. Lucy’s when the multi-denominational chapel on the local Naval base offered me more money for fewer hours, and in later years I took a position at a Christian Science church.) And, little did Marian know that it was both my religious and organist backgrounds that have best prepared me for understanding and bridging the religious differences between my Jewish husband and myself.

Born in 1963, I am most definitely a post-Vatican II baby. The Roman Catholic Church in which I grew up focused on a loving and accepting God. My religious classes taught me that humans are good by nature, but need to continue to grow. I learned that humans are all linked to each other and with God. I learned the importance of active good. We studied religious history, exploring ideas such as monotheism, predestination and free will. We were introduced to comparative religion with guest speakers from the community, including ministers and a rabbi.

My religious classes exposed me to various faiths, but playing organ for these different faiths provided a much closer view. When I was hired as the organist at the Naval Chapel-by-the-Sea, I agreed to play two services each Sunday. One service would be Catholic and the other would be Protestant (the particular Protestant emphasis of this service would be subject to change, depending on the denomination of the minister who was assigned the tour of duty). I played for Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Lutheran services. In addition, the picturesque chapel and its beautiful location made it a popular choice for weddings–especially interfaith marriages–since it was multi-denominational. I distinctly remember one interfaith wedding I played where the groom was Jewish. When he broke the glass under his heel, a joyful shout of “Mazel Tov!” exploded from his side of the gathering. The spontaneous response from his family and friends was so loud and joyful that I could feel the vibrations.

As a teen-ager I was struck by how similar services were in terms of construction and symbolism–water, wine, candles, opening prayers, biblical readings, interpretation of these readings by a more learned leader of the congregation, closing prayers and, of course, music. I still remember my surprise during my first Protestant service when one of the prayers included the words “catholic church.” I came to find out that “catholic” means only “universal.” I was more thrown by the practical differences in the services. For example, I was stunned that twenty Protestants could sing far louder than one hundred Catholics–and they sang all the verses of every song, not just the first two!

Over the years, I attended hundreds of services and each gave me plenty of time for reflection and thought (especially if it was the third time I was hearing the same sermon in the course of a weekend). Given my vantage point, it is not unexpected that what I was likely to be thinking about was religion. One of the things I thought about most was: Does any one religion have a monopoly on getting the ultimate “good deal” from God?

And what is the “good deal?” Is it a good life here on earth–long life, a loving family, health and prosperity? Experience showed me that people of all faiths enjoyed good and bad in all these areas. Well then, is it about getting into heaven after death? If so, there are a variety of ideas across and within religions about how one best goes about getting into heaven. Is the “good deal” finding a way of living that enables us to create–for ourselves as well as those around us–a better way to be in the world?

The sermons and readings of all denominations taught me to judge others as I would want to be judged and to act as I would want them to act toward me. Given this central tenet, how could I dismiss someone else’s beliefs or believe mine to be superior? I could ask questions about what they believed and why, and even respectfully challenge aspects of these beliefs to understand them better. In doing so, I either came to understand my own beliefs better or I got more confused and realized I have much more to learn.

Religion to me became a way to understand life, death, and the universe. I don’t have the capacity to fully comprehend God, but that doesn’t mean I can’t continue to try. Religion–along with science, philosophy, psychology and history–helps me to better understand my place in the bigger scheme of things.

I loved my job as an organist because it enabled and encouraged me to wonder about things big and small. And I fell in love with my husband because of his sense of wonder about these things. Our discussions about religion or traditions or God are open and respectful. I love that we are continually learning about our own and each other’s beliefs.

I didn’t share all this with Marian in our phone call. We were too busy laughing about the irony of our interfaith marriages. You see, it wasn’t just me who married outside my faith. Marian–whose parents had once in high school forbidden her to date non-Jews–was now Marian McCord.


About Teresa McMahon

Teresa McMahon, Ph.D., lives with her husband Barry Fishman and two children, Claire and Emily, in Michigan, where she is a member of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. In addition to singing and dancing in her family room with her daughters, she is an educational researcher.