Catholics who grew up with centuries-old Catholic hymns like Faith of Our Fathers and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, can recite the words by heart. The richness of these prayerful ancient songs — and Gregorian chant — has often been lost on younger generations, replaced by contemporary Catholic liturgical hymns and praise-and-worship music. But a new, young musical duo called Marian Grace wants to change that.
Colleen Nixon and Jimmy Mitchell, both 25, met in the fall of 2004, when Mitchell started his freshman year at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Nixon was entering her second year at Belmont College across the street. They both helped with music for the campus-ministry liturgies, Nixon as a cantor and Mitchell on piano. When Father John Sims Baker was assigned as the new chaplain the following year, he put more emphasis on the sacraments and Eucharistic adoration and introduced them to the Church’s traditional liturgical music, songs that reflected the prayers of the saints, and the Liturgy of the Hours.
“I always had a desire to sing, and I was starting to sing at shows around town and write some songs. When (Jimmy and I) found these hymns, another part of my heart wanted to sing these beautiful lyrics,” says Nixon.
After graduating with a music degree, Mitchell went to the seminary and also spent time in Rome, where he was immersed in the Church’s traditional music. When he reconnected with Nixon in Nashville during Holy Week 2009, they decided to record some of the hymns in a studio under the name Marian Grace, which was chosen to honor the Blessed Mother as Mediatrix of all graces.
“We put it up so people could download it for free, and, much to our amazement, over 1,000 people downloaded it. We went back to the studio in January and recorded an album. Before we even released it in May, we presold 1,500 copies of it,” says Mitchell.
More than 6,000 units of their debut CD have sold, predominantly through Ignatius Press and Life Teen Catholic youth ministry. Last fall, Marian Grace went on its first tour, performing at parishes and conferences in Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The duo appeared on EWTN’s Life on the Rock in June. Mitchell founded Mysterium Records to produce and distribute Marian Grace as well as other Catholic artists, such as Audrey Assad, Matt Maher and L’Angelus. Marian Grace is releasing its second CD, What Wondrous Love, this month, featuring the title song and such classics as O Sacrament Most Holy, Ave Maris Stella and Be Thou My Vision.
Mitchell is emphatic that the mission of Marian Grace and Mysterium Records is to promote artists who bring the beauty and truth of the Church’s musical and other treasures to the culture at large so that it can be sanctified. “Our hope is to engage people in the ancient hymns, to inspire people to desire a richer, more beautiful liturgy,” he says. “If we can be a part of that, praise the Lord.”
Father Baker says Mitchell and Nixon are amazing musicians: “They understand what the worship of God is about. They are exactly what you want to see happen in the life of faithful, young Catholics. You want people who are willing to go out and engage the world and propose Jesus Christ to the world. They really do that in a beautiful, attractive way. And there’s so much fruit.”
Father Baker continues to offer spiritual support to Mitchell, who did not continue in the seminary, but is back in Nashville to act as president of Mysterium Records and work as an area director for Fraternus, a virtue-based mentoring program for middle-school and high-school boys. Father Baker also keeps in touch with Nixon, who married last summer and is lately writing lullabies for her newborn son, Benedict. Her husband, Titus, who also works for Fraternus, was recently transferred to her hometown of Tallahassee, Fla. He and Benedict will accompany her when Marian Grace goes on fall tour.
She feels blessed to sing these songs: “Most of the songs are written by saints — it’s the Church’s works, the reality of the Eucharist. Body of Christ, sanctify me — that prayer is so relevant today.”
Barb Ernster writes
from Fridley, Minnesota.