A Different Kind of Music Changing course: Paul Maillet was a critically acclaimed concert pianist when his faith began pulling him in another direction. Then, in an epiphany, his future became clear to him.

November 05, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Paul Maillet always knew what he wanted to be, where he wanted to go. He would be a concert pianist, a great one.

From the time he was 5 years old, his life was utterly invested in music. He spent hours every day at his piano, composing, playing, practicing. His gift was evident to everyone who knew him, and who knew music.

For more than 30 years, the Peabody Conservatory graduate moved determinedly toward his goal, performing on stages across five continents and winning one prestigious piano competition after another. But as he progressed, as his solo performances met with the kind of critical acclaim reserved for those with world-class potential, he was also traveling along another path; another life was trying to make a claim on him.

Raised in a devoutly Catholic family, Paul Maillet had always been a person of deep faith. He loved going to Sunday Mass with his family. Sometimes, even while in grade school, he would go to Mass during the week by himself.

"I remember when I was young having very special feelings of peace when I was in church," he says.

Although he was never an altar boy, he went on retreats and served on lay committees that helped select the music for the Mass. His spirituality did not go unnoticed at his Catholic high school in San Antonio. At the age of 18, he was asked by one of the priests there if he wanted to be a priest.

"What I remember," he recalls, "was that the idea didn't sound crazy to me."

It was 1976; one year earlier he had made his professional debut as a pianist in Monterrey, Mexico. He was on his way. Any thoughts of having a career in some field other than music were not much on his mind.

But, still, through the years, as he studied at the Eastman School of Music at Rochester and under the Peabody's great Leon Fleisher, the question put to him by the priest in Texas, and its implications, never left him, no matter how hard he tried to push them away. Could he be a priest? Should he?

The answer came to him last year while he was doing volunteer work at the Gift of Hope AIDS hospice in East Baltimore. One October night a patient at the hospice died, and Mr. Maillet was the first to find him. It was a man he had spoken to only the day before, a wasted, intravenous drug user. The man had been full of anger, Mr. Maillet says. "I had read about patients who are about to die hanging on because they were waiting to resolve one final thing. This man was in tremendous pain, and he had been hanging on for a week," Mr. Maillet says.

"That night, when I was talking to him I wanted to relieve him, help him to let go. So I said to him, 'When you get to heaven, please pray for me. Pray that I'll have the courage to be a priest.'

"I knew it was coming from very deep within me," he says. "It just came out."

The two paths that Paul Maillet had been traveling along simultaneously for his entire life had finally crossed. He applied for permission to enter Mount St. Mary's Seminary, in Western Maryland, to study for the priesthood.

Career changes

He is an abstemious-looking man. He has a narrow face and deep eyes, with dark skin around them. His hair is cut short, and yields a hint of gray at the temples. Though polite and attentive in conversation, he seems to be very much inside himself at all times.

At 37, Paul Maillet is about five years older than the average seminarian. He is one of a growing number of older men who leave established careers to enter the priesthood.

In the current class of 165 seminarians at Mount St. Mary's, there is one doctor, more than one attorney and a couple of former college professors, according to Frank Buhrman, a spokesman for the institution. "We had a guy a few years ago who had been a butcher," he says.

The age range of the current class goes from the early 30s into the 50s. Some are widowers and fathers; a few are even grandfathers.

These days Mr. Maillet wears black trousers and black shoes, a white shirt and black tie, and keeps a black cardigan nearby. It is the uniform of the pre-theologian, kind of a freshman priest. He has been at the seminary since August. He has five years of study ahead of him. After the third he hopes to take a break and work in a parish.

The reasons he gives for what he's doing sound simple and plain, especially in light of the long agony of indecision he had to go through before arriving here.

"I want to serve others," he says. "I want to spread the gospel. It's the most important thing in my life. It's something I wish to share."

He sits on a white chair on the high porch of the main seminary building at Mount St. Mary's. The Catoctin Mountains that rise up behind are approaching their full autumn blaze. The campus falls away below, crossed by white paths: There is a playing field, a dining hall, other buildings of white stone untouched by industrial grime. Across Route 15, the hay is harvested and trussed-up in oblong bundles and scattered in fields the color of cinnamon.

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