For 30 years, Mary Jo Wright has been making joyful noise unto the Lord

Published 12:05 am Sunday, December 12, 2010

She usually sings soprano, but there are times on a Sunday morning that you might hear her voice as a tenor or an alto — not likely as a bass — in leading the choir at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church.

Mary Jo Abraham Wright has been choir director for more than 30 years, and she knows all the parts of four-part harmony by heart — she really doesn’t need a book. She had to learn all the parts, she said, “because there are times when someone wasn’t there, or they were off key a little. They’ll laugh at me because I’ll jump in if somebody gets off and get them back on track. Every once in a while I’ll be the only soprano, so I can’t do that, and they look at me like ‘Help!’”

Mary Jo began singing in the choir when she was 8 years old. And though she knows all of the music, other Christians who visit the Orthodox Church aren’t likely to recognize any of the hymns, or go away humming them. The music is a capella, and though it is sung mostly in English, the choir, which numbers about a dozen singers, sometimes will do a verse in Arabic or Greek in the responses to the prayers of the priest.

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The choir sings virtually the entire service in the Orthodox Church, Mary Jo said. There are a lot of responses to the priest’s prayers, or petitions, for the bishop, the president, those in the armed forces, those who are traveling — and at the end of the petition, the priest says, “Let us pray unto the Lord,” and the choir responds with “Lord, have mercy.”

“There’s not supposed to be any gap between what he chants and what we sing,” Mary Jo said, “so we have to adjust our pitch — just like that, on the fly. We try to take our pitch from him because our answer to the prayer is the end of the prayer.”

All Orthodox services are the same, and the doctrine is the same, no matter in which part of the world the churches exist, but there are, a lot of ethnic cultural differences.

“When our folks came over here they wanted to assimilate, so they began to get English translations to the music,” she said. An organ is available for use in getting the right pitch and a bit of instrumental music is allowed before and after a wedding. The church music is in the Byzantine tradition, based on eight tones, something that might be thought of as minor music.

Growing up in the St. George congregation, which is the oldest Orthodox church in Mississippi, Mary Jo said they used the Methodist hymnal in Sunday school as they had nothing of their own, “so we sang ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and other such songs.”

In the early days of St. George, much of the service was in Arabic, but it has changed to English over the years “because when you go to missionize in another country, you’re supposed to use that language,” she said. Though the languages may be different, the service, down through history, has never been changed.

Church music is only one of the loves and talents of Mary Jo Wright. After graduating from H.V. Cooper High School in 1963, she went to MSCW and majored in music. At the W, she learned a lot of classical and church music, and then she transferred to the University of Southern Mississippi, where she studied a lot of theater music and said, “I got the best of both worlds.”

At Southern, Mary Jo was a cheerleader, something she had to hide from her teacher, “and I tried to tell her if you yell properly you’re not going to hurt your voice.”

Southern operated on the quarter rather than the semester system, so when Mary Jo graduated in November she came back to Vicksburg and taught music parttime at Halls Ferry Elementary because the teacher there was overloaded, then she was hired to teach full time at Halls Ferry and Ken Karyl. In 1972, she began teaching at Jett when Opal Setaro, “who taught everybody in the world,” retired.

At Jett, she taught all children in grades one through six, and then kindergarten was added, so she taught everybody in the school. If a child didn’t want to sing, she didn’t insist, and she recalls one boy who told her that even though his mouth didn’t move, he was singing in his mind. By having the children each year, “you get to watch them grow, and so you see all those little development changes.” She believes that “if you give children a little bit of love they can learn anything, they will respond.”

Mary Jo taught at Jett for more than 19 years, left for a while to manage her husband’s buslness, Micro Systems, and then returned to the classroom at Vicksburg Intermediate School, and then retired again, but you’d hardly know it because she stays so busy.

Mary Jo is married to her high school sweetheart, Ray Wright, who is a pilot for the Corps of Engineers. They have a daughter, Angela, and two grandchildren, and Mary Jo stays involved with their school activities, helping with programs for Anna Grace, a student at Hawkins Preschool, and Mary Clair, who is a student at Porters Chapel.

At church, she’s president of the Parish Council and is very involved in putting on the annual Lebanese dinner, an event held each year for the past 50, one that is vital to the support of the church. At the most recent dinner, more than 3,000 people were fed.

She likes to cook, but she had to learn “through observation, because my grandmother kept kicking us out of the kitchen, but my sister, Helen, wouldn’t take no and pushed her way in,” and the end result was that Helen Abraham has a very popular catering business.

When she was growing up, Mary Jo said, the combined Abraham families — her father Abe’s and her Uncle George’s — got together every Sunday for dinner. That was about 30 people.

As children, Mary Jo said, she and her sister Gloria were Mary and Martha in the Bible, for “Gloria was busy taking care of everybody, and I was the one sitting at Jesus’ feet. Then you find as the years go by you start getting a little bit of each.”

As children, they liked to lie on the ground and look up at the sky and see the pictures in the clouds, she said, adding, “I don’t know if children do that anymore or not, but there is so much joy in nature.”

She loves both ends of the spectrum, the very young and the very old, and she thinks that being around children is a blessing “that will keep you tuned in to the real world.”

She knows that no two people are alike, “and you have to remember they’re having to put up with you, too. Remember you’re a child of God. If you can keep your individuality and still blend — that’s the magic touch. Keep enough of you and take from them — a blending.”

When she was young, she said, she would get so mad, but her mother would remind her that there was some good in everyone, that I needed to look for it, to find that light.”

That’s been one of Mary Jo’s main goals in life — “to find the light in every person.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.