My boss asked me the other day if I knew anything about the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers.” Since I have been an organist in the Catholic Church for about 25 years now, I must have played the hymn dozens of times at Mass, but I could tell him little.

My boss is a priest from Spain — and it was interesting to me that he was fascinated by the text of this English hymn that most Catholics in America might consider liturgically commonplace. I dug a little deeper and found an extraordinary story behind this familiar hymn. Many parish music directors choose “Faith of Our Fathers” for All Saints’ Day. Knowing a little more about it might help us to sing it a little more from the heart this year.

As in many other aspects of American culture, “Faith of Our Fathers” was imported.

Settlers of the American colonies established the roots of the American tradition of hymnody, and the colonists were members of a variety of Christian Protestant denominations. Of those, the most developed tradition of hymnody came from the Anglican and Lutheran churches. It wasn’t until the 19th century that an influx of Catholics from Europe would bring many Catholic hymns to the United States.

For Catholics living in the New World, the old Latin Mass was celebrated on the American continent as the norm until the latter part of the 20th century. The Tridentine Rite emphasized Gregorian Chant, and so did not require a large variety of hymns in liturgy. This meant that the Protestant use of hymns had a much greater time to mature and become codified.

The Second Vatican Council had an immense impact not just on the liturgy, but on hymnody as well. Parishes suddenly faced real voids in the liturgy that they had to fill.

Modern Catholic liturgists looked to their Protestant contemporaries and borrowed parts of or entire hymns from non-Catholic sources.

Like secular songs, hymns oftentimes have separate and distinct origins of music and text. For example, composers of opera typically write complex classical musical compositions and marry them to the libretto (little book — as in a short story). Similarly, the well-known composers of the modern American musical, Rogers and Hammerstein, combined their respective writing talents in the fields of music and storytelling to create their popular masterpieces.

In the same way, the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” began its evolution in a common secular song “Mein Gmut ist mir verwiret” (My Heart Is Distracted by a Gentle Maid) written in 1601 to the rhythmic time signature of 3/4. This time signature is common for waltzes or dances. Through the years, Hans Leo Hassler (among others) took that common melody and changed the meter to 4/4, a time signature more appropriate for sacred hymns, and created a hymn tune which became known as the “Passion Chorale.”

During the middle part of the 17th century, this hymn tune was married to a text attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux by Paul Gerhardt (“Herzlich tut mich verlangen”), resulting in one of the most sublime hymns of all time. J.S. Bach, the great Lutheran composer of Sacred Music, used the Passion Chorale tune extensively in his organ and choral works. He masterfully reworked and embellished it in his own highly ornamented Baroque-period influenced style.

The song came full circle when Paul Simon put new words to the tune and recorded it as a pop song that he called “An American Tune.”

In the case of “Faith of Our Fathers,” the commonly known music for the hymn was composed after the written text. The hymn tune known as “St. Catherine” or “Tynemouth” was composed in England by respected organist and composer Henri Frederick Hemy in 1864.

Fifteen years earlier, in 1849, the prose that would decades later be married to the hymn was written by Frederick William Faber (1814-1863), who is ultimately given credit for the hymn.

Faber had written and compiled a series of poems or prose for hymns in a publication called Jesus and Mary. It was not until 1874 — a full 25 years after Faber wrote the text and 10 years after the hymn tune “St. Catherine” was written that another composer, James Walton, wrote the refrain and adapted the text of “Faith of our Fathers” to the hymn tune “St. Catherine.”

The hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” that is familiar to most Americans was thus born after a gestation period of a quarter century, and after input from three separate composers. Perhaps this is one of the keys to this hymn’s longevity. Its components passed the test of time musically and in prose before it was ever published.

Why did Frederick Faber choose to write this particular text for use as a hymn?

Interestingly, Faber was a religious convert to Roman Catholicism from the Anglican Church in England. A contemporary of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Faber was first an Anglican cleric. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1847.

Cardinal Newman, himself a convert, knew Father Faber very well, and the two collaborated in the creation of the famous “London Oratory” which was ground zero for Catholic liturgy in England during their time, and an institution that to this day is an invaluable resource of musical tradition and scholarship in the Catholic Church.

Father Faber converted just around the time that England enacted the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1832, formally recognizing the Roman Catholic Church after 300 years of intolerance. As a Catholic convert living in England after a long history of persecution of the Church, Frederick William Faber was acutely aware of the history and circumstances of Catholics during the time of the reformation.

The hymn “Faith of Our Fathers” thus speaks of the martyrdom of the leaders of the Catholic Church during the 16th century. Beginning with the reign of Henry VIII in 1534 and for approximately the next 50 years or so, the English monarchy confiscated Roman Catholic institutions, dissolved monasteries and executed clergy. In the British Isles, Catholics were martyred on a scale not seen since much more ancient times. The King of England and subsequent secular monarchs became the supreme head of the church, replacing the pope of Rome.

English Catholics knew Father Faber for his loyalty to the Holy See and his devotion to Mary, the Mother of God. By the time the Church ordained Father Faber, England had grown more open to Catholics. But Catholics still hesitated to embrace certain Catholic devotions that their Anglican country found politically incorrect.

In the original text of the third verse of “Faith of Our Fathers,” the true significance of the poem is clear. Keep it in mind the next time you sing the hymn.

“Faith of our Fathers, Mary’s prayers shall win our country back to Thee; and through the truth that comes from God, England shall then indeed be free.”

Darryl Podunavac writes from Thornwood, New York.