ST. BENEDICT — Annual benefit dinners for Mount Angel Seminary include inspiring speeches, uplifting videos and encouraging fellowship.

But when a 39-year-old mother of five stands up before a massive choir of seminarians and begins to conduct, that steals the show.

Myrna Keough, simultaneously a professor and an ebullient big sister to dozens of future priests, gets impressive music out of the men, even if they don’t know a treble clef from a tie clip.

“Some think they can’t sing and that no one is going to make them sing,” said Keough, coordinator of music and liturgy for the seminary and associate professor of music. “My challenge is to change their minds.”

‘Motherly kindness’

Praying with song is close to essential for priests, and ultimately, pastors are responsible for all the music at Mass.

“Mrs. Keough is one of the most enthusiastic instructors I’ve ever had,” said Shawn Raymond Daniel, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Portland. “Her love of music, and her love of teaching music, is evident in every class.”

Daniel’s musical background is limited, but he said Keough is professional, congenial, patient and supportive with students like him. “She goes the extra mile in helping us grasp the material.”

Life at the seminary is steeped in song. Daily Mass and Liturgy of the Hours include music. Keough wants the future priests to know how important music is.

She urges seminarians to at a minimum take one class to learn about the creations of composers like Beethoven, Bach and Palestrina. “You can’t appreciate unless you understand,” she said. “I want them to dig deep, stand on their own two feet in music.”

“Mrs. Keough is uniquely gifted as a musician and composer, but yet is willing to work with those of all levels of musical ability with patience and good humor, and her encouragement and positivity have helped many seminarians who thought they would never sing to make amazing progress,” said Deacon Dominic Sternhagen, who is studying for the Diocese of Salt Lake City.

Seminarians say Keough’s music lessons help them get through demanding studies and formation. With Keough leading the way brightly and tenderly, liturgy and song help keep them focused on prayer and other higher matters.

“Her testimony of joyful dedication is an inspiration and a blessing to us all,” said Deacon Sternhagen. “The seminary is a largely masculine environment, and she treats us all with a motherly kindness and care. Most of us will never, I think, be able to fully express how much this means to us, and how thankful we are for the gift that Mrs. Keough is to the seminary.”

Even if seminarians arrive without musical training, they tend to have keen interest. Keough revels in the diverse ideas and opinions. Then she introduces the men to music that is sacred and excellent.

Music, Keough believes, can be one of the things that can unify seminarians from all over the globe.

Born to faith and music

Keough herself has an international past. Born in Saskatchewan, Canada, she grew up in Germany, where her family had moved when she was 5. Her parents were Protestant missionary teachers.

“Talking about our faith was just second nature,” she said. “That was the whole driving force behind my parents’ life. I knew I wanted to fully serve Jesus Christ.”

Music also came naturally. She had been playing piano since age 4.

She returned to Canada at 18 and earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.

She and husband Shawn met at college. Both were faithful and fascinated by religion. They wed in 2000. While Shawn worked on a theology doctorate in Toronto, she taught high school music and trained in voice and piano.

Keough felt drawn to Catholic music. While she loved and respected her parents’ faith tradition, she began slipping into Mass and sitting in the back pew.

After obtaining his degree, Shawn accepted a research position at the American College of Louvain in Belgium. Europe felt like home for Keough and she also landed a job at the venerable Belgian seminary. It was there that she joined the Catholic Church. She also gave birth to two more children. The couple lived in an apartment among the students. “It was the craziest experience, for them and for me,” she recalls with a laugh.

Showing family life

In 2011, the American College closed, leaving the little family jobless. One of the seminarians had heard there was an opening in faraway Mount Angel, Oregon, and suggested that both apply. They visited and fell for the place and the people on the hilltop. The feeling was mutual.

Keough has had two more babies in her nine years on staff at Mount Angel Seminary.

“I am good at keeping the seminarians on their toes, teaching them as a pregnant lady,” she said.

The couple now have children aged 13, 10, 8, 6 and 4. Four are boys. Their mom, even though she works full time, matches their energy. She and Shawn often can be seen handing the kids off in the abbey parking lot as he finishes teaching and she shows up for liturgy.

Keough thinks it’s good for seminarians to see a family in action. The men will be serving such households soon.

Seminarians often declare how glad they are to see the Keough crew in all its glory.

“She is always so upbeat and enthusiastic, even though I know that sometimes she is actually sick or has a lot going on at home, but we would never guess it,” said Deacon Sternhagen. “The fact that she is raising five young children and is doing everything that she is doing here is truly incredible.”

Sometimes, seminarians slip notes under her door, letting the Keoughs know they are praying for the family.

“They love us, and we love them,” Keough said.

On top of family life and her weekday job, Keough helps with music at both St. Paul Parish in Silverton and St. Mary Parish in the town of Mount Angel. She thinks staying in touch with parish life helps her teach future priests better.

Keough earned a master’s in theology from Mount Angel in the middle of baby-bearing and teaching.

“It was possible because this wonderful place really supported our family,” she said. Fellow students recorded lectures for her. Professors offered her directed study so she could do the work from home.

‘Inspiring to us all’

Keough composes sacred music, including Mass settings. Her preference is for simple beauty.

“Our music should be singable and beautiful in a way that moves our hearts to heaven,” she said.

Asked how she defines “beautiful,” Keough has a two-part answer. First, she looks to music that has stood the test of time, like Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. She trusts texts that come from Scripture, the Church Fathers and the liturgy itself.

Second, she said, since the psalms advise that people of God “sing a new song unto the Lord,” fresh creative force should come to bear within the context of what has already led people to God.

Keough has been influenced by the Benedictine ways at Mount Angel. She loves their Liturgy of the Hours, their antiphons and their hymns, all of which she says is full of inspiring beauty.

She collaborates with the monks who direct liturgy and tries to reflect their charism in worship for seminarians.

“Myrna Keough is greatly respected and appreciated by monks, her fellow colleagues in the seminary, and the seminarians,” said Benedictine Father Paul Thomas, a chief liturgist at the abbey. “In working with the seminary administration and seminarians, she gives witness to her faith and love for the church with joy, zeal and dedication.”

Father Paul said that Keough is always eager to lend a hand, go the extra mile and enjoy a good laugh.

“Wife, mother, teacher — beautiful gifts she brings in her work with the seminarians,” he said.

Keough said she would be happy to stay at the seminary for a long time. She and Shawn just built a house in Silverton with room for the whole family.

Msgr. Joseph Betschart, president-rector of the seminary, calls Keough a “blessing” to the community.

“Not only is she a talented musician and excellent at coordinating and teaching the sacred music for our liturgies,” the monsignor said, “but her joy and enthusiasm, her dedication and faith, and her evident love for the Lord, the church, and the community is inspiring to us all.”