Sister Maureen Griner: Making music led her to serve the poor

Sister Maureen leads the 43-member choir of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Memphis, Tenn. Here, the group gathers for its regular Wednesday night practice.

Sister Maureen Griner thought all she could do with her music degree was offer piano lessons. Instead, she became a diocesan director of music.

She never wanted to move to Memphis, Tenn., but she’s been there for 18 years, challenging others to understand the songs they sing, and to use the gifts God gives them.

She never expected to run a homeless shelter or help raise a child, yet she does both.

“I just came to Memphis to make music,” Sister Maureen says, but God keeps taking her places she’s never been.

She is the director of music at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and also is director of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, a homeless shelter for families who would be divided otherwise. In July, she completed a six-year term as a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph Leadership Team.

“She expects to discover the unique gifts of the Spirit in others, therefore she does,” said her longtime friend Judy Gray, who became an Ursuline Associate in 1997. “This expectation enables her to, in a sense, free others to use and to grow in the gifts God has given them. She is also a natural teacher with a keen sensitivity for matching the gifts of some with the needs of others – always patiently nurturing growth along the way,” Gray said. “She is also an extremely dedicated and hard worker, therefore people trust her and do not hesitate to roll their sleeves up and help.”

Ursuline Associate Michael Ziegler began working with Sister Maureen in 2003 as a pastoral musician, and still sings in the Cathedral choir.

“She in every little way takes seriously listening to the Holy Spirit,” Ziegler said.

“She has this way of being with people that’s very nurturing for their human dignity. I don’t know if I’d be working for the church if not for her.” Ziegler is now secretary for divine worship for the diocese, and became an Ursuline Associate in 2006.

“People would be surprised at how much she understands what people go through,” he said. “She’s not the strictest musician I’ve ever worked with, but she also doesn’t have the typical musician’s ego. She pays as much attention to forming the choir as a community as she does a choir,” Ziegler said. “We reflect on the words of the songs together. She reminds us, we’re not a performance choir, we’re there to lead worship.”

Sister Maureen is very active with the associates in Memphis. Here she is pictured with a group that traveled to Maple Mount in 2008 for Associates and Sisters Day. In the first row, from left, are Stella Ziegler, Sister Margaret Ann Zinselmeyer, Associate Barbara Boatner, and Sister Maureen; second row, Associates Michael Ziegler, Barbara Goldsmith, Jeff Goldsmith, and Joyce Firenza; back row, Associates Lorna and George Horishny, Judy Gray, and Michael Synk.

The 43-member Cathedral choir practices on Wednesday nights, and members say she spends as much time on liturgy as she does music.

“She’s always asking us, ‘Have you thought about what this really means?’” said Sally Greene, an Ursuline Associate who has been in the choir five years. “Her mini-homilies are wonderful.”

On one night in October, Sister Maureen read from the Gospel of Luke about the cleansing of the 10 lepers, only one of whom gave thanks. “You heard what the Gospel is, so you know why we’re singing what we’re singing,” she told the choir.

As they prepared to practice “You Are All We Have,” Sister Maureen asked, “I wonder how many people believe this lyric? – ‘You are all we have, you give us what we need.’ It’s the feeling of people who go through a trauma or tragedy,” she said.

Ursuline Associate Mike Synk said Sister Maureen is very “street wise,” like other Ursuline Sisters he’s met. “They seem to understand how to live with real people with real problems,” he said. “She always seems to preach on something that someone here is worrying about. I think most people come for something other than singing.”

Walking into uncertainty

Sister Maureen came to Memphis in 1992 as the first person to have the combined job of diocesan director of music and director of music at the Cathedral. The previous Cathedral director of music was let go and the choir had dissolved. Sister Maureen kept trying to turn down the job, but the Spirit wouldn’t let her.