Pioneering Catholic started free music school for children

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Rita Simó pictured teaching students in the early days of the People’s Music School. Photo provided

Perhaps Rita Simó did not have the most auspicious introduction to the Catholic community in Chicago.

In the summer of 1975, Simó had just moved into an apartment in Uptown with a friend she had met while teaching at what was then Rosary College, now Dominican University. She was in the process of being released from her vows in the Sinsinawa Dominican community when she started attending Mass at St. Thomas of Canterbury Church, 4827 N. Kenmore Ave.

It wasn’t long before she paid a visit to the pastor, Father Michael Rochford.

“She told him the music was weak, especially at the Spanish Mass, but not to worry, because she was going to take it over,” said her husband, Tomás Bissonnette. “And she did.”

The couple now worship at St. Gertrude Parish.

That characteristic directness served Simó well as she worked to develop a free music school for children whose families could not otherwise afford serious musical instruction. Simó, now 83 and living with Alzheimer’s disease, remembers Rochford and all the help he provided when she was trying to get the People’s Music School off the ground.

The school now has nearly 700 students, who still study tuition-free, as Simó intended when she founded it in 1976.

She already had poured her heart and soul into the idea, which struck her as she traveled the United States giving concerts after earning a diploma and two master’s degrees at Julliard. 

She went to the famed music school with a stipend from her native Dominican Republic, after winning a competition for students at the national conservatory there. Then, as she made a living playing concerts around the United States, she began to engage in question-and-answer sessions with the audience at the end. Too many young people told her that they were not taking music classes because they could not afford it.

“Why could I study music for free in my poor country, and children could not do that here in this rich country?” she asked.

Convinced she would never get her free music school started without some institutional backing, she looked to the church. Juilliard’s chaplain and Simó’s lifelong friend, Father Dermot Brennan, suggested she investigate women’s religious congregations. 

After some research, Simó and Brennan agreed that the Sinsinawa Dominicans, with their emphasis on social justice and the arts, would be a good fit.

Simó would spend about 10 years with the Sinsinawa, earning her doctorate and teaching at Rosary College, but when she came to the conclusion that she would always be teaching college classes and not have an opportunity to start her school, she walked away.

It was fortuitous that she landed in Uptown. There, she found not only Rochford, but also a Catholic Worker house where she met people who volunteered to help with everything from filing the necessary papers to create a non-profit to helping find volunteer teachers. Given her background, Simó already had deep connections to the music community in Chicago, according to “Music is a Gift: Pass it On, Rita Simó and The People’s Music School,” a 2014 book by Cynthia Willis Pinkerton.

When she found a storefront to rent for the school’s first home in 1976, she was unable to persuade the landlord she could pay the rent. Rochford co-signed the lease.

“He never had to pay,” Simó insisted. “I always paid.”

St. Thomas of Canterbury also provided the school’s first piano.

“There were two in the basement of the parish and nobody was using them,” Bissonnette said. “She went to Father Mike and said, ‘You have two pianos and I have none. You should give me my piano.’”

When he acquiesced, she got students from the alternative high school the parish housed to roll it up Sheridan Road. When a police officer stopped them and asked what they were doing, “I said, ‘What does it look like I’m doing? I’m moving a piano,’” Simó said.

The incident made the local papers, and likely increased attendance at the school’s opening recital, said Bissonnette. He got to know Simó when he was a priest, directing the Hispanic Institute at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. After meeting Simó at a gathering hosted by mutual friends, he asked her to provide a musical component to some of the seminary programs. She recommended that Rochford invite Bissonnette to St. Thomas of Canterbury, where he could celebrate the Spanish Mass. After a few years, he asked to be released from his priestly obligations so that he could ask Simó to marry him.

Eventually, with the help of not just her Catholic friends but also civic connections, the school moved into its own building at 931 Eastwood Ave., and it runs programs at three other sites in Chicago. It has remained faithful to its goal of never charging a student for lessons by insisting that parents volunteer their time and participate in fundraising, and it is so well-regarded that enrollment is done by lottery.

Simó stepped down from her day-to-day responsibilities as director of the school in 2000, but she has remained involved and is still listed as an ex officio member of the board.

She and Bissonnette still stop at Calvary Cemetery to visit the grave of Father Mike Rochford, who died in 1999, and last year welcomed Brennan to their Uptown home as he toured the country visiting old friends.

The school’s hundreds of children still learn about her, said Josh deVries, the program manager.

“Rita still comes by the school and there is definitely a special energy when she is here,” deVries said. “We have a culture program where we teach them about how the school started, and sometimes it happens that they are learning about that when she comes in. They’re always very excited. She was a visionary, and she was ahead of her time.”


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