Composer and pianist Tonya Taylor-Dorsey, music director of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Philadelphia, will now oversee the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass Choir, effective Jan. 1. (Photo by Rick Cothran / Courtesy of Tonya Taylor-Dorsey)

With the start of the new year, a seasoned Philadelphia musician is taking on a new challenge.

The archdiocesan Office for Black Catholics recently announced that Tonya Taylor-Dorsey has been appointed director of the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass Choir, effective Jan. 1.

Established for the 2014 World Meeting of Families, the ensemble features voices from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and neighboring dioceses. The choir has participated in parish revivals, the U.S. bishops’ listening sessions on racism and the annual “Soulful Christmas Concert” at the Kimmel Center. In addition, the choir regularly performs at archdiocesan observances such as the St. Martin de Porres Mass and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day prayer service.

For Taylor-Dorsey, who has more than three decades of experience in parish music, the role once seemed unlikely for someone who was raised Presbyterian — and who “didn’t sing in the church choir growing up.”

“I wanted to be a concert pianist,” she said, citing “Fanfarinette” from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Suite in A Minor” as her favorite piece to play.

Taylor-Dorsey’s musical ambitions led her to study at Michigan State University and the University of Texas at San Antonio. Diploma in hand, she returned to her native Philadelphia, and shortly thereafter landed a job as music director at St. Peter Claver in Center City until the parish was closed. In 1993, she started a 13-year appointment as choir director at Our Lady of Hope in Philadelphia, during which time she staged annual concerts and produced a recording of the Hope Singers.

When she became the choir director at St. Martin de Porres Parish in 2006, Taylor-Dorsey decided to make her lifelong commitment to Catholicism official, converting to the faith under the guidance of then-pastor Father Edward Hallinan.

Musical director Tonya Taylor-Dorsey leads the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass choir at the annual St. Martin de Porres Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, Nov. 7, 2019. (Photo by Sarah Webb)

“During our first meeting, he asked me, ‘Why aren’t you Catholic?’” she recalled. “Actually, I felt like I was Catholic even before I converted.”

In college, she had studied the Mass, finding beauty in the order of the liturgy. As her career developed in Catholic parishes, she realized that she felt increasingly at home.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m playing at this church for two Masses each Sunday, but I wouldn’t be buried from here if I died,’” she said.

Father Hallinan also encouraged Taylor-Dorsey to attend the National Black Catholic Congress, which gathers participants from a number of African-American Catholic organizations. Participating as a new Catholic in 2007, she was eager to connect with fellow believers, but lamented the lack of musical presentations at the conference. Eventually, she created her own, delivering workshops on sight reading and music ministry.

During the organization’s 12th conference in 2017, Taylor-Dorsey was the first woman to direct the congress’s liturgical music, conducting a 100-voice choir at its daily Masses while writing musical scores for the accompanying string orchestra.

In the process, she realized that although she enjoyed performing herself, her talents “really were in composition, in writing and arranging,” she said.

In fact, Taylor-Dorsey may be best known for her original piece “Everybody Needs Someone,” which was presented in concert at the Juilliard School by alumnus and pianist Peter Dugan. Her composition “God’s Angel” was featured in the Philadelphia Inquirer after she dedicated a 2012 performance of the song (originally written after her mother’s death) to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. A number of Taylor-Dorsey’s vocal works have been sung throughout the United States.

Despite such musical prestige and prowess, though, she said she strives to “refresh and renew” her choirs, giving all participants a chance to grow musically and not simply “letting a few people do solos.”

“I spend time working with choir members and building them up,” she said, noting that she focuses in particular on enhancing their musical theory skills.

Selections for the Sunday liturgies at St. Martin de Porres are carefully chosen by Taylor-Dorsey in close collaboration with the parish’s pastor, Father Stephen Thorne, who also serves as a consultant for the National Black Catholic Congress.

“We look at the readings, and we go through the music every week together,” said Taylor-Dorsey. “I like that.”

In addition to her preparations for Sunday Mass, she is also in the process of setting the Psalms to music, while managing Tonya Dorsey and New Vision, a foundation that since 2008 has awarded more than 140 scholarships in the arts to school-aged children.

Though practiced and prolific, Taylor-Dorsey remains focused on the true source of her artistic inspiration.

“I give 100% credit to God,” she said. “There are songs that I write where I truly could not tell you the process involved.”

For example, her recently composed “Lamb of God, Lead Me” was the result of listening to a still, small voice as she was leaving the house.

“Something told me to go back to the piano,” she said. The piece came together quickly, and by that Sunday her choir was singing it at Mass.

Taylor-Dorsey believes that she’s following divine guidance in taking on her new position with the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass Choir. Having applied for the job, she filled in as the choir’s director during the St. Martin de Porres Mass in November 2019, but wasn’t certain if she’d be selected for a permanent engagement.

Nonetheless, she presented several original works at the Mass “and rocked it out,” she said — much to the delight of the celebrant, Archbishop Charles Chaput.

“I was directing the recessional hymn, and he looked at me and said, ‘It’s beautiful; you just keep doing that,’” she recalled, adding with a laugh, “I was just jelly then.”

Taylor-Dorsey’s joy in music is central to her ministry, which she says is a simple one: “I want to encourage people to sing and raise their voices in honor of God.”

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For more information on joining the Philadelphia Catholic Gospel Mass Choir, email Father Richard Owens, director of the Office for Black Catholics, at fr.rowens@archphila.org.