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Sister Harriet Padberg: Pioneer In Music Therapy, Longtime Teacher

Courtesy of the Society of the Sacred Heart

Sister Harriet Ann Padberg, a gifted musician and composer, who spent the last 40 years of her long life advocating music as a therapeutic way of improving the lives of people with physical and mental disabilities, found joy listening to Mozart’s music in her last hour.    

The lifelong St. Louisan died Jan. 2 of complications after a fall and hip break. She was 91.

“We were playing Mozart, she loved Mozart, it was very peaceful,” her sister Peggy Padberg McGarry, of Houston, said.

The Catholic nun, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart, died at the society's elder care center in Atherton, Calif., where she had retired 20 months ago. Her nickname was Happy.

“Happy was a true Religious of the Sacred Heart and a very gifted person,” said Sister Mary Pat Rives, Villa Duchesne’s social justice leader and one of her oldest friends in the order. “She deserves all the praise in the world.”

Sister Padberg founded Maryville University’s music therapy department in 1973. She was a math and music professor at the school for 35 years beginning in the mid-1950s.

“She was a visionary,” Maryville president Mark Lombardi said. “She was a pioneer in the development of music therapy, understood early, before many others, the benefits of music therapy.”

Certified music therapists use music, singing, dance and playing instruments to improve patients’ physical, social, emotional and mental challenges. Today more than 90 U.S. academic institutions offer degrees in music therapy. When  Maryville’s program began, however, it was among only a handful of schools offering courses leading to certification, according to Cynthia Briggs, Psy.D., director of Maryville’s music therapy program. 

Sister Padberg presented papers before the music therapy professional network, now called the American Music Therapy Association, and was widely respected nationally as a "pioneer,” Briggs said.

“She was so tiny but what a powerhouse, what a remarkable intellect,” Briggs said. “She had the capacity to mentor, lead and inspire them to do more with their lives.”

Maryville remains the only school in the area with a music therapy program and offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in it. About 80 percent of the certified music therapists in the region’s schools and medical facilities for those with disabilities are Maryville graduates, Briggs said.

Teacher to practitioner

After she retired from Maryville when she was in her mid-70s, Sister Padberg herself became a music therapist. Each Tuesday and Friday she would make a 75-mile round trip to Marthasville, Mo. There in the historic building that housed the original Eden Seminary, she helped developmentally challenged adults at a United Church of Christ agency, Emmaus Homes. For 15 years until she was 87, she greeted them in song and taught them to play simple instruments, sing and listen to music.

In her 80s, she also taught the organ to church pianists. And even later, she used her computer skills to digitize accurate copies of all the Society of the Sacred Heart’s traditional hymns and songs. They are now at the society’s national archives, which her late sister Marie Louise had organized. 

“She was determined to finish it and she did,” Briggs said.

She also supervised Maryville’s music therapy students who came to Emmaus for clinical practicums, Briggs said.

“She was always very upbeat, very interested in what was going on at Maryville. Long after she retired from teaching, she knew about new developments in the field,” Lombardi said. “She touched so many lives in many positive ways and stayed in touch with her students.”  

Former students concur. “She was a joy to know and an unforgettable presence everywhere she was,” said Mary Claire McDonnell, a Clayton lawyer who was Sister Padberg’s algebra student at City House, a school that merged with Villa Duchesne in 1968. “I remember so well the marvelous conversation I had with her eight or nine years ago about the music therapy program. She was in her 80s and discussing the effects of music on people with disabilities with the enthusiasm of a child with a new toy.”

Music in her DNA

Harriet Ann Padberg was the middle of three daughters, born to Marie Louise Kilgen and Harry Padberg. Music was at the core of their family life. By the age of 4 she played the piano seated on the lap of her great uncle, the opera and operetta composer Alfred Robyn, McGarry said. Her maternal grandfather Charles Kilgen founded Kilgen Organ Company which built and installed fine organs nationally.

Composing was also in her genes. Her great-grandfather composer William Robyn was the city’s first organist. Historian William Barnaby Faherty said he first played at the Old Cathedral, then, at St. John the Evangelist Pro-Cathedral and was the founder of the region’s first two symphony orchestras and the St. Louis University music department. In her later years, she became the keeper of William and Alfred Robyn’s music. 

