95-year-old Norwood parishioner marks 63 years as choir member

NORWOOD -- The year was 1996. The choir at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Norwood had been invited to perform at several churches in Rome, including St. Peter's Basilica. Out of the corner of her eye, choir member Martha Colamaria noticed a man losing his balance. Out of instinct, she reached out and grabbed him, only to realize that she was clutching the sleeve of Pope St. John Paul II.

"When I touched the sleeve, I said 'Oh, I can't do that,'" Colamaria recalled speaking to The Pilot on Dec. 17. "I said 'Oh, that's the Holy Father.' To me, it was somebody tripping."

Colamaria, a 95-year-old retired reading specialist, has been singing in the St. Catherine of Siena choir for 63 years. In times of personal tragedy, singing was her "reason to keep going." Her fellow singers, some of whom weren't yet born when Colamaria joined the choir, call her an inspiration.

"Someone like her is one in a million," said Joe Scolastico, music director at St. Catherine of Siena. "It attests to the power of prayer in music."

Colamaria attributes her long life to her faith, her love of singing, and her encounter with Pope St. John Paul II.

"I think he's blessed me all these years," she said. "I'm very fortunate that I can still sing for all these years, because I love to sing."

Scolastico joked that when Colamaria grabbed Pope St. John Paul II's sleeve, she was briefly in possession of a second-class relic.

"You guys were probably better than the Sistine Chapel choir at the time," he told her.

Colamaria has been singing in church choirs for over 80 years. Born in Roslindale in 1928, she was the fifth of nine children. All eight of her siblings are now deceased.

"Only the good die young," she said.

Her mother was a former church organist who taught her the famous saying attributed to St. Augustine: "When you sing, you pray twice."

"I think it's kept me going through tough times," she said. "Losing my mother, losing my husband. I prayed very hard to God, who's been so good to guide me."

At the age of eight, she was invited to join the choir at Holy Name Parish in West Roxbury, where she and her family attended Mass every Sunday. During Lent, they attended daily. It took an hour to walk to and from the church each day.

"It was just something you did in those days," she said.

She remembered the Holy Name choir being "very disciplined." If a singer missed three rehearsals, he or she was kicked out of the choir. Thankfully, she said, things have changed since then. She appreciates Scolastico for not "singling out" or humiliating anyone for their mistakes.

"They're very devoted," she said about the St. Catherine of Siena choir. "I think it's the most compatible group we ever sang with. We're all there for each other, help each other. Nobody's critical."

Colamaria continued going to choir rehearsals throughout World War II.

"I guess we felt that God was listening to us," she said.

The streets were completely dark at night, so that the city wouldn't be visible to German or Japanese bombers. Only the moon lit the way to church. One night while walking to rehearsal, Colamaria looked up at the full moon and told her sister: "Gee, there's something wrong." She prayed the rest of the way.

One month later, she received a letter from her brother, a sailor serving in the Pacific theater. Under that same full moon, she remembered, his ship had been bombed, but he survived. He came back safe from the war, and died of cancer at age 50.

Colamaria said that her devotion to the Virgin Mary has helped her through the untimely deaths of many in her family. Her favorite hymns to sing are ones about Mary, particularly "On This Day, O Beautiful Mother."

"Our Blessed Mother is there for me when I need her," she said.

After the war, she enrolled at Boston University, where she continued to sing. When a traveling opera company came to Boston, she and her fellow students were hired as extras. They would play "streetwalkers" and sing in the chorus. The students were given cigarettes to use as props, but none of them knew how to smoke. When a fake explosion went off during the show, she jumped.

"Great job," the director told her.

She replied, "You scared the wits out of me."

"They were singing in Italian," she remembered. "I didn't know they were going to blow up something. That was quite the experience."

She later transferred to Boston Teachers College (now merged with Umass Boston) and graduated in 1949. In 1952, she moved to Norwood and married her husband, Tony. He died in 1983. She never remarried.

"I never found anyone that was comparable," she said. "He was my life."

When her children were old enough to be on their own, she joined the St. Catherine of Siena choir, which was a much less explosive experience than her time at the opera.

"I think we have a lot in common," she said of her fellow singers. "And I've made new friends each time. I find that the people who give their time to the choir are very generous."

The choir briefly disbanded in 2020 due to the pandemic. Prevented from singing in public, Colamaria spent her days reading, researching, and writing letters to others who were stuck at home by themselves. Colamaria contracted COVID in 2021 after getting a ride home from the Norwood chief of police. She wasn't concerned about her own safety but whether she would get the entire police department sick.

"You'd never live it down," she said.

In her 63 years of singing in the choir, she has seen seismic changes within the Catholic Church and the world at large.

"I think we're still very strong," she said. "The faithful are still attending Mass and those of us, the older ones, we have the technology where we can watch Mass from home and still be a part of it. We didn't have that when we were young."

One thing, however, hasn't changed. When Colamaria sings, she still feels like she's praying.