Within the last 18 months, Rev. Jacob ( Joseph ’06) Hsieh, O.Praem., has had the honor of singing at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and at the Papal Easter Vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica. Neither accomplishment, however, could give the sort of joy he experienced on June 27, when he received the Sacrament of Holy Orders at the hands of the Most Rev. Kevin William Vann, Bishop of Orange, at the Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano.
“The grandeur of the experience was overwhelming,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe that I am going to be a priest.’ Then, to have my confreres, my brother priests, come to me at the kiss of peace was very moving.”
As a newly ordained priest with the Norbertine Fathers at St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California, Fr. Jacob plans to spend his life serving God and the Church through his gift for music. He is currently teaching Church history to high school juniors and Gregorian chant to the Norbertine sisters in Wilmington, California, after which he will likely go to Rome for two years to earn a licentiate. He then expects to instruct St. Michael’s seminarians in the art and meaning of the chant that makes up the community’s life of prayer.
Music and Ministry
Fr. Jacob’s musical training began when he was 5 years old, with piano lessons in his home city of Dallas. “I practiced three to four hours a day, and five to six on weekends,” he says. He first played with an orchestra when he was 15 years old, and in high school he was the second-highest ranked pianist in the state of Texas. “Music was, and remains, a huge part of my life.”
Initially he considered attending a conservatory, yet ultimately he decided on Thomas Aquinas College, thanks to the influence of a high school theology teacher, Bruce Clark, who is a member of the College’s Class of 1989. “Mr. Clark did everything imaginable to make me love the Faith,” says Fr. Jacob. “We also read Euclid and the dialogues of Plato. I was very inspired by him, and he convinced me to go to the College.”
Shortly after arriving on campus, Fr. Jacob found that his studies and the rich devotional life helped to deepen his faith. Although he had imagined that he would one day become a concert pianist or a doctor, he abandoned these plans when he discerned — with the help of his friends — a different vocation. “Matthew Valliere (’05) was very insistent that I should become a priest,” Fr. Jacob laughs. One day during their Sophomore Year, Matt scrawled, “God wants you for His eternal priesthood” on Fr. Jacob’s message board. Inadvertently, he wrote the words in permanent marker, and so there they remained, prophetically, for the rest of the year.
Just three months after his graduation in 2006, Fr. Jacob entered St. Michael’s Abbey. As a seminarian he studied philosophy under a fellow alumnus, Rev. Sebastian Walshe, O.Praem. (’94), before undertaking his theological studies at the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Toronto. He then taught high school Latin for a year in Orange County, followed by a year of studying theology and music at the Norbertine Generalate in Rome.
It was during his time in the Eternal City that, as a transitional deacon, Fr. Jacob was blessed to sing the Exsultet at the 2015 Papal Easter Vigil. “It felt like singing in front of the entire Mystical Body, with the Vicar of Christ in front of me, and all the cardinals up front,” he says. “But I was also singing for the Church at the same time. The experience gave me a greater insight into the universality of chant and its tremendous power as a vehicle of prayer and expression in the public life of the Church.”
That insight will serve him well, he says, as he instructs novices at the seminary. “It is my job not only to make them proficient in the practicalities of singing chant but, more important, to show them how to pray it,” he explains. “We need to convey the spirituality, the philosophy and theology behind music, to open an entire new world into the breadth and depth of the amazing minds of the monks who composed these chants.”
In passing along these lessons, he calls often upon his Thomas Aquinas College education, especially the Junior Year music tutorial. “I drew everything about overtones, and how to see music as a liberal art, from that class,” he says. “Everything deep that I know about music comes from the program, developed through my speculations during my time teaching chant at the Abbey.”
As a priest, a musician, and an educator, he is grateful for his tutors’ “patience, good example, and love for truth,” as well as for his classmates’ “great support” in helping him to discern and now live out his vocation. “They are an inspiration for me,” he says, “and they give me strength in my priesthood.”