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Retired Falls Church organist said he always had the best seat in the house

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From the pews, worshippers can only hear the serene, familiar notes of “Salve Regina.” High above and hidden from view, Dan Day is using his whole body to coax the tune out of the pipe organ. Fingers press keys and pull knobs as his feet dance across wooden pedals. 

Day is no fan of heights, but he enjoys this particular perch. Though he faces the choir, he can keep an eye on the priest and people during Mass with the mirrors placed on either side of the organ. Some mornings, he sees the sun stream through the Christ the King stained-glass window in front of him and cast colored light around the loft. On feast days, he hears the swell of the congregants’ voices as they belt out beloved carols and hymns. “I tell people it’s the best view in the house,” said Day. 

But all good things must come to an end, and after 30 years as music director of St. James Church in Falls Church, Day is packing up his organ shoes and retiring. He’ll miss the times spent with wonderfully dedicated choristers and musicians. He has loved his time accompanying the parishioners in their musical praise of God. “(As the organist), I'm there not to take their place but to help their sung worship,” said Day. “And there’s nothing more rewarding.”

As a child, Day started playing piano after receiving encouragement from his parents Joseph and Inez Day. His sister, Anne Murphy, also has been a supporter over the years. His grandmother Annie Day taught him the fundamentals and Sisters of Mercy Sister M. Isabel continued the education at his school. He started to play the organ in eighth grade, occasionally playing at morning and Sunday Masses. 

One day, a priest from a neighboring parish was celebrating Mass at Day’s parish and heard the teen play. Just hours later, Day got a call asking him to play at three Sunday Masses there. By his senior year of high school, he was back playing five Masses a Sunday at his own parish. 

After graduating in 1971 from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, Maine, Day entered seminary for the Diocese of Portland. He attended Saint Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore before going to the North American College in Rome. While there, he was able to play the organ in many historic and beautiful churches, including the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. After discerning out of seminary, he taught for a year at his high school, then in 1978, he began working in the diocesan religious education office. 

Once in the diocese, he played the organ at St. John the Apostle Church in Leesburg and St. John Neumann Church in Reston before finally ending up at St. James in 1990. Two years later, the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary with the installation of a new pipe organ. 

Also that year, Day earned his master’s in social work from The Catholic University of America in Washington. For the next 25 years, he worked for the VA Medical Center in Washington, serving much of that time at the oncology clinic and as the chair of the bioethics advisory committee. “We tried to do the best we could by our patients, our veterans,” he said. 

Come Sunday, Day would be back on the bench playing at the Masses. Some of his favorites were classics such as “Immaculate Mary,” “Hail, Holy Queen,” “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” and “O God Beyond All Praising.” “To me, they play themselves, they’re so majestic,” he said. 

Over the years, he encouraged young people who showed an interest in the organ, ranging from children just wanting to see the big instrument up close to those who learned to play. “Parents would bring a child up and I would show them how the organ works and I always let them press down on one key so they could say they played the organ at St. James,” said Day. One youngster he mentored, JJ Mitchell, is now earning a doctorate in sacred music. 

While he’s been present at many of the big events in the parish’s history, such as its recent 125th anniversary, some of his favorite memories have been the moments of familial love he’s witnessed from the organ loft. He remembers one wedding where the mother of the bride was jumping out of her pew with excitement as her daughter processed down the aisle. “She was just bursting with love and with pride, and I was crying. I thought, thank goodness I know the wedding songs. To me it was such a beautiful moment,” he said. 

Another time he caught a glimpse of a father tenderly bottle-feeding his child during Mass. “I looked down and there’s the crucifix, the priest, that beautiful altar with the mosaic of the pelican (feeding its children) and just a little further down, this guy feeding his child,” said Day. “I was overwhelmed and I thought, what a gift this is to see all of this and to be challenged by the goodness of God’s people.”



© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020

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