21-year-old living the dream as music director at historic St. Aloysius Church

Joe Mutone, 21, right, the new music director of St. Aloysius Parish in downtown Detroit, stands with parish administrator Fr. Mario Amore outside the church. A student at the University of Michigan, Mutone's pursuit of sacred music in a secular college environment has taught him that the “most effective form of evangelization is to be who I am.” (Photos by Melissa Moon | Detroit Catholic)

On a full-ride music scholarship at the University of Michigan, Joe Mutone lives and breathes his Catholic faith

DETROIT — The sound of the organ fills St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Detroit during Sunday Mass. At the organ’s console: Joseph Mutone, a 21-year-old University of Michigan senior and the new music director of the downtown parish. 

Four years ago, Mutone didn’t expect he’d ever find himself in that seat. He had played organ since seventh grade, but decided to give up the instrument during his senior year in high school. When applying for colleges, he was aiming to attend U of M’s business school. Instead, he was pursued by the School of Music, Theatre and Dance for organ and persuaded by a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to change course. He is majoring in organ performance and sacred music.

Mutone is a fervent Catholic who had dreamed of playing at a historic church in Detroit, but gave up that idea for other goals that seemed more practical, such as accounting or dentistry.

The eldest of five children, Mutone and his siblings all took piano lessons. He and his two brothers also play the trumpet. But his musical gifts don’t end there: Mutone also plays the accordion and harpsichord. He tried guitar, he told Detroit Catholic, but he “wasn’t any good.”

That humility defines Mutone. When speaking about his scholarship to Michigan, he still seems surprised by it. 

Mutone started playing piano at age 8, and his piano teacher began entering him in piano competitions when he was 13. He has won 13 awards over the years, several of which were duets with his 17-year-old brother. Twice, Mutone performed in winners’ recitals at Carnegie Hall in New York City. 

In his time so far as an organ student at U of M, Mutone has traveled to Germany and France to learn from organists at churches and cathedrals including Notre Dame Cathedral and Saint-Sulpice in Paris. He also spent time at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where composer Johann Sebastian Bach played organ and is buried. 

“I played a piece there based on Bach’s name, and that was incredibly powerful,” Mutone said. “The church still has the original ceiling. It was moving to be in that space, looking up and knowing that Bach looked at the exact same ceiling.”

Full-time student, part-time musician

Fr. Mario Amore began as the new administrator of St. Aloysius in Detroit on July 1. As a former music minister, he made it a priority to fill the open position of music director before he started. He knew Mutone from St. Hugo of the Hills, where he was associate pastor, but didn’t know the extent of Mutone’s musical gifts. Joe Balistreri, a mentor to Mutone and director of music for the Archdiocese of Detroit, recommended Mutone for the position.

Joe Mutone plays the organ at St. Aloysius Church in downtown Detroit, where he accepted a position this summer as part-time music director. 

“Joe, like me, has a passion for urban ministry,” Balistreri said. “I think those of us in the newer generations in music ministry often feel called to beautiful, historic worship spaces that we didn’t have as kids in the suburbs. Joe also is gregarious and very open-minded, which will suit him well to the lively urban community of St. Aloysius.”

Mutone auditioned, then accepted the position. It is a part-time role with responsibilities falling primarily on weekends, and, therefore, allowing him to balance his job as music director with his role as a full-time college student. 

Mutone selects the music and plays the organ for the Saturday and Sunday Masses. He is responsible for the choir, which he hopes will grow in his time at the parish.

Fr. Amore hired Mutone for his musical ability, but also for his eagerness to serve in the city of Detroit.  

“He went to (University of Detroit Jesuit High School) and felt a strong connection to the city and desire to serve it, which was a huge part of why I chose him,” Fr. Amore said. “First and foremost, Joe's role is to draw parishioners into prayer and to appreciate not only the musical talents of a parish but also the style.”

Fr. Amore also believes Mutone will be a good witness to the young adults in the parish as a “joyful, holy young man.”

Keeping his faith

As much as Mutone has a passion for music, he loves his Catholic faith even more. Music and faith are weaved into the fabric of his family. Growing up and still today, his parents and siblings — and Mutone when he’s not at school — are active in their parish and pray devotions together regularly.

But leaving his prayerful family and going to a large secular university wasn’t easy at first.

Joe Mutone chats with Fr. Mario Amore outside St. Aloysius. Fr. Amore said he chose Mutone for the role both because of his musical talent and his “connection to the city and desire to serve it.”

“It’s definitely not an environment that’s supportive of any faith,” Mutone said. “But I found the more I debated, the more it substantiated my beliefs. If you’re never challenged to think about why you believe what you do, you’ll never grow. I’ve learned the most effective form of evangelization is to be who I am. If someone is going to bash my faith, I’m not going to let them, and here’s what I know: my best path to God through Christ is in the Catholic Church. If people want to talk about it, I’m open and willing to doing so.”

Mutone says he’ll never leave the Church because of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  

“It’s too powerful to ignore, and I can’t get that anywhere else,” Mutone said.

Balistreri first met Mutone when Mutone was a student in his Gregorian chant class at Michigan. They stayed in touch, and Balistreri became a mentor to Mutone, including Mutone in events at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament Cathedral and offering advice. 

“I’ve found when I play, it’s a form of prayer for me and a way to express myself. My goal is to bring others into prayer through playing,” Mutone said.

"Joe and I have had a few long conversations about the spirituality of music ministry,” Balistreri said. “A music minister is called to point people to the unfathomable glory and beauty of Christ’s divinity through music while at the same time dealing with the very human elements of the body of Christ. Living in that paradox can be challenging, but the challenge is overcome by keeping one’s eyes fixed on Jesus and seeing how he unites all of the parts in his body.”

God-given talent

Mutone humbly concedes that his musical abilities are a gift from God. 

“I’ve found when I play, it’s a form of prayer for me and a way to express myself. My goal is to bring others into prayer through playing,” Mutone said. “Someone can be given a gift and not realize they have it nor have the opportunity to explore it, so one of the most important ways for me to show my gratitude is by being dedicated to my work and to practice in order to share that gift.”  

Mutone isn’t sure what the future holds. For now, he plans to obtain a master’s degree in accounting and business after he completes his music degree. He doesn’t know what role music will play in his life, but he hopes to remain at St. Aloysius as long as possible. 

Balistreri’s advice, one organ player to another: “Pray always, remain wide open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit in your musical choices, and be engaged with the people in the pews.”