Duane Sutton plays at Cathedral for more than four decades

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

It was 1967 and Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” was Billboard’s number one hit when Duane Sutton and his wife Joan moved to Syracuse with their young family. Duane was starting his second position in a church — organist and music director at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. By 1970 they had four children, a boy and three girls, and Duane was Diocesan Director of Music. He founded the Organist Training Program in the diocese in 1971. His credentials are nearly a page worth of copy on their own.

Today, Sutton is 72 years old and he’s still directing the music at Cathedral. He has lost his Joan but his children are all grown and there are nine grandchildren now with a great-grandson on the way. His list of accomplishments include assisting in the planning of the many special events; including the ordination of two bishops and the installation of three others. He has watched Cathedral rectors come and go and has performed at more weddings and funerals than he can count. And he still loves to play.

There is a German-made piano at the Cathedral now and when Sutton sits down to play he brightens immediately. “Father Champlin is responsible for this piano being here,” he said. “It’s a beautiful instrument. The difference between this and a Steinway is like a Chevy and a Cadillac.”

Each rector adds something to the atmosphere at the Cathedral. Father James O’Brien supervised a major renovation in the 1980s, Father Champlin was a lover of good music and the jazz concerts that took place at the Cathedral, and the current rector, Msgr. Neal Quartier loves a little cocktail music, Sutton said.

Msgr. Quartier describes Sutton as “irreplaceable.”

“Duane has been a real ‘treasure’ for the diocese and the Cathedral for 42 years and is truly irreplaceable,” Msgr. Quartier said. “He’s wonderful to work with — so good to our brides and knows so many wonderful and talented musicians and singers throughout the city that he has made liturgy at the Cathedral a wonderful place for worship. We hope that he continues on as ‘emeritus’ for a very long time.”

One of Sutton’s favorite priests was the first one he worked with, vice rector of the Cathedral, Msgr. William Shannon. He, Sutton said, was a character.

“He had a late vocation and worked in vaudeville before he was a priest,” Sutton said. “He was extremely talented. He knew Frank Sinatra and all those people.”

Syracuse in the 1960s had its own demonstrations surrounding civil issues. If there was a demonstration outside the Cathedral during Mass, Msgr. Shannon wanted Sutton to play the organ all the louder. And, Msgr. Shannon accidentally forgot to inform Sutton that a wedding was on the schedule so Sutton’s first experience playing for a wedding at the Cathedral featured Msgr. Shannon filling in until he could get there.

“They [rectors] all have their different personalities and I got along with all of them pretty well,” he said.

Father Jim O’Brien was rector of the Cathedral from 1983 to 1995 and describes Sutton as a “consummate professional.”

“He brought not only his skills as a musician to the job, but also his deep faith,” Father O’Brien said. “He was always cooperative and flexible and adjusted very well to all the different leadership styles at the Cathedral.”

Over the years, the Cathedral has hosted many performances by string and brass quartets, choral groups and contemporary musicians. A Christmas concert takes place each year with a great variety of area musicians and some of the local school choruses. It is something the community and Sutton look forward to each year.

This year’s concert is a bit in limbo now because Sutton is battling cancer these days taking each day as it comes. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago but it has metastasized and he is currently undergoing radiation treatments. The cancer is in an advanced stage but to see Sutton, you would never guess anything was amiss. He nursed his wife through multiple sclerosis and a health setback “is what it is” for Sutton.

His extraordinary career has its roots back in Nampa, Idaho where he attended St. Paul’s School with the Benedictine sisters. He went to high school at St. Mary’s Seminary in Langhorne, Pa. where he studied piano graduating in 1955 as the seminary’s organist. Sutton entered the Marist novitiate on Staten Island in 1957 but left in 1958. He studied music at the College of Idaho, a Presbyterian school, and received his bachelor’s degree in history and literature of music with a minor in French in 1961. He earned his master’s degree in 1963 from San Francisco State University with a concentration in organ performance and composition.

San Francisco State was the place to be in the 1960s with the emergence of the hippie generation. Sutton said another student warned him not to hang out in the theater department of the school because all the students had long hair. “I guess I didn’t realize but that was the beginnings of the ‘hippie’ movement,” he said.

He tried to join the military after graduating but discovered he was “too old” at age 26. He ended up answering an advertisement in a professional journal and taking a job at St. Michael’s Church in Flint, Mich. He met Joan there but the Detroit/Flint area in the 1960s was a pretty rough place to raise children. They came to Syracuse when the opportunity came.

“Here things were so different. There were still factories going back then and it was a vibrant place,” Sutton remembered.
He worked first under Bishop Walter Foery. “He was a wonderful man. I liked him a lot,” Sutton said.

“We used to bring the kids to his place on James Street for Halloween,” he said.

Sutton’s daughter Anna Marie remembered Bishop Foery as “really nice, very sweet.” She remembers trick-or-treating at the bishop’s house and she remembers trying to sit still in the front pews of the Cathedral with her brother and sisters while her dad played.

“We were giggling and playing the whole time,” she said.

There was music in the Sutton household but it was more Joan’s singing than it was their dad playing piano or organ. “He always played at church so we really didn’t hear him that much at home,” Anna Marie said. “Sometimes we would listen to him practice and he’d be playing that deep, low organ music and it would be dark in the Cathedral except where he was sitting and we would think it was so scary.”

Over the past 42 years, Sutton said he’s had the pleasure of working with many great musicians and cantors. Even though he retired unofficially at age 65, his work has really never ceased. Sutton is at the Cathedral every day even during his cancer treatment working on the programming of liturgical music for Mass and for all the special events that take place there. He has the support of all his children and those who work with him at Cathedral.

Father O’Brien said that even when there were three or four weddings every weekend and the usual liturgies too, Sutton never complained. Father O’Brien said Sutton handled everything “gracefully” and it is apparent that he is handling his cancer diagnosis the same way.

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