The Hymn “Mary the Dawn”

Ha! I was reading a rather blah article on Marian hymns, and all of a sudden they divulged the mysterious origin of the song “Mary, the Dawn”!

Here’s the article, “The Popular Marian Hymn in Devotion and Liturgy,” reprinted from a journal. It talks about the song on p 132.

It was written by Justin Mulcahy, C.P. (the Passionists) under the pseudonym “Paul Cross.”

It’s a good hymn, and a lot of people think it’s traditional. So I’m glad to know who actually wrote it.

It’s kind of a sad article, though, because it shows how there have been generations of hymns written, and then rejected as cringe, and then a different kind of cringe hymn adopted. Even with Sturgeon’s Law being in effect in all times and places, this is kinda depressing. But of course, it’s also the effect of not providing people with a full spectrum of music and then letting the bad stuff shake out.

The other interesting thing is that it talks about evening novena services, which have largely ceased to happen because of Saturday Mass, but which still happen before or after Mass in some places.

The article also points out that “Sing of Mary” is actually a Canadian hymn by Roland Ford Palmer, from the Anglican/Episcopalian folks! News to me! And since that’s pretty much the only Marian hymn except “Immaculate Mary” that I was taught in early childhood… good to know!

But yeah… pretty much the entirety of post-Vatican II Marian hymnody just didn’t exist, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and even in the 1990’s. I look at the examples in the article and have never heard of any of them, never seen them in a hymnal, and definitely never heard them sung. “Gentle Woman” was about the only one that existed, for most congregations.

I like “Flight of the Earls” and “I Sing a Maid” isn’t bad, but they really don’t go together. Still, it’s a thing and it’s okay.

The big Marian “hit” of the last couple of decades is the “Star of the County Down” setting of the Magnificat. So cheesy, yet so satisfying. And it’s hilarious, because it was obviously written to appeal to radicals, but essentially gets used by conservatives to prophesy doom to unrepentant baddies. And it also goes against every suggestion by this article’s writer about what makes a “good” Marian devotional hymn, much less a “hymn for Eucharist,” as the writer puts it.

It is possible that there is no way to write a Marian hymn that isn’t a little bit cheesy. Because she’s your mom, and songs about moms are corny by nature. But that’s okay.

What’s not okay is the way that popular devotion is always getting dragged and sniffed at, instead of just improving on what is good without destroying anything. I mean, sure, I get in moods where I yell at everything, but that’s just for letting off steam. There are hymns so cringey that they’re torment-worthy; but I’m more worried about doctrinal and theological problems than Velveeta cheese levels. (And these days, you’re apt to get both.)

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Hymn “Mary the Dawn”

  1. Velveeta cheese is better than theological problems for sure. I will take the cheese, leave off the errors. Oh, and no cucumbers!

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds

    My schola master was just wondering if a popular Dutch one we sang Sunday, ‘O reinste der schepselen’/’ O Sterre der Zee’, was of English origin – and Wikipedia tells me his ear was right: ‘Sweet star of the sea’ with text by Frederick William Faber and music by Henri Frederick Hemy in his Crown of Jesus (London, 1864). Sadly, I cannot find that collection scanned online. I see someone has Faber’s text to another tune on YouTube, though – loaded as “Catholic Hymnal: O Purest of Creatures! sweet mother, sweet maid”, and there are lots of uploads of the Dutch version.

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