Make a joyful sound at Catholic University

At The Catholic University of America, given its name, one can expect to see a fair amount of priests and religious. Cassocks, collars, habits and veils are not uncommon sights ­— in fact, neither are bishops, cardinals and even the occasional pope.

And yet, during the past academic year, a unique image kept cropping up around campus: five Dominicans and one Franciscan, in full religious habit, behind a drum kit, piano, saxophone, trumpet and bass guitar and singing boisterously great hits from years gone by.

It was a band called Force of Habit, and though their religious vows of obedience since have led to reassignments all over the country and therefore forced the band to break up, there’s no doubt they left an impression on all they encountered.

Expression of identity

As a pontifical university, Catholicism is inextricable from the school’s identity. And as far as the campus at large and the members are concerned, this band is just another unique expression of that Catholic identity.

The band was started by Dominican Sister Miriam Holzman and three of her fellow Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Sister Miriam was the band’s piano player, and she was joined by Sister Louis Marie Zogg on saxophone, Sister Peter Grace Weber on bass guitar (she had learned the instrument from another sister) and Sister Mary André Thelen on trumpet.

The sisters lived fairly normal campus lives. They were working toward advanced degrees at CUA (two in philosophy, two in education), living in residence halls, praying in the chapels, playing ultimate Frisbee; two of them were teaching in the area. It was the band that really set them apart.

Initially the band was called Nun of the Above. They later enlisted Father Jude T. DeAngelo, a Conventual Franciscan who is university chaplain and director of campus ministry at CUA, as their vocalist, and Brother Brad Elliott, a Dominican friar of the Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in the western United States, as their drummer. As the band was no longer exclusively nuns, the name was changed to Force of Habit — and it stuck.

Music and vocation

The group played at various events around the CUA campus, and they feel like the band provided an opportunity for evangelization.

“The students on the campus of CUA were so in love with the sisters and their presence on campus,” Brother Elliott said.

“Even without saying it, just the presence of religious in full-time habit, playing music and enjoying life spoke to the immense joy of religious life and the power of Jesus Christ and his grace.”

“So often, college-age students feel a sense of despair about life, its meaning and its goal,” Brother Elliott said.

“Our contemporary world makes it so easy for young people to question whether even God can provide true, lasting happiness. The presence of religious having fun while putting a band together often provided an antidote to this feeling.”

Before answering the call to the priesthood and religious life, Brother Brad played drums professionally in Hollywood for years.

“I loved playing music, and I still do, but I love the idea of serving the Church as a priest even more,” he said.

Brother Brad played music with a number of fairly big stars, including a young Brie Larson during her time as a recording artist (she is now an Academy Award-winning actress). But a career as a musician was not meant to be the life for Brother Brad, and now he has been ordained a transitional deacon on his way to priestly ordination next year.

Refusing stuffy boredom

Force of Habit plays covers of jazz and rock songs. The musical arrangements of their cover songs were done by the mother of one of the sisters. Their choice of repertoire helps to remind their listeners that stuffiness and a boring disposition are decidedly not prerequisites for the religious life.

While the band would no doubt perform remarkable and moving renditions of traditional hymns, or even contemporary praise and worship songs, they decided on a different approach.

“The band was formed as a way to let our students know that religious are joy-filled people who want to share that joy with others,” said Father DeAngelo. “It was a way for us to not just entertain, but to engage students afterwards when conversations happen and students come up to us.”

“Forming relationships with our students is the first step in evangelizing,” Father DeAngelo said. “When students see religious as joyful people, it breaks down the unfortunate stereotypes which the secular culture promotes about religious.”

Though the band has dismantled, Brother Brad Elliott said that the group would often joke about getting the band back together in the future if circumstances allowed, and calling it the “Some Habits Are Hard to Break” reunion concert.

The Catholic University of America is a pontifical university, which is an academic institute “established or approved directly by the Holy See” and deals “specifically with the Christian revelation and related disciplines, and the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel,” according to the website of the Holy See.

The university was founded in 1887, approved by Pope Leo XIII, initially as a center for graduate studies, with undergraduate studies being added in 1904. Located in Washington, D.C., the university boasts an enrollment of more than 6,500 undergraduate and graduate students.

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Read more of the articles from the Fall college section here.