James O’Reilly ’13 is a gifted saxophone player with a lifelong passion for music. Raised as a Catholic, he also shared a deep love for the Lord. Many thought he’d pursue a music career,
and Shenandoah University — with its nationally recognized conservatory — seemed the perfect place to begin. His years at Shenandoah, however, became a time of discovery, a time when he realized his true vocation in life — to become a priest.
“Shenandoah laid the foundation for me to attend seminary, because that was really four years of discernment for me — about whether or not I wanted to go off and be a professional musician or go into the seminary,” said O’Reilly. “It was like being in the womb and developing. I graduated with a better sense of what I need to do in life. All my experiences, all my classes, all the relationships and prayers helped guide me to make my decision to enter seminary.”
At present, O’Reilly is studying to become a priest at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, Md.
Growing up, family and friends saw O’Reilly’s musical talent. He began playing the saxophone at age 11 and took it very seriously in high school, where his saxophone teacher, alumnus Percy Ironmonger ’64, recommended O’Reilly consider Shenandoah Conservatory. O’Reilly followed his teacher’s advice and auditioned with Associate Professor of Saxophone Tim Roberts, D.M.A.
“After the audition, Dr. Roberts personally called me and said,
‘I want you in my studio,’” said O’Reilly. “None of the other professors I auditioned for said that, and the personal connection meant so much to me, that I knew I wanted to study with him.”
At Shenandoah, Roberts pushed him beyond his abilities and made him compete. O’Reilly remembers winning a concerto competition in Belgium during his sophomore year. Still, while he enjoyed his time at Shenandoah, he didn’t feel complete.
“I kept progressing musically, but something was missing,” said O’Reilly. “I kept thinking, is being a musician what I want to do with my life? Can I really keep up with this lifestyle?”
The summer after his junior year, O’Reilly stayed in Winchester
to seriously consider the next steps for his future. He was worried about what his parents, friends and professors would think. During Mass one night at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Inwood, W.Va., O’Reilly asked God, “What do you want for my life?” And, O’Reilly explained, three times he heard, “Become a priest.”
“I took the biggest leap of faith, not knowing where I would land, and I said ‘Yes, Lord.’ All I want to do is what makes God happy,” said O’Reilly.
It takes six years to become a priest, and O’Reilly has been at seminary for 18 months. He still finds time to play saxophone in his ministry, and he sometimes plays during Mass. He also organized and performed at a fundraiser benefiting a food bank in Petersburg, Va., raising more than $1,200, and he is even considering playing at a benefit concert in Baltimore.
“We’re living in an age where not everyone believes in God and not everyone goes to church,” said O’Reilly. “It’s a very secular society, but everyone loves music. That is my bridge to connect to people, to communicate that God is relevant, that God loves them, and that we are here for them. I’m willing to dedicate my life to preach the Gospel through the priesthood and music.”
O’Reilly believes that coming to Shenandoah was God’s plan for him. Throughout his life, music pushed him to stretch his wings and take chances. Music guided him to Shenandoah, where he truly discovered his calling.
“When I perform, I feel very close to God,” concluded O’Reilly. “It’s a very similar feeling I have when I’m in front of the Lord in the Eucharist. Signs like that helped point me in the direction of where I wanted to go in life.”