Sister Padberg graduated from two schools run by the Society of the Sacred Heart, Academy of the Sacred Heart, nicknamed City House by St. Philippine Duchesne, in the Central West End, and Maryville College, then, in the city’s Dutchtown neighborhood. After college graduation, the deeply religious young musician chose the same path as her older sister Marie Louise. She became a nun with the Society of the Sacred Heart. She prepared at its Albany, N.Y., novitiate.

While getting her master’s in music and organ at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Conservatory of Music she taught at the order’s Clifton Academy there. She also taught young women at the order’s academies and college in Grand Coteau, La., the Academy of the Sacred Heart in St. Charles and at her alma mater, City House. She served as organist for Mass and other events at all schools where she was assigned and often conducted glee clubs.

Most of her life she taught her two intellectual passions, math and music. This reporter, one of her former algebra students and her second cousin, once removed, recalls that in both subjects she would point out the affinity music and math had for each other.

Sister Padberg earned a second MA in the arts from St. Louis University and studied computer music composition at Stanford University. In 1955 with her Ph.D. work nearly complete, she joined Maryville’s faculty.

Composing and singing

In addition to teaching music majors, she taught a music course required of all student aiming for a teaching certificate. She believed that with proper technique and understanding of vocal chords nearly anyone could sing. She required each prospective teacher write one piece of music.

Sister Harriet Padberg plays the great Kilgen Organ at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.
Credit Courtesy of Patricia Rice
Sister Harriet Padberg plays the great Kilgen Organ at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. The organ was made by her grandfather and updated by uncles. (Closeup below)

She served on the St. Louis Archdiocesan Commission on Sacred Liturgy after the Second Vatican Council when Catholics were searching and composing sacred music in English. While some pastors OKed any hymn as long as lyrics were biblically accurate, she encouraged higher musical standards. For years, Sister Padberg planned and directed music for the televised live Sunday Catholic Mass on local stations. She led the televised choir, Carol Wilson Kramer recalled. Kramer assisted Sister Padberg as part of a Maryville work-study program and recalled the nun touring the Midwest conducting the college glee club in various symphony halls. 

closeup of Sister Padberg at the Kilgen organ
Credit Courtesy of Patricia Rice

Two weeks before her move to California, St. Louis Cathedral music director Horst Buchholz invited her to play the Great Kilgen organ, which her grandfather Charles Kilgen built in the teens and two uncles updated in the 1920s.  

“She was such a petite woman seated at that huge (console) I didn’t think her feet would reach the pedals,” Barbara McElroy, a former student who attended the recital, said. Selections included her order’s French and English hymns and sacred music by Bach, Faure and Mozart.

“Her feet reached and she played with such power, such beauty, all music I love,” McElroy said. “She smiled and pulled out all the stops, with such joy, playing the great organ with its family connections.”

At the California retirement center, this past year and half, she played the piano at daily Mass and encouraged other nuns there, especially those in the nearby dementia unit, to join in therapeutic sing-alongs.

Lombardi, the Maryville president, has been impressed by the loyalty of Sister Padberg’s former students, many of whom she’d taught a half century ago, and of the Maryville staff that she tutored with math challenges in this century. Many turned up a year ago when, weeks before her 90th birthday, Maryville honored her for founding the music therapy program.    

“I never met a person who didn’t love her,” Lombardi said. “Best teachers are like great coaches, she was encouraging and found a way to help each student to reach the next level.”

She is survived by her sister, Peggy McGarry of Houston; nieces Peggy Trenholm of Houston and Terri Thyssen of Spring, Texas; nephews William McGarry Jr. of San Antonio, Texas, and Michael McGarry of Pittsburgh; two  grand-nephews and two grandnieces. Her second cousin Jesuit Father John Padberg will say her funeral Mass Jan. 25 at 10 a.m. in the Villa Duchesne Chapel, 801 South Spoede Rd., in Frontenac.  Burial will follow at Calvary Cemetery.