Guitar guru says he was probably the first man to play an acoustic guitar in church in B.C.
By Patrick Singh
Special to The B.C. Catholic
From the human voice, the first instrument used to praise God, to the many instruments used in churches today, musical instruments reflect local culture. Catholics under 40 are probably so used to guitars in use in "music ministry" in church that they think they have always been there. Not so.
The two people who were the first in this archdiocese and probably the first in the province to play guitar in church are still parishioners in this diocese. Both still play guitar and make a living with it, and still, once in a while, the two play together.
It was in 1965 that the guitar gained a foothold in Catholic worship in B.C. Neil Douglas, then 17, began solo playing acoustic guitar at Mass in St. Peter's Church in New Westminster, with the blessing of pastor Father Brian Shields, OMI.
The tension was palpable that first time, said Douglas. It affected not only the pastor of one the oldest parishes in the archdiocese and him, the young musician, but also the parishioners about to witness the advent of a style of music and praise that would shape generations to come.
Although he was situated at the front of the church rather than in the "choir loft" at the back, Douglas says, his focus was "not on performance but in song-leading."
Douglas, who began attending St. Thomas More Collegiate in 1960, the year the school opened, is still a St. Peter's parishioner.
The guitar was an iconic symbol of the era in 1965, and many of those used to a more traditional form of worship were unhappy with a guitar being used in their churches. At the tender age of 17 Douglas must have been strongly grounded in his faith and truly inspired to venture into such uncharted territory.
Douglas recalls Father Shields going to Seattle to bring back "Mass for Americans," sheet music from Father Ray Repp, an American priest who had written music that would be incorporated into Catholic services throughout the U.S. This played an important role, he says, in bringing a lot of young people into the Church.
By 1968 Douglas had been joined by John Murray, who later became a professional guitarist. Murray remembers collaborating with Douglas during their CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) meetings as their sound evolved from folk to more of a rock sound.
In 1968, Douglas states, "John was probably the first person to play an electric guitar in a Catholic church." Douglas had been playing acoustic rather than electric guitar.
Father Miles Power, OMI, now the pastor of St. Peters Parish, just like his predecessor Father Shields, supplied the boys with support when most considered such a venture outrageous.
This music was not in keeping with the more traditional aspects of worship, but parents were happy because their children were participating in the Mass.
Douglas stressed again the focus of these determined young men was "not on performance but on song-leading."
As a professional guitarist Murray went on to lead the band "Papa Bear's Medicine Show" in 1968, later joining the Poppy Family. When the Poppy Family broke up, Terry Jacks from that group pursued a solo career.
Murray will forever be remembered as the man who supplied Jacks with the guitar sound woven throughout his world-famous hit "Seasons in the Sun." Murray is a parishioner at St. Francis de Sales Parish in Burnaby when he is not away providing live entertainment with his guitar on a cruise ship.
When he picked up the guitar at age 12, Douglas dreamed of becoming another Buddy Holly. He played in bands throughout his youth.
At the Bunkhouse in Vancouver in 1967 he met Jose Feliciano and received an impromptu lesson in classical guitar. This was a turning point in his life. After deciding in 1970 that classical guitar was his calling, he journeyed to Spain to study classical guitar in a traditional academic setting.
His "Neil Douglas Guitar Shop," in business since 1968, is located at 829 12 St. in New Westminster. Most pro guitar players in the Lower Mainland have probably heard of it.
The shop provides equipment sales, guitar-servicing, and repairs. Douglas has approximately 400 students taking lessons in guitar, drums, bass, piano, and vocals.
Douglas dreams of stepping back from the day-to-day operations of the shop to concentrate more on playing, and maybe writing a book on guitar teaching methods, "throwing out all the old assumptions," as he puts it.