FRANCES GOTAY a.k.a the “Convent Maestro” was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1865 (the name, “Gotay” is of Australian origin). Little is known about her family and formative years. Still, given the fact that she left Puerto Rico at seventeen, for New Orleans and joined the Colored Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans in 1883, it is reasonable to surmise that her family was Christian. Three years later Gotay took her vows and adopted the name, “SISTER MARIE SERAPHINE.”
Fortunately for Sister Seraphine, her superiors recognized her talent and enrolled her in a Catholic music school that ordinarily did not accept people of color. When she graduated, Sister Seraphine excelled on the piano and organ and mastered the strings, reeds, brass, and percussion.
After graduation, Sister Seraphine directed the orchestra at St. Mary’s Academy. Also, she taught music to orphans at the Thomy Lafon Home for Boys and the St. John Berchmans Home for Girls, both of which were under the care of the sisters of the Holy Family. Additionally, Sister Seraphine established a boy’s band, played the organ, sang with the St. Louis Cathedral Choir, and taught French.
Several years before her death, Sister Seraphine was in poor health. In spite of that, she refused to give up teaching or visiting the boy’s home. On September 10, 1932, she gave music lessons, rehearsed the boy’s band and choir, and retired for the evening. The next day, in the evening, she aroused a fellow nun and complained she was ill and needed medical attention. While waiting for help to arrive, the nuns applied home remedies, but because the Home was a great distance from the city limits, Sister Seraphine died before help could arrive.
On Monday, September 12, 1932, a High Requiem Mass was sung for Sister Seraphine in the motherhouse chapel. Afterward, accompanied by a large group of orphans from the Lafon Boy’s Home, girls from St. Berchmans, and former students from St. Mary’s Academy, she was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2., one of three Catholic cemeteries in New Orleans.
Sister Seraphine’s successor, Sister M. Benedicta Knight, took charge of the music department and organized a school band five years after her death, which still exists today (pictured above).
When the convent relocated from the French Quarter to Chef Menteur Highway in the 60s, with the exception of one composition titled, “La Puertorriquena Reverie,” all of Sister Seraphine’s compositions and personal belongings were lost. To date, no one, including members of her family, have come forward with information about Sister Seraphine.
According to historian and musician Noel Allende Goitia, “Sister Seraphine was part of a group of pianists who established a jazz-oriented style. Also, she holds the distinction of being the only active Black female composer in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century.”
The Sisters of the Holy Family (featured photo) are the oldest female-led African-American religious order in America. For more on the the Sisters of the Family click HERE.
Unfortunately, we know very little about Frances Gotay’s life and musical legacy. Still, she will forever be known as the “Convent Maestro.”