A simple invitation led one musician to a life in the church

By Joyce Duriga | Editor
Wednesday, February 1, 2023

A simple invitation led one musician to a life in the church

For Black History Month 2023, we interview Tyrone Pittman, a longtime music director, singer and musician in the local Black Catholic community. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tyrone Pittman directs the choir and leads the congregation in worship as Our Lady of Africa Parish hosted a Black History Month celebration and Mass on Feb. 20, 2022. The Mass featured the parish’s multicultural faith community with parishioners and guests dressed in Afro-centric and native attire and readings and prayers in English, Igbo and Twi. Choirs sang in Igbo and Ghanaian languages. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Pittman directs the choir as members of Our Lady of the African Parish gather for their inaugural Mass on July 4, 2021 at the Holy Angels worship site, 615 E. Oakwood Blvd. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tyrone Pittman performed spiritual gospel hymns with students from St. Ethelreda School as the Black Deacons of the Archdiocese of Chicago, in partnership with the Office of Catholic Schools, hosted an end-of-year prayer service for nearly 200 eighth graders and high school seniors on May 12, 2022 at Oakwood Beach in Chicago.(Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Tyrone Pittman directs the choir during a Mass of Thanksgiving with Cardinal Cupich honoring Venerable Augustus Tolton on Oct. 14, 2019 at St. Philip Neri Church, 2132 E. 72nd St. The Mass celebrated Pope Francis’ June 11, 2019 declaration of Tolton as “Venerable.” (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Members of the Chicago Black Catholics Choir, directed by Tyrone Pittman, performed at the Chicago Gospel Music Festival June 23, 2012 at Ellis Park, 3700 S. Cottage Grove Ave. It was the first time a Catholic choir performed at the festival. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

If you attend a major event for African American Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago, chances are that you will see Tyrone Pittman leading the choir and playing the piano.

Pittman wears many hats: He is music director for both St. Josephine Bakhita and Our Lady of Africa parishes, music teacher at St. Ethelreda School, an auxiliary member of the Office for Divine Worship’s music staff and executive music director for the Chicago Black Catholics Choir.

Raised in a Protestant church, Pittman’s first invitation to the Catholic Church came over 40 years ago. He was working as manager of pharmaceutical procurement at Michael Reese Hospital when a colleague invited him to play for the choir at Holy Angels Parish.

“The thing is, this young lady and I were at work, and evangelization takes place wherever you are,” Pittman said. “I went and I really liked the church.”

And the more he learned, he said, the more he wanted to stay. He took the position as pianist for the choir, which later became Holy Angels Eucharistic Ensemble under his direction. Later, he was promoted to parish music director.

In the early days, he would become frustrated, he said, because when he tried to learn more about the services and what kinds of music to prepare, he would hear comments like, “Don’t do it that way because Sister says it should be this way,” or “Father says it goes that way.”

About 10 years later, he met Deacon Mervin Johnson, whom he calls his “Catholic savior.” At the time, Johnson was principal at Leo Catholic High School, and they shared the joy they found in music.

“He understood my frustration of not knowing what to do, so he began to buy books for me. He said, ‘Read this.’ ‘Read that,’” Pittman said. Pittman and Johnson also attended workshops on music and liturgy together.

It was through Johnson that Pittman became Catholic in 1992.

From his first days in the church, he said, he felt at home.

“It was something that was very warm about it. I enjoyed the people. They were very warm.”

The more Pittman learned about the liturgy and the sacraments, the more profound his experience was.

“One thing I really liked about the Catholic Church was its structure,” he said. “I liked the structure of the service and the liturgy. I found that to be very moving.”

His love of the liturgy led him to enroll in the Rensselaer Program of Church Music and Liturgy of St. Joseph College in Indiana.

He still is always learning, Pittman said. He enjoys visiting other Catholic churches, particularly those that might have different music and worship experiences based in their cultures. He cited Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations as an example.

“And there are so many different kinds of [lay] movements, charismatic movements and all those other types of things that I never knew anything about, and I’m still being introduced to,” Pittman said.

“For example, at Our Lady of Africa, our pastor is an SVD [member of the Society of the Divine Word], and they bring along customs that I’ve never heard of before and it’s new experiences. It’s just wide open. The basic pulse of the church is built around the liturgy. It’s the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Nothing changes that, but there are all of these other kinds of celebrations and different feast days that you do,” he said.

Pittman said it’s important to remember that people enter worship from more than one experience.

“I have a profound respect for many genres of music. As a child, I learned to play music by ear. After high school, I began my studies in classical music. The Catholic Church offered a platform for me to grow in my love for classical music,” Pittman said.

Worship styles within the Black Catholic community are not all the same, Pittman noted. His challenge as a music director is to reach all of those people where they are.

“Many Catholics love having quiet time with God. I too feel that the church should respect their wishes. On the other hand, there are those who prefer a style of worship that has more freedom for movement,” he said. “As music director, I feel responsible for understanding that worship lends itself to variable styles and genres of music. With this in mind, I try to select a wide range of music for every service, hoping that there will be music to satisfy everyone in the congregation.”


  • music
  • parishes

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