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Rev. Jaroslav Vajda - Died 10 May 2008

Rev. Jaroslav Vajda - Died 10 May 2008

Rev Jaraslav Vajda, son of Rev. John Vajda - pastor of Holy Trinity Slovak Lutheran in South Chicago, IN. Pastor Vajda served as supply to Trinity during our pastor vacancy in 1966. His contributions as a hymn writer extend to 50 Hymnals.
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By TIM TOWNSEND | Lee Newspapers

ST. LOUIS — It wasn't until the Rev. Jaroslav Vajda was nearly 50 that he began to pursue the craft that would leave his name etched in history. Or at least the hymnal.

OK, so maybe you've never heard of Jaroslav Vajda (pronounced VY-dah), but that's because you probably don't write or publish hymns.

Vajda, of Webster Groves, Mo., died last week at the age of 89, and left the world of hymnody — the art of composing of sacred songs in praise of God — very different from when he entered it.

"He was more or less the dean of hymn writers in North America," said Carl Daw, executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada at Boston University.

Vajda, who dealt only with the lyrics of a hymn, wrote or translated the text of more than 200 hymns that appear in almost 50 hymnals representing Christian denominations around the world. In 1988 the Hymn Society made him a fellow, "the highest honor we can give people," Daw said.

A hymn writer is a poet, and some noted poets — William Wordsworth, for instance — have written hymns.

Vajda "was the poet laureate of the hymn world," said Mark Lawson, president of MorningStar Music Publisher in Fenton, one of Vajda's publishers.

Lawson said the "hymn explosion" that began in the 1960s and 1970s was led mostly by British hymn writers until Vajda came along.

"He was the one who started making this American version of hymns, putting language together in a new way," Lawson said. "In the American church, there had been a lot of gospel songs, but in terms of the liturgical tradition, in the liturgical church, he was a new voice."

Liturgical music takes its cues from the order of a worship service and church calendar. Lawson said Vajda loved the liturgical calendar and wrote hymns to complement it. "He'd write baptism hymns, Epiphany hymns, Lenten hymns," Lawson said. "He worked along with the seasons of the church year, and he infused churches with new things to sing."

Some of Vajda's Christmas hymns, including "Before the Marvel of This Night" and "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt," are favorites at churches around the world.

Vajda was born in Ohio, the son of a Slovak Lutheran pastor. At 18, Vajda began translating Slovak stories and poetry.

"His interest in hymn writing came through his translation work," said Barry Bobb, choral director at Lutheran High School South, who worked with Vajda at Concordia Publishing House in St. Louis. "He wanted American churches to experience Slovakian church music." Writing his own hymns in English was the natural next step. Daw said Vajda was an innovator who "pioneered a whole area of recent hymnody."

"He was very impressionistic and focused on images as opposed to writing in complete sentences," Daw said. "The best example is ‘Now the Silence' from 1969, a hymn with no punctuation where every line begins with the word ‘now.' "

Another famous Vajda hymn, "God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale," was a revelation because, again, there was no punctuation, "and he built power by an accumulation of many powerful phrases one after the other," Daw said.

Vajda's hymns are known for a clear, direct vocabulary. "He was not a person to use fancy language," Daw said.

Aside from his translations, Vajda's earlier career was as a Lutheran pastor and an editor for Lutheran publications. He spent several years editing This Day, a Lutheran magazine.

While many around the world know Vajda's poetry, earlier this week, his friends were mourning the loss of the man when they gathered for a memorial service at St. Lucas, a Slovak church on Morganford Road.

"He was just a delightful guy," Bobb said. "He was pastoral, a pastor at heart. And he had this thankfulness for all that God does for all of us."

The beginning of Vajda's most famous hymn appropriately conveys the loss, and the joy, his friends felt this week.

Now the silence

Now the peace

Now the empty hands uplifted

Now the kneeling

Now the plea

Now the Father's arms

in welcome

05/29/2008