Middlebury musician Kevin Parizo earns recognition from the Pope


LONGTIME ST. MARY’S CATHOLIC Church organist Kevin Parizo next month will receive a medal and citation — signed by Pope Francis — for his contributions to music and his parish. Photo courtesy of the Parizo family
“Music speaks in volumes, and it touches the heart; it reaches where the spoken word many times can’t.” — Kevin Parizo

MIDDLEBURY — Kevin Parizo is a soft-spoken man.

But put a keyboard beneath his fingers and a congregation in the pews and he can unleash a swirl of shimmering notes that can touch the soul and inspire good works.

Parizo’s musical talents have been on display at Middlebury’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church for more than a half century. His dedication and prowess have now gained attention from the highest rank of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, who recently approved Parizo for a Benemerenti Medal. The very exclusive citation is awarded to clergy and laity for outstanding service to the Catholic Church.

Parizo, 68, will receive his medal and certificate from Christopher J. Coyne, bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, at a special ceremony at St. Mary’s on Sunday, Sept. 22, during the 10 a.m. Mass.

“I was shocked and humbled,” Parizo said of his reaction to receiving news of the award. “I am extremely appreciative to anyone who played a part in this.”

The good deed was carried out, on the sly, by some of Parizo’s most ardent admirers, including St. Mary’s Parish Priest Father Luke Austin. John “Buck” and Laurene Rogers, co-chairs of St. Mary’s Vocations Ministry, nominated Parizo for the prestigious Benemerenti award. Monsignor John J. McDermott, former St. Mary’s pastor and current Vicar General for the Diocese, facilitated Parizo’s nomination.

St. Mary’s can now lay claim to two Benemerenti winners: Parizo, and the organist in whose footsteps he followed some 50 years ago — the late Irene Burns. Burns had been the St. Mary’s musical director for almost 60 years prior to ceding those responsibilities to Parizo. She was rewarded with a Benemerenti Medal from Pope Paul VI during the early 1970s.

So only someone named Burns or Parizo has led the St. Mary’s congregation in song since the presidency of William Howard Taft, and since the papacy of Pope Pius X.

“I want to make sure this is an honor the parish feels a part of, because I feel very strongly as a church musician, my focus is to serve the people,” Parizo said.

Members of Middlebury United Methodist Church should also feel a part of Parizo’s accomplishment. He has for the past 20 years served as minister of music and organist of that church.

His resume is indeed voluminous and impressive.

Parizo began playing piano at 6 years old. He added the organ to his repertoire a couple years later, with Burns serving as his first teacher. He began sharing the St. Mary’s organist responsibilities with Burns during his freshman year in high school.

In addition to his combined total of 70 years as musical director of the two aforementioned churches, Parizo enjoyed a longtime teaching affiliation with St. Michael’s College. He has performed widely throughout New England, Canada and Europe — including at Notre Dame in Paris, the Cologne Cathedral, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

While his schedule is jam-packed, he still finds time to teach organ, piano and voice in Middlebury, where he resides with his wife, Garreth. They have two grown children and three grandchildren. He’s served his community in many capacities, including as a selectman.

MUSIC FOR MANY

Parizo’s services are in big demand. He performed at three funerals on Saturday, Aug. 3. Yes, there have been times when he’s done two weddings and a funeral, a real life twist on the 2012 film of the same name. He’s never gone beyond four events in a day because there’s simply not enough time. But if there were, you can bet Parizo’s energy would push him through such a gauntlet.

“As a church organist, one of the big challenges and joys of my career has been that in any one day, you can play for a funeral, a wedding, a baptism, a regular Mass — which each of those having different feelings and emotions,” Parizo said.

During the past half century, Parizo has played at joyous and somber occasions for multiple generations of friends and family. Each event tugs at his own heartstrings.

“From an emotional fabric, you learn how to shelve your own emotion and put it into the service work of what you’re doing,” he said. “You deal with your own emotions later.”

Parizo observes a panoply of reactions when he glances into the pews while he’s playing. Tears of joy. Peaceful smiles. Relaxed meditation. And yes, even the occasional nod of slumber.

He considers all of those manifestations compliments.

“You know that you have reached that inner fabric where music speaks in volumes, and it touches the heart; it reaches where the spoken word many times can’t,” Parizo said. “It’s not academic or scientific. It’s one of those human emotions that to me has always been a piece of the divine, and I don’t think we’re supposed to totally understand that.”

While Parizo is a particular devotee of religious and classical music, he respects and values all the other musical genres.

“I don’t feel as a musician and as a teacher that I have the right to say to someone that the style of music they prefer is better or worse,” he said. “I feel music is a universal language.”

It’s a language that is unfortunately being spoken less at churches these days, Parizo lamented. Organized religion, particularly in New England, has been in decline. Fewer congregants have led to less musical programming. Parizo is part of a team that’s been trying to instill more enthusiasm in music at Catholic churches throughout the state.

“Very few young people are going into this field,” he said. “We’re seeing a big decline. In cases where the church doesn’t have anyone to play, they sometimes are having to revert to ‘canned’ music.”

Austin was effusive in his praise of Parizo. He shared his letter of support for his longtime musician and parishioner.

“Dr. Parizo has truly given his life to this parish, both professionally, spiritually, and physically,” the letter states.

“He gave up what could have been a greater professional career elsewhere, to return to Vermont to care for his parents,” Austin added. “This act of generosity also benefitted the parish, St. Michael’s College, and the Diocese of Burlington.”

He also marveled at Parizo’s perseverance.

“The fact that he goes right from our 10 a.m. service to the Methodists is a sign of his dedication,” Austin said during a phone interview. “When he puts his mind to something, there’s incredible energy there. We are the beneficiaries of that.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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