Butler organist: Fifty years of faith & music

Photo by Jim Judkis

When Tom Snow was 12 years old, he began playing the organ for Masses at his church, Saint Paul in Butler. This month, he celebrates 50 years of using worship music to create a sacred space where people can encounter God.

Under the instruction of his older brother, Snow began playing piano at age five. By 10, he had decided that the piano was not for him and switched to the organ. Two years later, word spread at Saint Paul  that he had a gift for the pipes. The church organist asked him to play at Monday night novena services, baptisms and Masses.

When school let out that June, the choir director asked the boy if he could cover all the Masses that summer. Snow was soon playing 26 services per week, earning $5 for each one.

Though he took on a busy workload, Snow felt a responsibility to use his talent for the service of the church from that young age.

“I just knew I had to do it, and I did it,” he recalls.

When Snow returned to school that fall, then-pastor Monsignor Francis Glenn asked him to keep filling in on evenings and weekends, a practice Snow has continued for a half century. The money he earned playing the organ paid his way through nursing school. Snow worked as an R.N. for 42 years, retiring in April. He currently volunteers with the Jean B. Purvis Community Health Center.

“I look back and I see God’s hand,” Snow says. “He enabled me to play so that I could go to school. It’s been a great journey.”

Snow does not consider himself an educated musician; he says he learned his skills on the job. He currently plays about 20 Masses per month. His wife Debbe often lectors and serves as a Eucharistic minister when he is at the organ.

In playing beautiful and familiar hymns, Snow tries to create a spiritual, emotional experience that allows people to encounter God. At the recommendation of his mother, he learned to play the hymn “Mother at Thy Feet is Kneeling” at a young age. It has since become a favorite of the faithful.

“Tom Snow is one of the finest, kindest and most dedicated people that I know,” said Father Kevin Fazio, administrator of the Butler Area Catholic Churches, which includes St. Paul Church and will become All Saints Parish on July 1.

Snow has been instrumental in helping the parish moves towards the merger, said music director Catie Brown. She said he is always ready to provide history of St. Paul Church and to play at different churches in the grouping.

“Tom is an integral part of our church community,” Brown said. “I would not be able to do what I do without him.”

Beverley Nikonow, who has been a cantor since the since the 1990s, says she is never nervous singing when Snow is at the organ.

“He has a knack for music,” she said. “He feels the music and follows whoever he’s accompanying.”

For Snow, music is a way to help people deepen their relationship with Jesus.

“I’m very devoted to my Catholic faith and want to do anything I can do through music to help people grow in their own faith,” he said.

Tom Snow plays his signature hymn, “Mother at Thy Feet is Kneeling”