At funerals, he made the organ moan, and at weddings, it thundered in joy. On Christmas, bells twinkled; on Easter, trumpets blasted. He delivered victorious graduation marches and bellowing birthday celebrations, blaring the pipes and vibrating the pews every Sunday in between.
He was unassuming, egoless and largely anonymous, but in the lives of generations of Catholics in communities around Massachusetts, Joseph Policelli played the soundtrack.
“Joe was music,” says the Rev. Richard Fitzgerald, pastor of St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton, where Policelli was music director. “That was his life.”
Policelli grew up in Medford, Massachusetts, his father a maintenance supervisor for Amtrak, his mother a substitute teacher who gave piano lessons on the baby grand in the living room of their split-level ranch. Policelli was the oldest of three children and his mother’s star student.
His early interest in music held and a childhood as an altar boy and Catholic school student gave way to a half-century career arranging, playing and teaching music and leading church choirs.
He made his mark by carefully selecting music that fit every date on the church calendar and by ensuring an instrument not known for its subtlety fit the mood at any given moment.
“He always knew when to pull back and when it would be full throttle,” says Monica Hatch, a soprano who Policelli hired as a singer. “That was his job as a musician: Not to make it all about himself and to be the center of attention. It’s always about the people.”
Hatch later worked with Policelli at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he taught for 25 years and earned what his sister Lorraine Mayne saw as “a little bit of rock star status.”
Douglas Weeks, who coordinates the school’s music program, remembered a man who was popular and well-liked, who stuck around campus far longer than expected for an adjunct professor.
“There was always a line waiting to meet with him,” Weeks says.
At St. Columbkille’s, Policelli was mostly out of sight in the choir loft, his back to the congregation. He watched Mass via a mirror on the 140-year-old Hook and Hastings organ.
He employed no flamboyance in his work, no arm-lifting flourishes on the keyboard nor foot-dancing spectacle on the pedals. Those who watched him up close saw his focused intent at the organ as a sign of the seriousness and sacredness with which he viewed his calling.
“He didn’t just play for the money,” says John Monaco, who was a cantor under the direction of Policelli, who also played the organ at an area synagogue. “He played to glorify God.”
When the reliable maestro didn’t show up at Mass on March 8, Fitzgerald thought he might’ve forgotten to change his clock for daylight saving time. He was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with the coronavirus. He would never return home, dying April 27 at 71. But as Christianity’s biggest week of the year approached, he fretted one last time about his duty.
“I gotta get going,” his brother Richard remembered him saying, “I gotta get ready for Easter.”